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ECOWAS: S. Africa Undermining Ivory Coast Mediation

ECOWAS President James Victor Gbeho during a news conference on the election dispute in Ivory Coast in Nigeria's capital Abuja, January 4, 2011.
ECOWAS President James Victor Gbeho during a news conference on the election dispute in Ivory Coast in Nigeria's capital Abuja, January 4, 2011.

The president of West Africa's regional alliance says South Africa is undermining efforts to resolve the political crisis in Ivory Coast. South Africa is part of an African Union mediation team that is trying to end the standoff between Ivory Coast's rival presidents by the end of the month.

The Economic Community of West African States says widespread support for the United-Nations-certified winner of Ivory Coast's vote is fast being eroded by countries that are siding with incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who is refusing to yield power.

"Apparently because of certain geopolitical interests, some countries are keen on awarding a failure back to ECOWAS, at this stage, so that they themselves would shine," said James Victor Gbeho, the president of the West African alliance that is known as ECOWAS. "And, so they are saying that the whole matter should be looked at, that it seems that Gbagbo was the winner, and that if that is the situation, they must negotiate."

Gbeho says South Africa is undermining ECOWAS efforts to force Mr. Gbagbo from power.

"We find that others are encouraging Gbagbo not to yield probably because they can give him certain supports that ECOWAS does not have," Gbeho said. "There is a South African warship docked in Cote d'Ivoire.  Actions such as that can only complicate the matter further. I am surprised that a distinguished country like South Africa would decide to sent a frigate to Ivory Coast at this time."

South Africa says the frigate is a support vessel with no military purpose. South African President Jacob Zuma is among five heads of state named by the African Union to resolve Ivory Coast's political crisis.

Gbeho says African Union leaders publicly criticizing ECOWAS are breaking with a tradition of regional responsibility.  West African leaders yielded to the Southern African Development Community on political crises in Zimbabwe and Madagascar.  So why, Gbeho asks, are others not prepared to respect this tradition when it comes to Ivory Coast?

"They are making statements openly disagreeing and calling for the marginalization of ECOWAS," said Gbeho. "The concern we have is that if we go like this, we will destroy the solidarity that has always existed on our continent, the solidarity that has brought us this far."

Gbeho says ECOWAS welcomes dialogue.  But that dialogue must respect the wishes of the Ivorian people, as expressed in a vote that Ivory Coast's electoral commission says was won by former prime minister Alassane Outarra.

"Whatever combination or permutation you bring out must leave Ouattara as the head of the state," he added.

Gbeho says ECOWAS will wait patiently for the African Union panel to complete its work, but West African leaders reserve the right to act independently, including the possible use of military force to remove Mr. Gbagbo.

"If it resolves the question of Cote d'Ivoire, so much the better for all of us," said Gbeho. "But if it does not, ECOWAS will have no fears about taking its own action."

African Union officials are in Abidjan for talks with representatives of both Mr. Ouattara and Mr. Gbagbo.  They will report back to the panel of heads of state from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, South Africa, and Tanzania, next week.

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