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Country Focus: Côte d’Ivoire – The glitz and the grime

By Bram Posthumus in Abidjan
Posted on Friday, 25 May 2018 06:42

Côte d’Ivoire was in the continental spotlight as President Alassane Ouattara opened the sixth Africa CEO Forum, held on 26-27 March at the Sofitel Hotel Ivoire. He explained: “Now more than ever, Africa is determined to take its destiny in its own hands and has the solid resolve to be the principal actor in its own development.” He called on governments to diversify their countries’ economies, invest in infrastructure, get serious about regional integration and the education of young people, especially girls. These are all familiar themes on the African conference ­circuit, and the proof of Ouattara’s leadership is whether he actually follows through at home.

As Ouattara comes to the end of his second term and is due to hand over to a successor in 2020, citizens are debating his legacy. With the end of the country’s civil war, the African Development Bank returned to its Abidjan headquarters and the economy received $481m in foreign direct investment in 2016, up from an average of $353m in 2005-2007 according to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The economy has been growing rapidly for the past several years, but mutinies last year and a spate of angry protests this year (see page 47) show that the country has a long way to go to fight poverty, reduce corruption and respond to the needs of the population.

Better for business

On many development indicators, the country has a lot of room for improvement. World Bank figures put the primary school completion rate at 63% in 2015. At the same time, 27.9% of the population lived on less than $1.9 per day.

Ouattara’s administration has been working hard to improve the country’s business climate and this has paid dividends: Côte d’Ivoire ranks 139 out of 190 countries in the latest World Bank Doing Business report, up from 167 out of 183 in 2012. But improvements can still be made, said Sérgio Pimenta, vice-president for Africa and the Middle East at the International Finance Corporation. He was speaking at the presentation of a new report on investment opportunities and referred specifically to the “simplification of administrative procedures”, an allusion to the country’s French-inherited labyrinthine bureaucracy.

The macroeconomy is performing well. A paper from the economy and finance ministry is upbeat: economic growth for 2018 is predicted at 8.3% due to continued improvements in commercial agriculture – producing cocoa, coffee, fruit and livestock – and strong growth figures for construction, energy and services. On the surface, this looks like a boom, the second one in the country’s history, after the cocoa-fuelled economic miracle of the 1960s and 1970s. Commercial agriculture remains the bedrock of the Ivorian economy but caution is in order: realities on the ground are less pleasant than those government figures suggest.

In 2016/2017, world cocoa prices plunged by 35%, dropping to $1,900/tn by the end of 2017. The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that price trend will continue. In January 2018, Moussa Koné, the leader of the Syndicat National Agricole pour le Progrès union asked: “Every farmer works to fulfil the needs of his family. How can you prevent a farmer from looking out for the best return on investment?” This rhetorical question hints at the possibility of selling Ivorian cocoa in neighbouring Ghana, where it fetches 900 CFA francs ($1.69) per kilogram, 200 CFA francs more than at home. The Ivorian government, which reduced the cocoa price in response to the crisis, forbids the smuggling of Ivorian beans to neighbouring countries.

Cocoa farmers, once the pillars of the ruling party in the time of the uncontested rule of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and Félix Houphouët-Boigny – himself a farmer – have lost a lot of their clout in the intervening years. But the troubles on the ground are not going unnoticed at the highest level: Ouattara and his Ghanaian counterpart, Nana Akufo-Addo, delivered a joint declaration in March, in which they pledged to work towards price improvements, harmonising marketing policies and to agreeing cocoa prices “in a concomitant manner”, which could put an end to Ivorian smuggling dreams. They also invited the private sector to invest massively in the sector, and especially in processing: both countries want to minimise the export of raw materials in order to add value and to create employment at home. Côte d’Ivoire is making more progress than Ghana on the processing front due to a series of incentives that encouraged more investment in grinding capacity.

Diversifying the economy away from commodities is a recurring theme for many African governments, and tourism is one of those areas where private investment can pay off handsomely. Tourism minister Siandou Fofana says that the sector’s contribution to Côte d’Ivoire’s gross domestic product today stands at just over 5.5% – almost three times what it was in the wake of the post-electoral crisis of 2010-2011. The March 2016 shootings at Grand-Bassam, the first and so far only recent terrorist attack in the country, has failed to put the brakes on tourism’s growth.

Logistics is another sector the government says it is upbeat about. There are few countries on the continent where the French multinational Bolloré – which has 24,000 employees in 46 African countries – has a freer hand than in Côte d’Ivoire. In late 2017, Bolloré started work on the rehabilitation of the 1,200km Abidjan-Ouagadougou railway. In February 2018, the firm opened new facilities at the port of Abidjan for bulk cocoa exports, which appears to be contrary to stated government policy.

