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Côte d’Ivoire: Catching up from Conflict



Côte d’Ivoire: Catching up from Conflict

President of Côte d’Ivoire Alassane Ouattara's government has been strengthening its legal and institutional abilities in the fight against corruption. (Photo: EPA/LEGNAN KOULA)

News reports this month of a mutiny among the Ivory Coast military highlight the challenges of winning the peace there as other post-conflict countries, in spite of an impressive record of delivery since 2010 under President Alassane Dramane Ouattara. GREG MILLS went to Abidjan to interview “ADO”, as he is commonly known, to find out how he has turned the West African nation around.

In 1983 President Felix Houphouët-Boigny declared his birthplace of Yamoussoukro, 250km “up-country” from Abidjan, to be Côte d’Ivoire’s administrative capital. Strung out across wide boulevards lined with tall street lamps, more Paris than provincial, there was a new parliament, convention centre and an international airport capable of taking Concorde. The centrepiece was the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, named in gratitude for the country’s stability since independence, built on a coconut plantation donated by the president himself. With its 158m- high, 100m dome and expansive plaza inspired by the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica, it was completed in 1990, involving 1,500 workers from 36 companies working a 24/7 schedule over three years. With 7,400m2 of stain-glass windows – including one depicting Palm Sunday featuring Houphouët, the architects and contractors – and seven hectares of marble, the basilica is listed as the largest church in the world, capable of hosting 200,000 worshippers inside and out.

Photo: Basilica of Our Lady of Peace dwarfs Yamoussoukro (Greg Mills)

Photo: Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (jbdodane via Flickr)

The trickle of pilgrims and visitors to the “Bush Basilica” in Yamoussoukro suggests that Houphouët’s dramatic gesture was misplaced in a country where just one-third of the population is Christian. Such grand gestures were much less valuable to the young country than the investment in a generation of skills during Houphouët’s 33 years in office.

To the contrary, construction of the new capital signalled the start of quarter-century of financial and political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire.

Independence from France was achieved in August 1960, when Houphouët, the nurse who became one of the country’s wealthiest farmers, assumed the presidency. He inherited an economy geared towards the export of cocoa, coffee and palm oil, contributing 40 per cent of the entire region’s exports, and dominated by a sizeable population of French “settlers”, numbering even in the 1970s not less than 50 000 out of a local population, then, of just seven million.

The president promoted agriculture, stimulating production, where immigrant mainly Burkinabé smallholders, working on farmland owned by urbanised Ivoirians, cultivated coffee and cocoa, some rubber and whose export proceeds funded the cities. As many as one-quarter of Ivorians today are foreigners. On the Boulevard Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to Abidjan’s airport there is a crossroads, Le Carrefour du Kumasi, named after the Ghanaian city. The Abidjan suburb of Treichville, around the Port, is dominated by Sengalese. And there has been a more recent influx of migrants from the Sahel.

For two decades Côte d’Ivoire maintained an annual rate of economic growth of over 10%. Agriculture output increased threefold over this period. By the 1970s, the country had become the world’s third-largest coffee producer (behind Brazil and Colombia) and the leading producer of cocoa, even today accounting for 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa crop. It was also Africa’s largest producer of pineapples and palm oil, second overall only to Nigeria’s economy in West Africa. GDP doubled in the 1960s as did literacy, while virtually every town was reached by roads and electricity. Not for nothing was Abidjan labelled the “Paris of West Africa”, its Plateau district a cosmopolitan hub of commerce, people and nightlife.

But these manifestations of development flattered to deceive, and the collapse was sudden.

A decline in the price of cocoa coupled with the burden of excessive state spending caused growth to crash in 1979, a fall from which it did not recover until the mid-1990s, and then only temporarily. In the process per capita income fell from $1,230 in 1979 to under $600 by 1995, exacerbated by a threefold increase in population from four million at independence to 12 million by 1990. A decline in the terms of external trade was worsened by the overvaluation of the regional CFA Franc, a situation which favoured the spending habits of the elite.

