Cote d’Ivoire coup? Points I find persuasive and not.

Yesterday I blogged Paul Collier’s proposal that regional powers (and the West?) encourage the Ivoirian Army to remove Gbagbo from power. There were many good comments, plus an excellent post from Wronging Rights.

Here are some thoughts after reading the commentary. First, something to keep in mind: I know far more about Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbors, where I’ve worked for years, than Cote d’Ivoire itself. But underinformed as my thoughts are, I think it makes sense to discuss these as general principles for international action.

The world’s best defense against stolen elections, coups and wars is consistent, pre-committed, and predictable actions and principles. The fact that the West and the AU have generally done exactly the opposite may account for some of the current mess.

Unpersuasive: “A coup would be less legitimate than a UN-sanctioned intervention.” I think both have questionable legitimacy (at best), especially in the eyes of Ivoirians. In principle, it’s not obvious to me that it’s any less legitimate for the UN to support one over the other (though the powers and process might only exist for direct UN military action).

Either way, could action by a nation’s police or military actually be more legitimate? On principle, I tend to favor action by domestic rather than outside institutions. This will vary from nation to nation according to their constitution, but who, if not the nation’s police and military, are ultimately charged with upholding laws violated by top government officials?

Wronging Rights (rightly) goes to the Ivoirian Constitution and suggests there’s no role for the military in this case. This is definitely the right avenue for investigation, bringing us to…

Partly persuasive: “Let Ouattara give the Constitution a try here.” I agree. The specialists will need to weigh in here, and I am surprised (along with Wronging Rights) not to have seen so much talk of invasions and coups without a more thorough analysis of the domestic legal situation.

Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Constitution was woefully unclear here, especially if the Constitutional Council exercised powers it does not possess (e.g. throwing out the northern electoral results).

If only extra-constitutional mechanisms are available (say, because Gbagbo has corrupted the judiciary, or because it’s a big giant unclear mess), it’s not clear to me why sanctioned (i.e. non-covert) coups are any less legitimate than military invasion.

I remain predisposed to actions that involve domestic rather than foreign institutions. To go against extra-constitutional options, you’d have to make the next point…

Partly persuasive: “Letting Gbagbo stay is preferable to both coups and invasions.” This is probably true if we consider only the well being of Ivoirians, and only this election. But I think what this incident shows is that leaders take their cue from the experiences and actions of neighbors. Zimbabwe and Kenya set (ill?) precedents for Cote d’Ivoire, and the continent might be worse off if leaders feel they can cling to power by refusing to acknowledge an electoral loss. This is one of Collier’s main claims in his book, and it is a persuasive one.

So to argue against intervention is (I would say) to accept more incidents like this one in the near future. This is a hypothesis only. Nevertheless, to argue against coups and invasion you would need to either argue against this hypothesis, or argue that the continental ramifications are not worth the risk of intervention. Those cases could be made (here is one), but I have yet to see a fully persuasive one.

Partly persuasive: “The dynamics of a coup could be as or more messy than an invasion.” Good reasons this may be true are here and here. Frankly, I think either have a good chance of ending in disaster. The only correct way to argue this point, however, is to specify why intervening is worse than the alternatives. Almost no one did so.

Basically: no one gets away with emotional dismissing of options, and no one gets to take an option off the table without explaining the rationale for a better one. Think about the opportunity cost.

Finally, what I might find most persuasive, but have not heard: “Cote d’Ivoire is for the Ivoirians, and only extra-legal actions driven by civil society have any hope of legitimacy.”

I find it hard to believe anything will look legitimate ex-ante. This is a sea of bad options. But no one, least of all the UN, ought to get behind a movement that does not have broad-based citizen support and (ideally) momentum. The absence of large-scale street protests, concerted action by civil society, or even an insurgency is the best argument against international extra-constitutional action. I don’t believe a peacekeeping force or coup can install a government capable of governing peacefully without a social movement to back it up.

Most of all, though,  I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make this terrible decision.

Update: As I thought about this in the shower (I really do make this stuff up as I go along, folks), it occurred to me that the best argument against military intervention or sanctioned coups is that, over the next five years, the world can make Gbagbo’s life difficult enough that no neighbor will want to repeat his move. This might or might not include an ICC indictment (perhaps left sealed for a little while, with a promise that it will disappear if he is gone by the next election?).

Undoubtedly, however, pariah status for Gbagbo would mean pariah status for the nation, and with it economic stagnation and possibly suffering. A hard choice.

