Putting the Financial Squeeze on Côte d’Ivoire’s Illegitimate Ruler

Over the last couple of months, Laurent Gbagbo has been exerting all the pressure he can on banks and businesses to ensure that he maintains the cash flow necessary to support the costs of a skeleton bureaucracy and economy. Estimated at about $150 million per month, the cost of staying in power is what many analysts believe will end up breaking Gbagbo’s hold. Following the West African’s Central Bank decision to cut cash flow to Côte d’Ivoire’s central bank and the latter’s closure following Gbagbo’s physical take-over of it, most local affiliates of foreign banks have had to shut down. Reports of people attempting to take their cash out of banks indicate that many banks have all but literally run out of cash.

Gbagbo’s government, however, said last week it intends to nationalize these banks and have them re-open as early as this week (so far, though, only more bank closures and no sign of re-opening the closed financial institutions.) In January, Gbagbo had already seized the country’s electricity company and distribution center.

At a February 4th briefing to the State Department, Phillip Carter, the American ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, did not mince his words:

Gbagbo “has been pirating, he has been stealing money from parastatal corporations to meet salaries,” Carter said. “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.”

Making him a persona non grata among Ggabgo loyalists, Carter’s comments reflect a deeply worrisome economic situation in Côte d’Ivoire. Responsible for the production of about 40% of the world’s cocoa supply, an export ban on the crop is hitting farmers across the country. Millions of people in Côte d’Ivoire rely on the cocoa trade for their livelihood, and especially given this year’s reportedly very successful harvest, cocoa trade is being driven underground and into the black market. As suggested by Carter in his comments to the State Department, cocoa exporters are being made to pay taxes in advance  – and in cash – by Gbagbo’s government.

Elizabeth Dickison in FP writes about Chinese and Russian markets being considered for cocoa exports. Meanwhile, small holder farmers are being paid much less than market rate for their crop, and will inevitably bear the brunt of this export ban. How Gbagbo is twisting arms in the oil industry to obtain cash is less clear, as the state-owned industry is notoriously opaque. What is clear, though, is that Gbagbo is turning to every possible source of cash in Côte d’Ivoire to float his illegal rule over the country – how much longer he will be able to sustain this is unclear.

As the well-known Kenyan saying goes, “when two elephants fight, the grass suffers.” In Côte d’Ivoire, the human suffering precipitated by the political crisis is clearly hitting at the grassroots. As the AU delegation rolled into Abidjan on February 21st, episodes of violence continue to be reported, as Gbagbo and Ouattara loyalists clash (At least six Ouattara supporters were killed yesterday.) The UNHCR reports that at least 35,000 Ivoirians have fled to neighboring Liberia, and at least 42,000 have been internally displaced. Displacement cause a strain on local resources, and can further contribute to destabilizing an already volatile situation, and nothing seems to indicate that this trend is dying down. Eugenio Ambrosi, a Special Envoy with IOM in the region notes that “past experience dictates that we have to be ready to deal with another migration crisis in the region.”

Reporting from central Côte d’Ivoire near the border with Liberia, a BBC journalist describes a very tense and unstable situation, with polarization along ethnic lines.  Reports of foreign mercenaries fighting on both sides of the conflict also underline just how charged the situation is in Côte d’Ivoire.

While the international community tries to squeeze Gbagbo’s illegitimate government into bankruptcy, civil servants and the army haven’t defected from supporting Gbagbo; at least, for as long as their bank account is credited with their salary at the end of each month. But, as the Financial Times noted,  “many Ivorian civil servants – unlike those elsewhere in Africa – are used to being paid on time.” It seems that for all the high-level diplomacy and threats of military action, it’s the civil servants – bureaucrats but particularly the army and security forces – who will ultimately decide Côte d’Ivoire’s fate.

Hopefully, Gbagbo’s fall from grace will take place before army loyalists and Ouattara’s Forces Armées des Forces Nouvelles face off, as suggested by Ivoirian media in recent days.