Three African presidents travelled to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to give incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo a final opportunity to leave office, after the UN ruled he had lost last month’s elections.
If the intervention of the leaders of Cape Verde, Sierra Leone and Benin fails to end the stalemate over last month’s elections, West African states have threatened a military intervention if Gbagbo does not step down.
The regional grouping Ecowas has a history of using force to restore order, when there is no other option.
As early as 1978 the region’s nations agreed to refrain from the use of force against each other and this was followed in 1981 by a mutual defence pact.
But events in Liberia in the 1990s, when the country descended into civil war, called for more urgent measures.
Troops were deployed to Liberia as part of the Ecowas ceasefire monitoring group, known as Ecomog.
Its forces were used, with greater or lesser degrees of success, in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau.
The region also sent troops into Ivory Coast after the civil war broke out there in 2002 — a task later taken over by the United Nations.
As part of the African Union’s attempt to head off further crises, a West African standby brigade has been prepared and it is these forces that could then be deployed.
Henry Boshoff of the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria says that once a political decision is made to send the troops they could be in place in a relatively short period of time.
“When the political decision is made, it will go to the chief of staff of Ecowas — that is the military command.
“They will then do the planning, they will ask then for troop-contributing countries to contribute the force, they will decide on the concept operation — how many troops — and then the readiness of the troops.”
This could be done as in three to four weeks, he says.
“Ecowas has been going through a series of exercises, scenario-building. So it is possible that it can take place so quickly,” he says.
This operation could be set in motion after the West African presidents report back.
Their decision will have to be endorsed by the region, then the African Union and might have to be referred to the UN in New York.
But at least in principle, troops could soon be on the way to ensure that the democratic voice of the Ivorian people is respected.
There are already an estimated 10 000 UN troops in the country, but their mandate has been to monitor the peace process and support the organisation of November’s election.
Unlike the possible West African intervention force, its mandate does not include enforcing the results of the poll.
But some analysts think the commitment required by contributing nations make its deployment less likely.
The intervention in Sierra Leone took four years, tens of thousands of lives and several changes to the force’s mandate to end the crisis.
“Key countries that would have to contribute may not have the political stomach and the temerity,” Kwasi Anning, from the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, told the BBC.
“Nigeria is heading towards elections and may not want to put in troops on the ground for that a long time; Ghana has elections in 2012 and Senegal has its own problems with dynastic succession.
Boshoff says another obstacle in the way of a West African force could be the number of the region’s troops already deployed in other peacekeeping missions.
The other problems to be overcome are logistics — the ability to get the troops to where they are needed — and the money needed to pay for them.
But Boshoff says here at least the international community would probably be willing to lend a hand.
“If West Africa makes a decision, we can expect that there will be some international support in terms of logistical support and finance, because without it the region will struggle to find the resources that it needs.”
West Africa is not the only region that has African troops deployed on its soil.
In March 2008 an African Union force helped recapture the island of Anjouan in the Comoros, after a year-long rebellion.
It is African Union troops that keep the Somali government in power and African peacekeepers are working alongside UN troops in the Sudanese region of Darfur. — BBC Online.