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Ivory Coast…it’s all about the crisis

October 2, 2009

Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa grower, kicked off the 2009/10 season on bleak note on Thursday, with the head of the body overseeing the industry warning that even the most optimistic forecasts predicted a fall in production.


“Our plantations have suffered from the crisis,” said Gilbert Ano, echoing concerns about the West African country’s cocoa trees becoming too old, not being looked after properly by under-supported farmers and producing less cocoa as a result.


In talking about the “crisis”, Ano used the increasingly prevalent explanation for why things in Ivory Coast — once the region’s most stable, with an economy that boomed while neighbours stagnated or went to war — are not going very well.


He is referring to the political and military quagmire his country has been stuck in since a brief 2002-2003 war, during which rebels captured the north of the country. United Nations and French peacekeepers have since overseen a fragile peace, during which a return to war has been averted but elections have failed to take place.


For a long time, this “crisis”, didn’t appear to have much of an impact on cocoa. Exports, in fact, hit record levels in 2007/08. Roadblocks and a handful of flare-ups over the years meant transporting the beans, which are used to make chocolate, became more difficult and expensive. Nonetheless, solutions, which sometimes involved transiting through neighbouring countries, were always found.


But the real impact of the “crisis” is now being felt. As politicians rowed over election dates, voter lists or rebel disarmament, the lack of investment in the trees or small-scale farmers and alleged corruption amongst administrators has done its damage and output is falling. Some say it might fall by half over the next few years.


The reforms needed to reverse this have been talked about for years but cannot take place until the “crisis” is over, cocoa experts say.


So indeed the cocoa sector can quite justifiably talk about being in crisis. But in Ivory Coast, the “crisis” is now being used to explain just about anything. A once-vibrant business environment and professional class has been caught up in the “crisis”. Though some investors have remained, many others say they are waiting for the “crisis” to end before pumping in more money. Whether to explain increased corruption or poverty rates or even justify soldiers harassing drivers on the roads at night, the answer often comes back – “It’s because of the crisis”.


Once I was told that the crisis meant I shouldn’t worry about work and, instead, go and have a beer.


Has all this talk of a “crisis” adopted its own momentum? Ivorians are weary of the “crisis” but many say a small minority are doing what they can to extend it as they have worked out how to tap the “crisis economy”, which makes it more difficult to hold people accountable. Is this true?


The only way out of the “crisis” appears to be elections but they are constantly being
delayed. First due in 2005, they are now meant to take place in Nov. 29 but that date now looks in doubt.  Will elections really bring an end to the “crisis” or will they lead to another one?


Indeed, the “crisis a bon dos” as we say in French, meaning it is used as an excuse for virtually anything going wrong in the country. With regard to the cocoa sector, why did not reforms work? Ivoirians were told then (in 2000) that farmers were finally empowered and were going to manage the sector. A plethora of organisations (les structures such as BCC, FDPCC, etc.) were put in place and what they did was really siphoning money off from real farmers. Today, most of the managers of the cocoa sector are in jail, and it has nothing to do with “the crisis”.
Meanwhile, due to the country partition, a parralel economy flourished. An estimated 20% of Ivoiran cocoa was (is?) diverted through rebel-controlled areas. Diamonds as well, until the UN took sanctions including an embargo. Ex-rebels collected (collect?) taxes in “their zones”. But they are not the only ones to blame for meanwhile, in the Government controlled zones, lack of transparency in the productive sectors including oil and gas continues. Donors have demanded an audit, so let us wait and see. The continuous postponement of elections cannot be due to a mere coincidence due to vested interests of the political elite. Parliament is illegal, so is the government because elections are overdue. Free and fair elections will bring an end to the crisis, but will they be? StrategiCo. risk analysis has rated Cote dIvoire 10 on a scale of 14 (riskies), against 9 in June 2009.


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