9 thoughts on “Cote d’Ivoire coup? Points I find persuasive and not.

  1. “The only correct way to argue this point, however, is to specify why intervening is worse than the alternatives.”

    I think you’re right here, but the problem is we know far too little about the likely consequences of any of the actions we might take. All might be disastrous. It’s virtually impossible to say a priori.

    Two more points: first, a UN-Sanctioned intervention may not be more legitimate, but it can be depended upon much more to withdraw once its aim has been achieved. A coup to replace Gbagbo would most likely leave CIV in military hands for the foreseeable future. How is this better than Gbagbo?

    and finally, I too agree that an internal solution is necessary, but for it to be relatively quick and clean, it needs to be a revolution (unharnessed riots could reduce the country to chaos, civil war could be protracted and too high a cost). I’ve written before on how and why these are very rare in Africa:

  2. is launching a campaign to urge cocoa & chocolate companies to stop directly or indirectly supporting the Gbagbo government, as much of his army money comes from revenues & tariffs from cocoa export (and oil, but one campaign at a time).

  3. P.S. the call is not for companies to pull out & kill the cocoa sector, but rather to conclude agreements only with Ouattara government and publicly announce as much.

  4. In Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere, I think it would help a lot if foreign governments and IGOs stopped making threats that simply aren’t credible. I think that many of us want to live in a world where governments are held accountable for their commitments, under their own constitutions and through international treaty regimes, to their citizens’ civil and political rights. Unfortunately, though, we don’t yet live in that world, and all the bluster in crises like this one just renders it that much harder to make a credible threat in the rare instance where potential interveners are willing to back their words with costly actions.

  5. I have no expertise in the subject at hand, so take this as an amateur opinion from a random internet passer-by:

    A comparison between external and internal military intervention seems to hinge on an evaluation of the possible outcomes of each plan. I think people here have discussed the spectrum of possibilities of a coup, but to compare its benefits to that of an external intervention you have to look at the possible spectrum of external intervention outcomes. With a coup you seem to have once success mode (the coup displaces Gbagbo in the name of Ouattara), and three failure modes, the coup is suppressed, the coup becomes itself a democratically illegitimate government, or the coup sparks a return to civil war (obviously there are ones that I missed; I interpret these as the main ones).

    Likewise, I think a military intervention has multiple failure modes. Its success is well-defined, a quick, surgical strike to remove Gbagbo and restore some sense of order. But it can fail in many ways, it can provoke a civil war by polarizing the current divide, it can drag on at untold cost to the people of Cote d’Ivoire, or, and this is the case I don’t see much discussion on, it can fail completely.

    Logically, to compare the two, you would look at the likelihoods of the two sets of outcomes, something that has so far proved impossible. In either case the key question is how long and how well will the army of the Cote d’Ivoire fight for Gbagbo? I think that this question has basically turned the entire intervention question into a high-stakes game of chicken, and I think Gbagbo holds all the cards. In my opinion, ECOWAS (read: Nigeria) lacks the military capabilities to execute a quick, surgical intervention against determined opposition. If ECOWAS tries for the quick approach then either Gbagbo’s men don’t fight and ECOWAS triumphs, or Gbagbo’s men do fight, in which case it’s very possible that they could suffer an outright defeat. For the politicians of Nigeria, the cost of actually losing a battle for Cote d’Ivoire must have an astronomically high cost, high enough that I would expect it to skew any consideration against intervention. Without the quick option I think the possible outcomes of an external intervention are pretty bad; at best you are looking at a long buildup followed by a hopefully short campaign.

    If you strip the quick option from a military intervention, it begins to look extremely bad. Both the coup and the intervention could lead to civil war. A failed coup could lead to extreme political repression, a successful coup could lead to another dictatorial regime taking over the country. But I don’t think either of those options look as unpalatable as the political upheaval that would follow a military defeat by ECOWAS (which would give Gbagbo even more leeway to clean other people’s houses), or the consequences of a long, drawn-out intervention involving Nigerian and Senegalese troops battling house to house in Abidjan. I think we can say that there are possible consequences to a failed or slow military intervention worse then the status quo, and quite possibly worse then a failed coup, but having said that we have no way to calculate how likely they are.

