No rush to military intervention in Ivory Coast

Golf Hotel in Abidjan Alassane Ouattara is staying under UN protection at Abidjan's Golf Hotel

In the grounds of Abidjan's Golf Hotel, near an air-conditioned tent which serves as the cabinet office of Alassane Ouattara's government-in-waiting, the prospect of a West African military intervention to oust incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo is being talked up.

"We are pursuing the diplomatic path where possible", said Ouattara spokesman and minister-in-waiting Patrick Achi.

"But it seems that former President Gbagbo doesn't want to listen to the world - so the possibility of using force, as suggested by West African countries, is also on the table".

However, there are several reasons why a West African military intervention could be a long way off - if it happens at all.

'Hot assault'?

West African nations, usually led by regional giant Nigeria, have mounted military interventions under the banner of "Ecomog" (Economic Community Monitoring Group) before.

President Gbagbo's supporters rally on 29 December Support for the incumbent president is concentrated in the south

But they have always been in much smaller countries than Ivory Coast where the governments in place wanted the foreign soldiers to come.

In Sierra Leone and Liberia, for example, Ecomog troops arrived when the governments there were besieged by rebels - but, crucially, still in control of the main ports and airports so the outside forces could arrive and take up positions relatively easily.

In Ivory Coast, the man still in charge of the army, the main airports and the seaports, Laurent Gbagbo, is violently opposed to any intervention.

And it seems most unlikely Ecomog would try to force its way in. The armies of the region don't have enough of the equipment or military intelligence necessary for such a "hot assault".

It is not that the skills of ordinary West African soldiers are in question. Many of the infantry (or ground troops) from Ghana, for example, or Senegal, are trained to world standards.

But the kind of operation necessary to take control of a large country like Ivory Coast quickly would require sophisticated attack helicopters in big numbers, satellite tracking gear and highly mobile forces with state-of-the-art weapons systems.

French connection?

Some Ecomog-contributing countries have some of this type of kit - but probably not enough. Poor airlift capacity has always been a weakness of most African armies.

Most African countries also lack the special forces and on-the-ground military intelligence that would allow them to track and target the physical and personal centres of Mr Gbagbo's power base.

In addition, Ecomog has only been successful in most of its operations when it has been supported by outside forces.

The UN and Britain helped Ecomog in Sierra Leone, for example, and the United States assisted with training and equipment in Liberia.

The obvious candidate to help in Ivory Coast would be France, which has 900 highly trained soldiers based near Abidjan airport.

The official role of these troops is to be the Rapid Reaction Force of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast.

However, if soldiers from the former colonial power France joined forces with anyone to take Ivory Coast by force it would be political dynamite.

It would very likely cause an explosion of popular opposition in areas loyal to Mr Gbagbo and risk leading to the deaths of many thousands of people.

Nigeria election is key

Other political considerations are regional.

In some West African nations it would be unpopular for the leadership to send its soldiers into danger for the sake of democracy in a far-off land.

Although, these days most West African leaders are elected to office, some have better democratic credentials than others.

In some countries it would be seen as gross hypocrisy for a dubiously elected leader to send soldiers to Ivory Coast to enforce a democratic process.

Finally, in the key state of Nigeria, presidential elections will be held in 2011.

Few Nigerian politicians would openly defend sending Nigerian soldiers to war in Ivory Coast.

The politicians know that Nigerian voters are only too aware of the many problems in their own country.

Returning body bags don't usually help political campaigns.

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