LAGOS Nigeria wants U.N. backing for military intervention in Ivory Coast to prevent it slipping into a civil war that could destabilize the West African region, Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia said on Monday.
West African bloc ECOWAS, which has threatened the use of force in Ivory Coast to push incumbent Laurent Gbagbo from power, needs "unequivocal international support" through a U.N. Security Council resolution, Ajumogobia said.
Gbagbo is locked in a power-struggle with rival Alassane Ouattara, who was declared winner of a November 28 election by United Nations-certified results before they were overturned by a pro-Gbagbo legal body, which alleged fraud.
"It is clear that Gbagbo is determined to defy and treat the entire international community with absolute disdain ... He cannot, he must not be allowed to prevail," Ajumogobia wrote in a strongly-worded column in Nigeria's This Day newspaper.
"Gbagbo must be made to understand that there is a very real prospect of overwhelming military capability bearing down on him and his cohorts," he wrote.
The United States and the European Union have imposed travel bans and other sanctions on Gbagbo and his inner circle but fellow West African nations will need to take a lead if there is to be any attempt to remove him by force, diplomats say.
Britain has said it would give support at the United Nations for the use of force if West African nations wanted it.
Regional powerhouse Nigeria, whose President Goodluck Jonathan is the chairman of ECOWAS, would be key to any West African intervention as it would be likely to provide the troops and logistical backbone for an ECOWAS force.
Ajumogobia said force did not necessarily mean an incursion into the former French colony, which supplies around a third of the world's cocoa through its main ports.
"Legitimate force can include, for example, a naval blockade to enforce sanctions which might be imposed against Gbagbo," he wrote in the full-page column.
He acknowledged there was not universal support for force.
"Already Russia, at the level of the U.N. Security Council, and Ghana, at the ECOWAS regional level, have shown inclinations not to support a military incursion of any kind in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)," he said.
"This is unfortunate ... We cannot leave Ouattara to enforce the legitimate and internationally recognized mandate given to him by the people of Cote d'Ivoire. That would be to sanction civil war, against the very ethos of the U.N.," he said.
He described as "helpful" offers of amnesty made by several world leaders to Gbagbo, as well as suggestions of prestigious international roles and pledges to safeguard his financial assets should he surrender, but noted Gbagbo had so far "scoffed at these generous proposals for a dignified exit."
"The political crisis in Cote d'Ivoire is likely to disrupt the trend toward democracy in the sub region and create a dangerous precedent for a continent in which 20 presidential elections are to hold within the next 18 months," he wrote.
"Consequently, the impunity of Gbagbo must be regarded as a challenge to the entire international community."
(Writing by Nick Tattersall)