West African military commanders are preparing contingency plans to remove Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo by force if he fails to peacefully transfer power to Alassane Ouattara, Nigerian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerimah said today.
“The committee of the chiefs of defense staff from West African countries started working on a contingency plan for a military option” at their meeting in Abuja on Dec. 27 and 28, Yerimah said in a phone interview from Kaduna, where he is celebrating New Year’s. Force would be “a last resort if the diplomatic option fails,” he said.
The aim is to have a plan prepared when the defense chiefs meet in Bamako, Mali, on Jan. 17 and 18 and then to report it to West African heads of government, Yerimah said.
Presidents from 11 members of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, joined by foreign ministers of Mali, Gambia and Guinea on Dec. 24 called for Gbagbo to step down peacefully and give way to Ouattara, saying “legitimate force” may be used if he fails to do so.
If military action were taken, each Ecowas nation would have to contribute soldiers to the operation, Yerimah said.
Ouattara has been holed up at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, since the disputed Nov. 28 presidential election. The 68-year-old opposition leader, who is being protected by United Nations peacekeepers, is regarded by the UN, the African Union and the U.S. as the winner of the vote. Gbagbo claims he was the victor and has refused to step down. He continues to occupy the presidential palace.
President Barack Obama sought to persuade Gbagbo to relinquish power in a Dec. 5 letter that offered the African leader an unspecified “role in the international community,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said today.
Obama’s letter followed an unsuccessful attempt to speak to Gbagbo by telephone, Rhodes said. The New York Times reported Obama’s approach and also said that Gbagbo had been offered assistance in moving to the U.S. or another country.
Rhodes said he couldn’t confirm “specific offers” for Gbagbo to relocate. “There have been offers from other countries that we are aware of,” he said.
“Of course, the more Gbagbo digs in, the more the window closes on these options, particularly if he’s responsible for violence,” Rhodes said.
Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa grower, has been roiled by violent political unrest since the election.
Rhodes said the Obama administration on Dec. 21 stepped up the pressure on Gbagbo by placing sanctions on the Ivory Coast leader, his family and associates.
“He has shown himself increasingly unwilling to compromise,” Rhodes said.
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