ABIDJAN/ABUJA, (Reuters) – West African heads of state threatened yesterday to use force to oust incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo unless he cedes power to a rival widely credited with having won a presidential election.
A violent stand-off over the result of the vote has killed nearly 200 people and threatens to tip the west African state, the world’s top cocoa producer, back into civil war.
After a meeting in Nigeria to discuss the Ivory Coast crisis, leaders of the regional bloc ECOWAS said they would send an envoy to tell Gbagbo, who has been president for a decade, that he must step down or face “legitimate force”.
World powers and African states have heaped political and financial pressure on Gbagbo to relinquish power after the Nov. 28 vote in which electoral commission results showed he lost by 8 points to rival Alassane Ouattara.
“In the event that Mr Gbagbo fails to yield this imputable demand of ECOWAS (to stand down), the community will be left with no choice but to take other measures, including legitimate force,” a communique released by ECOWAS said.
The 15-nation West African bloc also said it would convene a meeting of member states’ defence chiefs of staff to plan for potential action, should Gbagbo not bow out.
The United States and European Union have imposed travel sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the West African central bank have cut off his funding in an attempt to pressure him to step down.
But Gbagbo has shown no sign of caving in. He insists he won the election after the Constitutional Court, which is headed by one of his allies, threw out hundreds of thousands of votes from pro-Ouattara constituencies.
The standoff turned violent last week after brief gun battles between government soldiers loyal to Gbagbo and rebels who now back Ouattara.
Residents of pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods have said masked gunmen are now breaking into homes by night, kidnapping and in some cases killing people.
A statement issued by the United Nations mission in Ivory Coast said on Thursday masked supporters of Gbagbo armed with rocket launchers had been blocking a road to Anyama, near N’Dotre, which it said was “a village outside Abidjan where allegations point to existence of a mass grave”.
The U.N. Human Rights Council issued a declaration, initiated by African member states, condemning rights violations in Ivory Coast and called for reconciliation to avert civil war.
The impasse between Gbagbo and Ouattara has caused the deaths of more than 170 people, according to the council.
Gbagbo also faces a cash crunch that could make it hard for him to continue paying the wages of soldiers who back him, after the West African regional central bank cut his access to funds.
Ministers from the Central Bank of the West African Economic and Monetary Union said on Thursday that the bank would no longer recognize Gbagbo’s authority, and that access to funds would only be given to Ouattara’s “legitimate government”.
On Wednesday, the World Bank decided to freeze some $800 million in committed financing, strengthening expectations that Gbagbo may soon struggle to pay wages — including to troops.
Military support for Gbagbo is regarded as one of the main reasons he has been able to defy calls to step down.
Gbagbo’s finance minister, Desire Dalo, did not comment when reached by telephone late on Thursday. A spokesman for Ouattara’s government said the decision by the central bank was “a very important move toward controlling the economic power.”
Ivory Coast’s $2.3 billion bond due in 2032 fell to a record low on Thursday as investors worried that the country would not meet a $30 million bond payment on Dec. 31.
The turmoil in Ivory Coast has thrust cocoa prices up to recent four-month highs, disrupting export registrations and raising fears that fighting could block transport and shipping.
RISK OF WAR
Charles Ble Goude, leader of the powerful pro-Gbagbo “Young Patriots” movement, warned that sending in a military intervention force could rekindle war in Ivory Coast, which is still partitioned from a 2002-03 civil conflict.
“In a union such as ECOWAS, when one country is in difficulties, you don’t come and start a war in that country, but try to help find a solution. I don’t know what would be the objective of an intervention force. Kill Ivorians?” Ble Goude said in an interview on RFI radio.
In New York, the 192-nation U.N. General Assembly recognised Ouattara by unanimously deciding that the list of diplomats he submitted to the world body be recognised as the sole official representatives of Ivory Coast at the United Nations.
That appeared to bolster Ouattara’s claim to be the legitimate leader of Ivory Coast and deepened the isolation of Gbagbo, who has few supporters across the international community, U.N. diplomats told Reuters.
The United States, United Nations, European Union, African Union and ECOWAS have all recognised the provisional electoral commission results showing Ouattara as the winner. Washington and Brussels have imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his coterie.
Deteriorating security in the former French colony led France this week to urge its 13,000 citizens there to leave.
The Dutch Defence Ministry said yesterday it was sending a warship to Ivory Coast that could be used to help evacuate European expatriates if violence escalates.