Protest Spreads In Ivory Coast

Clashes follow announcement of economic austerity measures. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

THE Ivory Coast has been touted for decades as West Africa's economic showcase. However, in recent years the former French colony has had to struggle with a failing economy, a $14 billion debt, and a government accused of large-scale corruption.

Violent unrest is the latest addition to its problems. Heavily armed paramilitary forces dressed in riot gear hurled tear gas and stun grenades at high school students in several districts of Abidjan last Friday.

Clashes across the Ivory Coast between protesters and security forces have resulted in one fatality and many injuries.

Antigovernment unrest began in the country in late February over economic austerity measures that were finally announced three weeks ago.

Many citizens are also calling for an end to the single-party system led by President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny since 1960.

Friday's clashes followed a rally here on Thursday in support of the government of President Houphou"et-Boigny.

An estimated 10,000 people marched to the central business district, many carrying banners of the ruling Democratic Party of Ivory Coast and placards that said, ``No, to destabilization. Yes, to dialogue,'' and ``President, the people are behind you and the measures you have taken to improve our economy.'' People on the streets of Abidjan claimed the march was set up by the government and that they were forced to take part.

``The authorities stopped our bus, made everyone get off, handed them party flags, and told them they had to march in support of the government,'' said Ibrahim, an Ivorian who had been on his way to work.

``I got down, took the flag, sneaked out of the march, took a shortcut to work, and threw the flag in the garbage.''

A man watching the procession pointed to several men, dressed in Mauritanian garments, who were carrying the party flags and banners.

``You can see, a lot of them are Burkinabe and Mauritanians. What do they care what happens to us Ivorians and in our country? The people in this march aren't even real Ivorians. It's not right.''

On Saturday, the government announced that all schools and universities would be closed for the entire academic year.

Teachers in Abidjan say the closing of the schools is an attempt by the government to diffuse the potential of serious unrest.

Many here say the students will return to their homes in nearby villages, eliminating the major instigating element of antigovernment protests.

Students wrote slogans on roads which were hostile to the Ivorian president, such as ``Down with Houphou"et'' and ``Multiparty system'' - something residents have never seen.

Protesting students have been joined by workers dismayed by the announcement of the country's economic austerity plan.

Doctors protesting pay cuts went on strike for several days.

The Ivory Coast is the world's biggest cocoa producer and the fourth-largest producer of coffee. But the recent fall in commodities prices on the world market has ravaged the economy.

Since 1987, cocoa prices have fallen more than 50 percent to 14 and 15 year lows.

The West African nation has been struggling to repay its $14.2 billion foreign debt, which is among the world's highest per capita.

Western donor countries and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have pressured the Ivory Coast to reform the economy as a condition to receiving new foreign aid.

The government says it must save $456 million to secure aid from foreign creditors valued at $4.4 billion over the next two years.

Austerity measures announced in mid-March will cut public and private sector salaries by 5 to 40 percent.

The three-year reductions will be indexed so that top government officials will take the highest cuts, and workers earning less than $350 a month will be exempt from the cuts.

Private-sector workers will pay a ``solidarity tax'' of between 1 and 11 percent.

Economic experts in the region say if the government does not push through the austerity measures, it will not be able to pay salaries, and banks will shut down.

``As it is,'' said an economic expert, ``many of the banks are technically bankrupt already and are trying to hold on by getting aid from their foreign parent companies.''

And, he added, ``it will be a difficult situation for the Ivory Coast in the '90s.'' Yesterday banks in Abidjan were reported to have announced a 48-hour strike.

Laurent Gbagbo, a well-known opposition leader in Ivory Coast, says that despite the country's successful past, it ``is just another failed African country subject to nepotism and corruption shared with other one-party regimes.''

Marcel Ette is the secretary-general of the National Union of University Teachers, and one of 126 teachers arrested for defying the government's recent ban on public gatherings.

He says that ``only democracy allows justice and there cannot be justice in an authoritarian government.''

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