When Houphouët stayed beyond his anticipated exit on the 25th independence anniversary, business-people adopted a wait-and-see attitude rather than investing in the economy. And a culture of corruption had begun to bite. As Houphouët’s rule faltered, weaknesses of administration became clearer. The private stabilisation fund for cocoa established with liberalisation in the 1990s was empty, raided with impunity by the administrative elite. Political crisis and change paralleled economic stress. GDP tumbled as the country’s external debt trebled. Between 1985 and 2008 the share of the population estimated to be living below the poverty line increased fivefold to 49%.

In the process, Côte d’Ivoire exhibited five trends which typically serve as a harbinger of policy radicalism, socio-economic upset and even state failure: Economic crisis, usually signalled by an absence of growth; widespread corruption, including a focus on redistribution rather than wealth creation; exclusion of a large chunk of the population from opportunity on the basis of social (education or gender) or racial (including ethnic and religious aspects) division; large-scale migration including immigration; and the presence of the right (or wrong) leader at the right time.

The situation worsened with the chaos that followed Houphouët’s death at 88 years of age in 1993. Lacking the old man’s national appeal, those who followed found it all too easy to play the identity card – xenophobia – spurred on by a combination of economic difficulties and the widespread immigration encouraged during the best of earlier times.

President Ouattara’s political career illustrates the complexity – and temptation – of ethnic politics in the region. With a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, the president worked for the IMF before and after his stint as prime minister, and as governor of the Central Bank of West African States in Dakar.

During the crisis of the 1980s,” he recalls, “I was called from the Central Bank to help stabilise the situation. Although I wanted to go back to the bank, in November 1990 I was appointed as prime minister. The results of the measures we carried out were quite good. The deficit was curbed and governance improved. The president had been in power for 30 years and governance problems were quite massive.

Then the president died, and the economic problems,” he notes, “moved into a second political phase of problems. The new president [Henri Konan-Bédié] tried to reverse all of the reforms, including the traditional openness of our society and our economy. He even,” he smiles, “tried to declare me ineligible for the presidency.”

Konan-Bédié was forced out in late 1999 by a military coup led by General Robert Guéï. Then Laurent Gbagbo came to power in October 2000 following violence-marred elections. Ouattara was disqualified from running due to his alleged Burkinabé nationality. Protests culminated in a September 2002 armed uprising, when troops mutinied, launching attacks in several cities, and France deployed soldiers to stop the rebel advance.

When Guéï was killed, Ouattara took refuge in the French embassy, and Gbagbo returned home to negotiate an accord resulting in a government of national unity. Amidst ongoing violence, Gbagbo’s original mandate as president, which expired on October 30, 2005, was extended until elections were finally held in October-November 2010.

Despite a high voter turn out of over 80% and a clear victory for Ouattara, Gbagbo simply would not accept the results. His pursuit instead of a course of destructive and violent action was, in the words of one diplomat based there at the time, “the crystallisation of Côte d’Ivoire‘s economic and political collapse; while the international intervention to ensure the installation of a democratically elected leader was clear effort to put the country back onto a path of economic and political liberal growth. It worked.” Gbagbo was eventually evicted from his hide-out in Abidjan in April 2011 by UN forces, in November 2011 becoming the first head of state to be extradited to The Hague by the International Criminal Court.

Photo: Aerial View of Abidjan, Ivory Coast (UN Photo)

When I was prime minister life expectancy,” reflects Ouattara, “was nearly 60 years. By 2010, it had fallen to just 50. The situation was terrible. There was complete disorder in the army. The judicial system was non-operational. More than 3,000 people had been killed.

So our first objective was to bring security to the country. Once this was achieved we had to get back to the fundamentals of good economic policy. This included reinstating a democratic system which had suffered under the ethnic politics of Gbagbo,” he notes, “where just 5% of the population controlled the army and police. But we learnt from the American experience in Iraq. We did not fire the entire army, but engaged in an extensive process of DDR [Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration].

The reintegration of the militia was made easier,” Ouattara acknowledges in an easy-going manner, “by the economic growth we enjoyed. This was part due to our reforms, but was helped by better terms of trade. The price of cocoa saw farmers earn twice the revenues between 2012 and 2016, and their production is also up by 50%.”