    This is not to promote the idea of a coup; I don’t like it myself because I estimate the possible outcomes to be on balance worse then non-military intervention. I just want to point out the key; the entire situation focuses on whether Gbagbo’s men are willing to, and have the ability, to put up a prolonged fight. If the answer is no, an external intervention will probably yield a relatively peaceful result with the intervening force in and out in short order, while a coup brings with it the risks of having replaced one illegitimate leader with another. If the answer is yes though, an external military intervention could lead to either an outright defeat, or a long, drawn-out campaign, both of which could be devastating to the people of Cote d’Ivoire, while at least a coup would be squashed quickly. A coup has the advantage, for those outside the situation, that it involves little risk on their part.

    Honestly, I think both choices are pretty bad. Given the situation, I would prefer to eschew military intervention altogether. But if I had to pick between the two of them, I would pick the external intervention in the first case, and the coup in the second. Of course that all depends on the answer to the question of whether Gbagbo’s supporters can fight back, and unfortunately that’s the sort of card you need to pay to see what’s on the flip side.

  6. The constitutional argument put forth by Wronging Rights is nearly persuasive, Equally persuasive should be the argument that Gbagbo lost all claims to constitutionality when he unconstitutionally and arbitrarily postponed elections since 2005. Padding the Constitutional Commission with cronies don’t exactly make for accountability either. The truth is Gbagbo never intended to relinquish power. Had he succeeded in securing the arms he was shopping around the globe for (one of his key military aides was arrested in San Diego before the elections illegally shopping for heavy weaponry), the continuing tension would have been much more deadly.
    As things stand, the pragmatic step ( i keep insisting) is to push for a government of national unity, as distasteful as that sounds in the mouths and ears of “pure democrats” around the globe. Paul Collier’s pronouncements and suggestions have taken away the element of surprise any military putsch would have needed to organize a successful palace coup. One of the amusing things for us non-westerners is how much others underestimate the capacity of Africans to undertake strategic steps in response to signals. It may not be the case in every instance but there are several examples and moments when this does take place. Does Collier seriously think that Gbagbo’s paid analysts did not read his suggestion and take the necessary precaution? It brings to mind a CNN report this morning by Zain Verjee in which she hailed the recent “ingenious” move by ship captains crossing the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast to place cardboard cutouts of looklikes of fully armed guards on their decks in other to deter or ward off pirates. Somewhere, somehow, i just knew the cousin of a pirate living in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or some other city was reaching for a cellphone beside them to place a call to Eyl or someplace else in Puntland to tell them about this recent “smart” move being announced and hailed on CNN. And Zain Verjee should know better about this capacity for extraversion because she grew up partly in Kenya. So much for that, of course no one ever talks about shipping insurance scams being run by crews and shippers using pirates for cover. Has anyone ever wondered why and how large ships keep getting captured by puny, half-starved looking pirates with basic AK-47 assault rifles?
    To the matter at hand, Ghana’s selfish declaration out of any potential military action in neighboring IC was the first nail that was banged into any chance to remove Gbagbo by force. Burkina Faso could do the dirty work but it will be much more obvious given existing allegations that Ouattara is Burkinabe by heritage. That leaves the only option of all potential bidders for power sharing the national cake and let the people have peace. All of us armchair analyst can dust ourselves off and move on to the next opportunity to protect freedom and democracry in the world-whatever those are.

  7. I have visited Cote d’Ivoire and have wandered around Africa for a couple of years, These arguments all require justice of fair play, which I seldom see in West Africa.

    I accept that ECOWAS is not going to do anything.
    I accept that the United Nations is not going to do anything.

    My Cote d’Ivoire girlfriend left Lome, Togo yesterday, she needed to pay a 6000 CFA bribe at the first Ghana police stop, then a 4000 CFA bribe at the second. This is West Africa, she is finally accepting that it was an “Election,” not a war that happened. That two men have no respect for the constitution or the law.

    I would say to Cynthia from Cote d’Ivoire, your country has a Dictator, this truly irritated her, as Africa wants to be considered modern, but proves consistently, there progress is still tribal, where a chief makes the rules. A mentality that can give legitimacy to a Chief does not understand democracy.

    There is too much talk in Africa, and never strict actions of peace, only violent action of the present Chief.

  8. Perfect idea… just wind up funding the FN rebel army instead. Either way, you’ll be paying for violence. Way to choose sides!

  9. Chris,
    Glad to see that you’re coming around to the ICC! No if only abrogating one’s own constitution could — ehem — constitute an international crime for which he could be indicted…