Turtle Bay

On Ivory Coast diplomacy, South Africa goes its own way

Last month, South Africa docked its naval frigate, the SAS Drakensberg, off the coast of Ivory Coast in a rare, and highly ambiguous, show of force that riled regional African powers and complicated international efforts to compel the country’s defeated presidential incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, to yield power. For two months, Ivory Coast’s neighbors, led by ...

Last month, South Africa docked its naval frigate, the SAS Drakensberg, off the coast of Ivory Coast in a rare, and highly ambiguous, show of force that riled regional African powers and complicated international efforts to compel the country’s defeated presidential incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, to yield power.

For two months, Ivory Coast’s neighbors, led by Nigeria, have mounted a diplomatic campaign, backed by the United States, the United Nations, and European powers, combining financial sanctions and the threat of military action to dislodge Gbagbo. But South Africa’s action, carried out without consultations with regional powers, raised concerns that it may be intending to thwart those efforts and press for a power-sharing agreement that would preserve a role for Gbagbo in Ivory Coast’s government.

West African leaders viewed the South African move as a challenge to their leadership role in a crisis in their own backyard, as well as signal of its support for Gbagbo, a long-standing ally in the region. "As we talk now, there is a South African warship docked in Cote d’Ivoire; action such as that can only complicate the matter further" said James Victor Gbeho, the Ghanaian chair of the Economic Community of West African States. "I’m surprised that a distinguished country like South Africa would decide to send a frigate to Ivory Coast at this time."

South Africa has dismissed claims that it has any intention of intervening militarily in Ivory Coast’s electoral crisis, saying that the boat could support South African diplomats or extract South African citizens inside the country. On Wednesday, weeks after the boat was directed to Ivory Coast, South Africa issued a statement saying the ship is "a non-combatant vessel with a non-aggressive posture." It would, according to the statement, merely provide "possible assistance to South African diplomats, designated personnel and other South African citizens in Ivory Coast."

But the action highlighted a growing competition for influence between sub-Saharan African powers, South Africa and Nigeria, who are seeking international support for their bids for permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. The two countries are currently serving two-year terms as temporary members of the council, which they are using to stake their claims that they are natural leaders not only in Ivory Coast but throughout the African subcontinent.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan "sees intervention as a way of asserting Nigeria role in African foreign policy," according to one U.N. observer. South African President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, has sought to extend his country’s influence in West Africa by asserting a far more aggressive diplomatic role in Ivory Coast, the observer said.

The current standoff in Ivory Coast followed the country’s disputed Nov. 28 runoff elections between Gbagbo, the incumbent, and Alassane Ouattara. Ivory Coast’s electoral commission ruled Ouattara the victor, but the country’s Constitution Council challenged the decision and sided with Gbagbo. The U.N. — which is empowered under the terms of a peace agreement between the rivals to certify the election — ruled in favor of Ouattara, setting the stage for the African Union, ECOWAS, the United States, the European Union, and the U.N. Security Council to endorse the election outcome that resulted in Ouattara’s victory. At the AU summit in Addis Ababa at the end of January, Jean Ping, president of the AU commission, affirmed that the group’s goal was "to enable Ouattara to exercise power."

But South Africa has held less confidence in the virtue of trying to force Gbagbo from power, preferring to negotiate an agreement between the two sides to break the political impasse. South Africa’s involvement in the Ivory Coast has deep roots. South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, led mediation efforts in Ivory Coast that culminated in the 2005 Pretoria Agreement that reinforced the country’s two-year-old cease-fire agreement, but failed to outline a plan for elections. But he was perceived as too close to Gbagbo and was nudged out and replaced by Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s president, who concluded a 2007 agreement setting the stage for elections

Days after Ivory Coast’s election, Mbeki returned to Ivory Coast in an effort to mediate an end to the standoff. Mbeki proposed the possibility of some sort of power-sharing agreement, infuriating Gbagbo’s West African neighbors, who believed it would replicate what they have viewed as South Africa’s failed diplomatic strategy in Zimbabwe, a power-sharing agreement that effectively preserved Robert Mugabe‘s rule. South African officials insist that Mbeki was not representing South Africa. But Zuma has also favored a mediated outcome: "We need to do something to help the situation and don’t demand that one leader should go."

South Africa’s defenders say it is simply demonstrating pragmatism that is intended to prevent Ivory Coast from a descent into civil war. But critics say South Africa has handed a lifeline to Gbagbo and is undermining international efforts to isolate and ultimately nudge him from power.

"South Africa, a respected democracy with ambitious aspiration on the world scene, should not allow itself to be seen as helping Gbagbo cling to power, while his security forces kill, abduct, rape, and terrorize real or perceived opponents, as shown by our own research," Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, told Turtle Bay. "Instead of questioning the U.N. certification of Ouattara as the winner of the election, Pretoria should use its clout to pressure Gbagbo to rein in his supporters and put an end to widespread human rights violations against Ouattara’s supporters that threaten to reignite the civil war."

"I think South Africa is very concerned about the process in the region and concerned that you need a more pragmatic situation: Simply calling for Gbagbo to leave is not going to solve the problem. And using force against him might work, but at what cost in terms of casualties?" Colin Keating, a former New Zealand ambassador to the United Nations who heads up the Security Council Report, said in an interview. "I think it’s probably going too far to say South Africa has undermined ECOWAS’s position: They were counseling against a part of ECOWAS’s rhetoric which was militarist and dangerous. And I think in doing so they were in the company of many members of the international community. But it’s also true that South Africa has a history of being less than completely impartial, and it’s probably true that they have undermined the more legitimate arguments of ECOWAS."

South Africa has been gaining momentum as efforts to compel Gbagbo to leave — including financial sanctions and a cutoff of World Bank loans — have failed to resolve the crisis. Several African countries, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, and Uganda are questioning whether the U.N. was too quick to endorse Ouattara’s victory. Last week, the African Union agreed to establish a panel of five African leaders, including Zuma and Compaoré, to explore a way to resolve the political standoff. The establishment of the panel provided Gbagbo with more time to consolidate his power in Ivory Coast. But there were signs the violence between pro-Gbagbo militants and armed elements from the rebel Forces Nouvelles are seeking to resolve their differences through the use of force.

On Monday, Compaoré canceled his visit to Ivory Coast following death threats from a pro-Gbagbo youth association. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, meanwhile warned, that mass demonstrations being organized by Ouattara’s supporters could "increase tensions and undermine the prospects for an early and peaceful end to the crisis."

"The lack of cohesion is an obstacle to the resolution of the conflict, and it gives Gbagbo ammunition to stay — a development that goes against the initial African and international consensus," Fabienne Hara, vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group told Turtle Bay. "The situation is very seriously deteriorating, and the divisions among the key African powers are clearly an obstacle to finding a solution to the situation in Ivory Coast."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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