The average real growth rate reached 8.5% annually between 2012 and 2015, one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. It reflects rising investment across sectors, including government. Whereas just five per cent, the president reminds, of the budget was earmarked for investment in 2012, four years later this had risen to over 30%.

Côte d’Ivoire has become Africa’s catch-up country.

At the same time, we have put emphasis on infrastructure, especially energy, which has nearly doubled to 2 000 megawatts over this period, 2012-2016”, says the president.

He admits that things on the “social front” have not gone as well “as the economy and security fronts”. One tactic he adopted was to set up Presidential Councils – on education, higher education, electricity, water, and infrastructure. “Once we get the full picture from them, then I take a decision on the way forward.”

Another “weak point” he admits is in the judicial system, and reconciliation, “which has not been done as well as I would have liked”.

The government has drafted a $50-billion, five-year National Development Plan. With its 1,400 projects, say critics, the plan is too unfocused, reflecting a failure, when “30 or 40 would be more appropriate”. This reflects the challenge of building a competitive economy, in so doing ‘upgrading the software’, says Eric Kacou, a locally-based, Harvard-trained economist, “to create a vibrant private sector, and not just support a class of traders and middle-men”. As the saga of the economic collapse in Houphouët’s declining years illustrates, there are clear limits (and costs) to government, macro-led growth. Prosperity will rather rely on micro-economic policy specifics and not simply capturing the margin from trade or big projects, or living off government quotas and contracts. The success of the transition from public to private sector growth will determine the country’s future prosperity, economically and politically. This transformation will require, in Côte d’Ivoire as elsewhere, to incentivise performance and employment in economic activity, not simply reward proximity to power.

The president agrees. “Ivorians have not been business minded in the past. The country was living off cocoa, through farming and through intermediation in logistics. Most industries belonged to the French, and many of these were old to Lebanese after the French were chased away by Gbagbo in 2004.” While there are incentives for local firms in tendering, “I do not believe in institutionalising advantages to favour the locals. This type of scheme is against me as a liberal. Such liberal policies have worked well for Côte d’Ivoire for decades, and will continue to do so.”

Photo: President Ouattara with Greg Mills.

What lessons from his experience can be drawn for other African leaders?

The first is that you really have to work hard. I am sorry to say that in many countries the leaders are only there to try and please people. Instead, they need to get to the details, and manage the country like an enterprise.

Second, success depends on having an open process, which requires determining what people want, and adjusting policies to suit.

Third, it is very important for African economies to strengthen their systems of freedom, including the institutions that go with this, and freedom of expression, which go with innovation and development. This requires a strong but disciplined opposition, which is part of this process.”

Success, fourth, and finally, he reflects, “requires addressing the future. Our big challenge is how to ensure the youth does not get discouraged. We have created two million jobs in the last few years, and we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Africa, which is one reason why we attract so many workers from elsewhere in the region. But I am not satisfied with this. If we are to prevent major disturbances in the future we have to address their concerns of the youth. This means addressing education and focusing on technical education and not just classical education.”

I think I was very lucky, I always tell my ministers that the fact I worked for an organisation like the IMF has helped me, where quality and competence is important and performance can be measured. In my second stint there, between 1994 and 1999, I focused on Latin American and Asian countries, particularly in managing problems of debt and inflation management, but also in understanding the growth record especially in Asia.

Being in the US as a student and later too in my career, also helped to shape my views on liberal policy and democracy. These two attributes are essential for Africans. The era of the old socialist ideals where you are spending money you don’t have, and you cannot find work, is gone. And if you are to get yourself out of a difficult situation,” he pauses, “I have learned you have to do this for yourself.” DM

Dr Greg Mills, who heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, interviewed President Ouattara in Abidjan in December 2016 for the forthcoming book Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success (Tafelberg).

Main photo: Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara attends a welcome ceremony for the 2016 Olympic athletes, at the Presidential Palace in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 05 September 2016. EPA/LEGNAN KOULA


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