Ivory Coast economic 'miracle' risks morphing into mirage

File: Ivory Coast's president Alassane Ouattara signs the country's revisited constitution on November 8, 2016 at the presidential palace in Abidjan. But depressed growth and social unrest is threatening to reverse successes under his rule. Photo: AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast - Following a string of mutinies, plummeting cocoa prices, depressed growth and social unrest, Ivory Coast's economic "miracle" has taken a battering and runs the risk of turning into a mirage.

Crippled by a decade-long conflict that began in 2002, the world's top cocoa producer has made a spectacular comeback since President Alassane Ouattara took office in 2011.

Despite being reelected two years ago, Ouattara faces mounting woes that are threatening his authority, his credibility -- and his efforts to lockdown the nation's economic recovery.

A weakened president

Ouattara has on several occasions admitted to being "hurt" by a string of mutinies by disgruntled troops since January. And after the latest four-day protest, he is once again in a precarious position.

While most Ivorians don't approve of the uprisings, they don't understand the president's volte-face -- in January, he promised the mutineers a bonus. Then last week he appeared to accept a televised "apology" in which a spokesman renounced their financial demands.

But the apparent PR stunt backfired, reigniting a protest which shook the country, leaving four dead and nine wounded. In the end, Ouattara was forced to capitulate in a move that ultimately damaged his credibility.

READ: Ivory Coast court validates referendum on new constitution

"In Africa, your word is sacred, you don't go back on your word," said Ibrahim Yameogo, a trader in Bouake, the country's second city.

"The government has not come out of this weakened but actually strengthened. It has managed to get through a difficult situation," insisted Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi.

A huge sum

In a country where the average monthly income for a family rarely exceeds $340 (300 euros), the sums pledged to the 8,400 disgruntled soldiers are huge.

Under the terms of this week's deal, each soldier will receive a payment of seven million CFA francs ($11,000/10,700 euros) by June, say sources among the mutinous troops.

When that sum is added to the initial 5.0 million CFA francs paid to each of them in January, it amounts to quite a hefty bill of more than $170 million.

Although the government has refused to comment on the numbers involved, officials have insisted it had the "capacity" to pay.

"With a total budget of 6,500 billion CFA ($11 billion) we know how to find the means," said Communications Minister Bruno Kone.

If the mutineers receive the second tranche as promised, that alone will amount to around 1.0 percent of the state's annual budget.

'The house is burning'

"It is easy to spread these 150 million euros across different budget items, but we're in a time of falling cocoa prices," explains Ivorian political scientist Jean Alabro, noting the 35-percent drop in prices between August and March.

So important is cocoa for the national economy that the government last week revised down its budget with a 9.3 percent reduction in investments.

"The country's growth is driven by investment, notably foreign investment," said Alabro.

These foreign investors could be scared off by such unrest at a time when the government is trying to negotiate the sale of up to $1 billion in Eurobonds.

"In this situation, it's problematic. It is as if a person whose house burns down every month goes to see the bank to borrow money to buy furniture," he said.

But Kone brushed off any suggestion the government had botched its handling of the crisis, or that the unrest within the army had scared off investors.

"Ivory Coast remains as attractive as it was before: its economic capacity is there and its resilience has been demonstrated, despite the difficulties in the cocoa market," he said.

Social unrest

Capitulating to the mutineers' demands also risks triggering a domino effect -- which already happened in January when other troops left out of the deal began demanding bonuses.

And it also looks set to feed into an ongoing wave of social unrest, with the soldiers achieving through the barrel of a gun what civil servants have been trying to secure for months -- pay hikes of 300 million euros.

"In the interest of equality and social justice, the government should do the same for civil servants. This is the big lesson we learn from this crisis," said union member Theodore Gnagna Zadi.

Future unclear

"2017 should have been the year of economic and political consolidation before the opening of hostilities over Ouattara's successor in 2020. It's failed," said an Ivorian political observer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

And after a decade of political and military crisis, there is still the question of national reconciliation to be addressed.

The question of succession is also likely to revive rivalries between the two main parties as well as among Ouattara's supporters.

Finally, the mutineers have demonstrated that the idea of establishing a truly integrated army is still very far off. 


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