DAKAR (Reuters) - West African leaders will weigh at crisis talks on Tuesday how to tackle an Ivory Coast leadership tussle and head off regional unrest, but their calls on incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to quit may fall on deaf ears.
The 15-nation ECOWAS regional grouping has been clear in its backing of rival Alassane Ouattara after a disputed November 28 election, with a joint statement this weekend describing Gbagbo’s swearing-in as re-elected president an “anomaly”.
Gbagbo counts precious few friends in a neighbourhood worried that unrest in Ivory Coast could undo the fragile security advances of the last decade. But analysts say his stance so far suggests he is ready to defy pressure to leave.
Neighbours fear trouble in Ivory Coast could block important trade routes and, worse, prompt a mass migration of Ivorians across a region still struggling to recover from three civil wars in the past two decades.
“Gbagbo’s actions threaten all of that stability ... But there is no evidence that Gbagbo actually listens to anybody,” said Africa Risk Consulting’s Tara O’Connor.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan will host counterparts for the one-day meeting in Abuja. Leaders from Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Liberia and Sierra Leone were all expected to turn up.
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara have declared themselves president of the world’s top cocoa growing state, with the incumbent citing a move by the country’s constitutional council to overturn provisional results giving his rival victory.
Ouattara has been recognised as president by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. President Barack Obama and others, while Gbagbo retains control of the army and has dismissed calls to stand down as outside interference.
A first mediation bid by former South African president Thabo Mbeki at the weekend yielded no visible results, as both Gbagbo and Ouattara pressed on with naming rival government line-ups immediately after their separate meetings with him.
The nightmare scenario for the region is that an escalation of the crisis would sink it back into the conflict that in 2002-2003 pitted government forces against northern rebels.
Any mass movement of Ivorians across borders would risk destabilising countries with few means or infrastructure to host thousands of refugees. Liberian authorities said they had seen a trickle of around 700 new arrivals since the weekend.
For others such as Mali and Burkina Faso, serious unrest in Ivory Coast could cut off a vital transit route to the coast.
A source from an ECOWAS country said Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the regional power-broker who convinced Gbagbo to enter a 2007 power-sharing agreement with rebels who still hold the north of the country, would now step up his role.
“He has been involved in the process for sometime now and it is expected that he will lead the ECOWAS mandate to restore peace and stability in that country,” the source said.
Compaore and Gbagbo have had often turbulent relations — Compaore was initially accused of backing rebels that seized the north — while Ouattara himself is believed to have Burkinabe roots.
But Compaore was studiously neutral when questioned by local reporters on Monday, saying only that the Ivorian situation was “very difficult” and appealing for a peaceful solution.
While ECOWAS has in theory the power to impose sanctions or possibly suspend membership of a country, analysts question whether there is appetite for confrontation with Gbagbo and whether the initial indignation over his victory claim might gradually yield to a willingness to include him in negotiations.
Independent analyst Rolake Akinola said an outcome where Gbagbo was forced to step down might inflame tension if it prompted pro-Gbagbo militias to take up arms and that peace might be better served by a power-sharing deal.
“A best-case is more likely a compromise between Ouattara and Gbagbo that leads to the formation of a government of national unity,” she said.