Bolloré and others are making bets on Côte d’Ivoire’s consumers. Since 2015, the American fast-food giant Burger King has been opening a string of restaurants. Currently, there are seven: at the airport, major shopping centres and in the business district known as Le Plateau. Bolloré runs the supply chain from Europe to the purpose-built cold storage facilities.

Ivorian successes

The rise of the service economy is intimately connected with urbanisation, with economic capital Abidjan as the main draw. Voodoo Communications, the homegrown Abidjan advertising agency created in 1999, is still led by its founder, Fabrice Sawegnon. Voodoo’s annual turnover is in the order of $12m, and it has branched out into event organisation and media activity. The company has created eye-catching ads for Orange, Castel and Air Côte d’Ivoire, as well as managing President Ouattara’s successful re-election campaign.

Snedai, the e-visa service that businessman Adama Bictogo set up in 2007, has now grown into a group active in lagoon transport, construction and energy. It employs 1,000 people and has an annual turnover of $73.9m. These are just two examples of businesses that have come into their own in an environment where you must be fast, innovative and savvy in order to succeed. It does no harm, either, to be close to the presidential family.

Earlier in March, the Sofitel Hotel Ivoire hosted another gathering of the great and the good in what has become a barometer of who is up, who is down, who is in and who is out: the annual Children of Africa gala dinner, the brainchild of first lady Dominique Ouattara. Prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly was there, as was vice-president Daniel Kablan Duncan. Guillaume Soro was in attendance, which was interesting, given the hard time Ouattara’s party had been giving him about his ambitions, as was Henriette Konan Bédié, the wife of the President’s ally and PDCI leader Henri Konan Bédié. Bédié’s party and Ouattara’s are now in an alliance, but manoeuvrings related to the upcoming presidential elections could lead to a parting of ways.

French businesses were well represented at the gala by Vincent Bolloré and Martin and Olivier Bouygues. Artists and celebrities put the finest gloss on the event, among them French actress Isabelle Adjani, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Mali’s Salif Keita, Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Côte d’Ivoire’s Aïcha Koné, Meiway and Magic System and the renowned Nigerien couturier Alphadi, who has a store in Le Plateau.

In stark contrast are stories such as this one from a shop owner in Angré, a northern suburb of Abidjan: “There are parts of Abobo where people don’t leave their homes at night. These young guys come out with machetes and terrorise the area.” The young guys in question are ‘microbes’, adolescents and other young people in violent street gangs. “They have no reason to be there, they just rob people,” he said, before explaining that this was the reason he preferred his shop to be outside his own neighbourhood.

Some politicians want Côte d’Ivoire’s grime rather than its glitz to be at the centre of political debates. Mamadou Koulibaly was the speaker of Côte ­d’Ivoire’s parliament throughout much of the reign of former president Laurent Gbagbo. He plans to stand in 2020 as presidential candidate for Liberté et Démocratie pour la République, a relatively small left-of-centre party that challenges the government’s free-market policies. “The fight against poverty does not means eradicating the visible signs of it and replacing it with beautiful flyovers and lovely homes,” he argued in a video he released on 23 March, the day before he declared his candidacy. “That’s how you get the ‘microbes’, through a lack of dignity, frustration and violence.”

The sphinx and the soldier

Abobo is a disadvantaged area of Abidjan – no Burger Kings there. Other parts of the country fare little better. In the north, millions eke out a meagre livelihood on the land. Abidjan is very, very far away from these places, which, ironically perhaps, have also been home to a reliably pro-Ouattara electorate. Given that for them the benefits from Côte d’Ivoire’s second economic miracle have not materialised, the government may be in for a rude awakening at the next elections.

Key to all the political equations are the moves taken by two giants of the political stage: one young, one old. Henri Konan Bedié has kept his reputation as a sphinx, revealing nothing about his intentions in the upcoming 2020 elections. He has made splashes in the press, appearing to court one or another pretender to the throne, whilst never giving up his own ambitions. But he matters greatly in the political calculus. The heir of the historic PDCI party, which ruled at independence, he brings with him a good third of the votes in the country.

A meeting held between President Ouattara and Bedié on 10 April was expected to announce a formal electoral pact and the creation of a joint party. But while the intention was indeed announced, it remained light on detail. And rumours swirl of a 2014 electoral pact signed before Ouattara won his second term that would give the throne to the PDCI.

The other giant of the political stage, Guillaume Soro, was a former youth leader turned militia leader who helped propel Ouattara to power. Having been prime minister, he is now president of the National Assembly. With a firm hand on the militias still active in the north of the country, he will want to make his presence felt ahead of the 2020 poll. Expect the next 18 months to be a bumpy ride.

This article first appeared in the May 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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