With the world’s attention focusing on mass mobilization and historic shifts of power in Tunis and Cairo, the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has faded into the background but remains completely unresolved. There has been no face-to-face meeting between Laurent Gbagbo and his long-time political rival Alassane Ouattara, while both men, backed by their respective camps, continue to lay claim to the presidency.
Ouattara has international legitimacy on his side, backed by most of his African peers, the UN and the European Union. Ouattara and his prime minister, Guillaume Soro, have stressed that Ouattara’s right to executive power cannot be surrendered and that a strong display of regional and international will is called for, appealing openly for military support. Gbagbo and his associates remain adamant that Ouattara’s election victory is irredeemably tainted and that their own popular support, survival skills and tactical alliances in Africa and elsewhere will see off the challenge from outside, including an expanding range of economic sanctions.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian problems continue, as do the human rights violations. But most of the worst violence has been confined to now familiar flashpoints. In Abidjan, there have been bloody encounters in the northern district of Abobo, where Ouattara supporters say they have led a fight-back against security forces moving repeatedly into an area known as a Ouattara stronghold. Thousands have been displaced in and around Duékoué in the west, where longstanding tensions between the Malinké and Guéré communities have been exacerbated by the conflict.
A recent UN estimate put the number of people killed since the elections at 296, a relatively small increase on earlier figures. But human rights experts say it is impossible to get definitive statistics. As an independent observer in Abidjan pointed out, there is no reason for complacency. “There may be the impression of a relative easing of overall tensions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there has been an improvement in the situation.”
While outside bodies continue to discuss the use of stick versus carrot, the two Ivoirian protagonists have made the economy their main battlefield for now. Ouattara’s appeals for strikes and boycotts seem to have had little impact, but the strategy to isolate Gbagbo financially looks to be more coherent. Ouattara has worked with the support of the regional West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) to try to cut off funds to Gbagbo, hinting that once deprived of funds, Gbagbo’s administration will rapidly implode. The EU and others also appear confident that financial pressure will work. But for now, it seems to be bank employees and other ordinary citizens who have most to lose.
The Central Bank of West African States’s (BCEAO) closure of its branches in Côte d’Ivoire has been complemented by the withdrawal, or at least suspension of activities, of several key banking concerns. International banking giant Citibank closed its Abidjan headquarters on 14 February.
On the same day French-owned Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie en Côte d’Ivoire (BICICI), the country’s second biggest bank, temporarily closed its operations. Along with Société Générale’s SGBCI, another French-owned entity, it controls 65 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s market share. “Today we are no longer in a position to guarantee satisfactory legal and accounting security for our clients, nor the physical security of our employees,” the bank said in a statement.
A BICICI employee told IRIN that staff had been working in a climate of fear for several weeks, and were unable to contact key bank personnel who had attended a meeting with Gbagbo representatives on 13 February. “We know our managers were called to a meeting with Gbagbo’s people over the weekend. Since then, none of them are picking up their phones,” the employee said. “There are large amounts of unpaid bills that the state owes the bank. No business can operate that way so it was inevitable,” the employee added.
But any drawn-out closures will also hit ordinary folk hard. “For three days I’ve been trying to withdraw money. My husband is due to get his kidney dialysis, but we can’t do it until we withdraw money and now the bank has closed,” a worried BICICI client told IRIN.
Sanctions have seeped into every aspect of Ivoirians’ lives, making them fearful of a downward economic spiral which they have often considered the scourge of neighbouring poorer countries.
With Ivoirians rushing to withdraw what they can, fearing banks may close, cash machines shut down early as newly-imposed daily limits are quickly reached.
“There’s no liquidity any more,” a bank director at a multinational firm told IRIN. “It’s a serious problem. Banks can’t lend because they want to hold on to whatever money they have.”
It will only be a matter of time before the full force of sanctions begins to bite, the bank official said. “The national refinery is struggling to make payments. They have only enough cooking gas left for maybe two weeks, and fuel stocks for another three months at most. I’m middle class, so this is the first time I have to worry about a gas shortage in this country. It’s very worrying.”
Forty-litre cooking gas canisters have jumped from 5,000 CFA francs (US$10) a refill to 12,000 CFA francs ($24) when available at all. After long queues, buyers are often told to buy a “new model” canister if they want a refill – costing a total of 37,000 CFA francs ($75).
The situation is worse outside the main commercial hub of Abidjan. “Even before the elections supply would sometimes be a bit erratic. But now, trucks are not making the journey to deliver canisters at all. We have to send someone to Abidjan to pick up enough cans for 10 people at a time,” a resident in Tiassalé, some 120km north of Abidjan, told IRIN.
Sanogo Amidou, who imports shoes from neighbouring Ghana to sell in Adjamé’s bustling main market, has stopped travelling abroad to buy his produce.
“I can’t even sell six pairs of shoes a day”, Amidou told IRIN. “Clients are interested but the minute you tell them the price, the only thing that comes out of their mouth is: there’s no money, you yourself know how hard times are,” he sighs, gesturing at a heap of unsold soft leather shoes. “Many of the people who come here are unemployed in all but name. Their salaries aren’t being paid so the priority is on buying essentials.”
The domino effect is insidious, he says: “Aside from electricity, I have to worry about scraping enough to pay my store assistant. And people are struggling to pay rental for their market space, which is in turn a problem for their families.”
The cost of running a skeleton economy, with ministries in disarray or barely functional, is apparent, Amidou says, pointing out a chest-high pile of uncollected rubbish in the street outside. “And then the customs workers are keeping everyone’s merchandise locked up anyhow. When you go to see them after five days, they’ll tell you come back in another week. When you come back in a week, you have to bring money otherwise you can’t remove your merchandise,” he said.
It is not yet clear whether growing anger at shortages of cooking gas, disruption of transport services, rising prices and other major inconveniences will translate into organized protest. “You would expect there to be a serious manifestation of dissatisfaction, but the question is: who will it be directed at?” an Abidjan-based observer asked, noting that Gbagbo was capable of blaming worsening social grievances on Ouattara and the international community, while Ouattara would blame Gbagbo’s own obduracy for the breakdown.