Crisis hits Ivory Coast economy

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Laurent Gbagbo, one of the two presidents of the Ivory Coast, has accused Washington of supporting his rival, Alassane Ouattara. He has also accused some newspapers of trying to destabilize the country and threatened them with harsh measures. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspects South Africa, which has deployed a warship off the coast of Abidjan, of supporting Gbagbo. The economy of the West African country has been plunged into chaos.

Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, both declared presidents of the Ivory Coast after the November 2010 elections, are busily nurturing an institutional-conflict-by-proxy as they await the new African Union mediation efforts. The country is gradually being plunged into an abysmal economic crisis. In the meantime, Gbagbo has increased his attacks on the local media and condemned the international community for supporting his rival by virtue of numerous sanctions that target him and his cronies. Mr. Ouattarra, on the other hand, continues to enjoy strong support from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In a statement read Sunday on national television, the Gbagbo government spokesman, Ahoua Don Mello, attacked the United States ambassador in the Ivory Coast, Phillip Carter III, of “grave and unacceptable interference” in the internal affairs of his country as well as “blatant bias” for Alassane Ouattara. Early February, Mr. Carter had suggested that the window for Gbagbo to leave honorably, peacefully, with amnesty, was closing.

“The financial situation is getting tough” for banks in the Ivory Coast, and there is a financial crisis in Abidjan now, with trade slowing down. The U.S. diplomat is also reported as saying that the army would eventually stop backing Gbagbo when the state coffers run dry.

Nonetheless, Phillip Carter asserts that Gbagbo “has been pirating, he has been stealing money from parastatal corporations to meet salaries (…) He has been extorting local businesses to pay in advance their taxes (…) putting increased pressure on a variety of companies that are involved in natural resources, be it coffee, cocoa, petroleum, timber (…) They are resisting. What we are seeing is an effort there by him to marshal as many resources as he can to get the money to make his payroll, probably to acquire additional weapons.”

But Mr. Mello argues that “the offensive and unfounded remarks against Laurent Gbagbo” are part of attempts to destabilize Côte d’Ivoire, and wants Phillip Carter to “put an end to these interferences” that violate the “rules of diplomacy” and are “likely to aggravate the crisis.” Washington’s decision to officially recognize Alassane Ouattara’s designated ambassador to the United States, Daouda Diabate, has angered Gbagbo’s administration.

Struggling media

Gbagbo’s government has also targeted the media. Monday, Eugene Die Kacou, president of Conseil National de la Presse (CNP — National Press Council), the regulatory body of the Ivorian media, was told via an evening televised news that he had been relieved of his duties. According to a press release from the Gbagbo government, Mr. Eugene Die Kacou “had shown his notorious partiality in favor of Mr. Alassane Ouattara the unsuccessful candidate of the presidential election who relied on media manipulation to make a take over bill on Côte d’Ivoire”.

Friday, Laurent Gbagbo Communications Minister, Ouattara Gnonzié, told AFP that the CNP “must ensure that journalists do not write articles to disturb public order, (or) to destabilize the institutions”. In reference to their decision to withdraw the permit of the ONUCI-FM, the United Nations radio station, Mr. Gnonzié explained: “This radio has become partisan. We do not see why we should (continue) to allow frequencies that were given free of charge,” adding that ONUCI-FM is operating in “illegality” by continuing its broadcast despite the ban arguing that the Gbagbo government will remain firm with media who seek to “destabilize the institutions.” This pressure on the media has been strongly condemned by the European Union.

A divisive South Africa?

Alassane Ouattara, on the other hand, has continued with the implementation of economic measures taken by the international community and regional financial institutions to financially strangle his rival. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he said he would indefinitely extend a ban on cocoa and coffee exports. “If Mr Gbagbo leaves, of course the ban will be removed. But if he stays on, I just think the ban will continue,” he said. “Cocoa can be stored for a long time. Clearly Mr Gbagbo will be out well before the cocoa starts getting rotten,” Mr. Ouattarra. 40 percent of global cocoa supplies, valued at $4.5 billion a year at current prices, according to the FT, comes from the Ivory Coast.

The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, last week criticized the Republic of South Africa after the latter sent a warship off the coast of Abidjan. The 15-bloc regional bloc has acknowledged that South Africa’s decision is tantamount to a unilateral support for the Gbagbo government. This comes shortly after Jacob Zuma, the South African president, joined the panel of five heads of state mandated by the African Union to resolve the Ivorian crisis through dialogue. “There is a South African warship docked in Cote d’Ivoire (…) Action such as that can only complicate the matter further,” said the President of the ECOWAS Commission, James Victor Gbeho in Abuja in Nigeria. “The solidarity that started among us in the international community is fast being eroded because certain countries are picking sides and therefore are disagreeing with the decision already taken,” he warned. Disagreeing on the vessel as a warship, South Africa’s ambassador to Nigeria disputed Mr. James Gbeho’s argument saying the ship could serve as a neutral venue for netiations if necessary.

Monday, Laurent Gbagbo filed a “lawsuit against the West African regional bloc for recognizing his rival as the winner of the country’s recent presidential election”, AFP reported. Insisting that the decision “violates the supremacy” of the Ivory Coast, Mohamed Lamine Faye, Gbagbo’s lawyer, said he wanted “the court to hold that these pronouncements are illegal (…) If they are illegal, they are null and void. They should suspend any action in respect to these pronouncements” he said.

Economic and social crisis

Meanwhile, the country’s economic situation is rapidly deteriorating. Inflation is high. Shortage of drugs in pharmacies and power cuts are becoming the order of the day. ATM or Cash Machines are increasingly empty. The consequences of the conflict between Gbagbo and the Bank of Central African States (BCEAO) are being felt. And due to the sanctions imposed in January by the European Union, the national oil and gas company (PETROCI), which produces 80,000 barrels per day, could close its refineries in a few months. PETROCI may no longer be able to assure domestic gas supply in the coming days.

On the social front, the situation is no better. According to UN estimates, about 300 people have been killed since the beginning of the post-election crisis. Some 82,000 people have been displaced within or outside the country and about 42 000 within the confines of the country. Others have fled to neighboring countries: Liberia (34 500), Mali (2585). Nearly 1,800 Guineans have returned to their country, while a some refugees have reportedly fled to Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin and Togo. The five heads of state appointed by the African Union to find a solution to the crisis have until late February to find lasting solutions to end the political quagmire.

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