ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Fears of renewed fighting in this country once divided by civil war grew Monday following a threat from West African neighbors to force out incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo if he does not soon heed international calls to step down from power.
West African leaders are giving Gbagbo an ultimatum this week to step aside, though he has shown no interest in doing so since the demand was made late Friday. While doubts exist about whether the region could carry out such a military operation, Alassane Ouattara’s camp remains confident that help is coming, and soon.
“It’s not a bluff,” one senior Ouattara adviser said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks.”
Residents remain fearful of the violence such an intervention could unleash if attempted. Dozens of people gathered outside the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan on Monday, holding signs that read: “We don’t want a military intervention” and “Let Ivorians solve Ivorian problems.” Nigeria has the strongest army in the region and is expected to play a major role if an operation is launched to oust Gbagbo.
“We think that the parties concerned should be able to reach whatever solutions they should arrive at amicably and without any foreign intervention,” said protester Harry Osemegi.
Elsewhere in Abidjan, dozens of women gathered to pray for peace after weeks of violence that have left at least 173 people dead, according to the U.N. The toll is believed to be much higher, as the U.N. said it has been unable to investigate reports of a mass grave because of restrictions on U.N. personnel movements.
“We are in trouble and we don’t know what to do. We are not politicians; we have had sleepless nights. We are stressed that’s why we have come here to cry to God,” said Edith Esther, an Abidjan resident.
The U.N. declared that Alassane Ouattara won the presidential runoff election held nearly one month ago, but Gbagbo refuses to concede defeat and leave despite admonitions from the U.N., United States, European Union and the African Union.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS is sending a high-level delegation of three leaders to Abidjan this week to meet Gbagbo as “an ultimate gesture.”
Presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin will be traveling to Ivory Coast early Tuesday morning, said Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, Sierra Leone’s information and communication minister. The presidents will also be joined by the president of ECOWAS.
“In the event that Mr. Gbagbo fails to heed this immutable demand of ECOWAS, the community would be left with no alternative but to take other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people,” the regional bloc said late Friday.
Ouattara’s supporters also called for a general strike to begin Monday to step up the pressure, but shops were open and it was business as usual in central Abidjan, though the pro-Ouattara districts began shutting down in the early afternoon. The strike was intermittently followed across the country. Bouake, the rebel capital, was a ghost town, while Gagnoa, a Gbagbo-stronghold, was open for business.
In an interview with Associated Press Television News on Sunday, Gbagbo said he was not concerned about world opinion, insisting he was duly elected. He said of his detractors: “Maybe they do not want me, I admit it, but I am not looking to be loved by them. I respect and abide by the Ivorians’ vote.”
Human rights groups have expressed alarm about hundreds of arrests, and dozens of cases of torture and disappearances since the vote that they blame on security forces associated with Gbagbo. A Gbagbo adviser has said he does not believe their supporters could be behind the violence.
Gbagbo supporters say at least 36 of the victims were police or other security forces who were targeted by gunfire coming from protesters.
Gbagbo has been in power since 2000 and had already overstayed his mandate by five years when the long-delayed presidential election was finally held in October. The vote was intended to help reunify the country, which was divided by the 2002-2003 civil war into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south.
Instead, the election has renewed divisions that threaten to plunge the country back into civil war. While Ivory Coast was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal, Ouattara still draws his support from the northern half of the country, where residents feel they are often treated as foreigners within their own country by southerners.
As part of a peace accord, the U.N. had been invited to certify the election results and declared Ouattara as the winner of the Nov. 28 runoff vote. But a Gbagbo ally overturned those results by throwing out half a million ballots from Ouattara strongholds in the north. The move angered people who had waited for years as officials settled who would be allowed to vote in the long-delayed election, differentiating between Ivorians with roots in neighboring countries and foreigners.
While the threat of a military intervention creates pressure on Gbagbo, Africa security analyst Peter Pham said there are “serious doubts that ECOWAS has the wherewithal to carry it out.”
“None of the ECOWAS countries has the type of special operations forces capable of a ‘decapitation strike’ to remove the regime leadership,” said Pham, who is the senior vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. “That leaves the rather unpalatable option of mounting a full-scale invasion of the sort that would inevitably involve urban fighting and civilian casualties.”
In 1998, West Africa forces bombed and seized Sierra Leone’s capital, forcing leaders of a military junta to flee and allowing an elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, to return to power. A coalition of West African peacekeepers, most of them Nigerian, remained to bolster Kabbah, who declared Sierra Leone’s long civil war over in 2002. Kabbah had won a 1996 presidential election, only to be ousted the next year in a military coup.
French troops in Ivory Coast are ready to intervene to protect French citizens there, but any decision about an international military intervention would need to come from the U.N. or the African Union, French Defense Minister Alain Juppe said Monday.