Where is ECOWAS?
Some time ago, I was rather optimistic at the international community’s responsiveness to the Côte D’Ivoire situation: the relative unanimity of support for Ouattara, the invested presence of regional, continental and international authorities and the rather decisive reaction from West African nations, indicating military backing, all seemed a fresh harbinger. Now being able briefly to focus our unipolar attention capacities away from the Middle East and North Africa region, things are certainly a lot messier despite the seeming redeemability of the situation some time ago. The African Union appears typically splintered and indifferent, ECOWAS is merely issuing spineless statements and a revived interventionist France is getting its hands dirty under the banner of the UN, reportedly stretching its ’protection of civilians only’ mandate.
While things in the Abidjan seem to point to a near-resolution of the armed conflict, the body count is rising, the humanitarian crisis is deepening, the refugee crisis is swelling in tentative neighbouring areas, and reports of massacres and mass graves are beginning to surface.
After years of supporting measures for safe and effective elections in the Ivory Coast, ECOWAS simply slinked off into the background when it mattered, with the consequence of losing credibility further as it watched the country slip into violence.
Disturbingly, Gbagbo supporters are expressing concern over ethnic targeting consequent to revived tensions following the violent progress of the political crisis. So while the domestic sources of legitimacy are battered, regional and international sources seem to be the punchline. Gbagbo undoubtedly took a well-calculated gamble to call ECOWAS’ bluff. On the other side, Ouattarra is side-lining the AU’s proposed mediator. And while France is backing Ouattarra’s forces under the auspices of the UN, the UN is simultaneously issuing messages of restraint against Outarra’s ragtag troops as a forewarning of a point that will undoubtedly arise when rumours of civilian targeting and massacres from all sides are officially confirmed.
ECOWAS missed a startling opportunity to show its teeth before things got messy. After years of supporting measures for safe and effective elections in the Ivory Coast, ECOWAS simply slinked off into the background when it mattered, with the consequence of losing credibility further as it watched the country slip into violence. Should a political resolution be attainable in the medium to long term, ECOWAS’ role may prove vital if the AU waxes and wanes as it does. As the child-like attention span of the international community focuses elsewhere and the legitimacy of willing contingents such as France under the UN are tainted by hesitation and hypocrisy and the reminders of imperial domination, the regional organisation will be a primary actor.
ECOWAS’ beleaguered institutional credibility would be problematic in securing a post-conflict scenario, but due to events subsequent to its empty threats, it may very well remain the only external institution able to support post-conflict transition with a thread of neutrality or able to convince Gbagbo of the guarantee for his “safe and dignified” exit. External actors should be cautious to guard their credibility in acknowledging that even if Gbagbo steps down, it is merely securing a political vacuum at the head of a relatively broad support base whose confidence in democratic political processes continually declines. In a year of big elections on the continent, this is surely a clumsy start to the AU’s and ECOWAS’ commitment to securing electoral outcomes.