x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

West Africa trumps a strongman's game

As Ivory Coast struggles with its most recent political stand-off, it is not the former president Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to give up power that is exceptional, but how isolated he has become.

A crisis in West Africa would have been the same familiar story just a few years ago. For decades, countries including Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia were some of the worst conflict zones in the world with civil wars that bled across borders and threatened the entire region.

As Ivory Coast struggles with its most recent political stand-off, it is not the former president Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to give up power that is exceptional, but how isolated he has become. With his hands still on the reins of the country's military, this very easily could have turned into another strongman in Africa story.

But the West African regional bloc of 13 nations represented by Ecowas is insisting on a different ending. Led by Nigeria, Ivory Coast's neighbouring countries have joined an international cavalcade of criticism.

After the elections last month, the opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara emerged as the victor, with the results endorsed by the United Nations and independent observers. As the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon put it recently, "there is no other option" than for Mr Gbagbo to go.

The United Nations has often been a voice of conscience in Africa, but more often than not lacked the teeth to do more than talk. It is not Mr Ban, nor leaders in Washington and European capitals who have criticised the elections, that Mr Gbagbo should fear, but his former peers at the head of West African states.

It is still a very precarious situation. Ecowas nations have threatened the use of "legitimate force" to remove the former president, which prompted Nigerians inside Ivory Coast to warn that they could be targeted in retaliation. Post-election violence has claimed more than 170 lives, and about 14,000 Ivorians have fled to neighbouring Liberia.

Undoubtedly, other West African states have their own interests to look after. One legitimate interest shared by all is regional stability. An armed conflict could be a disaster, but there are many levers of influence that African nations can wield before it comes to that. Leaders of three West African nations are expected to visit Abidjan this week to convince Mr Gbagbo to step down; already his access to the coffers of the state have been frozen.

In the old days, Mr Gbagbo would have appeared to be holding the winning hand: Mr Ouattara is cornered in a hotel, protected by UN forces. But the rules of the game have changed. West Africa is no longer willing to tolerate a strongman who rules by force and that has become Mr Gbagbo's last card to play.