Chocolate now fuels war in West Africa?

Government and rebel forces in Ivory Coast used the cocoa trade to fund war, says a new report.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

First came "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone.

Rebels there partnered with former Liberian President Charles Taylor in the 1990s to receive weapons that they used to terrorize the population in exchange for the gems, which were sold globally to unwitting consumers.

Then came "blood timber" from Liberia.

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When the UN imposed sanctions on diamond exports from Liberia in 2001 Mr. Taylor – who is now standing trial for crimes against humanity in The Hague – plundered his country's forests to bankroll his brutal, cross-border wars.

Now another West African conflict is being funded by yet another commodity beloved in the West: chocolate.

Government and rebel leaders of the world's leading cocoa exporter, Ivory Coast, both siphoned off millions of dollars from the cocoa industry to finance the 2002-03 civil war that divided the once-stable and prosperous country in two, according to a recent report from Global Witness, a London-based group that focuses on resource-fueled corruption.

The government received more than $58 million from institutions and cocoa revenues, while the rebel New Forces pocketed about $30 million since 2004 in taxes and revenues, claims the report titled "Hot Chocolate: How Cocoa fuelled the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire."

Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer of the commodity, responsible for about 40 percent of global exports, which earned more than $1 billion in 2006.

Fighting here ended with the government of President Laurent Gbagbo in control of the south, where 90 percent of cocoa production takes place, and the rebel New Forces in charge of the north. The two sides signed a peace agreement in March that put rebel leader Guillaume Soro in the government as prime minister.

Global Witness not only contends the cocoa trade drove the war economy but that the industry still serves the interests of both the government and the rebels who have reaped political and economic benefits with impunity.

Yet loyalists of Mr. Gbagbo's government reacted to the findings with more bemusement than anger.

"Where did they think we would find the money to make war?" says Appia Kabran, a vice president in the pro-Gbagbo National Congress for Resistance of Democracy (CNRD).

He says a group that is attacked has to find the money everywhere it is.

The rebels, meanwhile, deny using cocoa profits to fund their armies.

In his dismissal of the findings, Siratigus Konate, a spokesman for Mr. Soro, points out that the rebels are not in charge of the economy in the cocoa-rich part of Ivory Coast.

"We have nothing to do with the money of the cocoa to finance war or anything like that," he says.

But over the past decade in West Africa, governments and rebels relied on the money earned from commodities to build their bankroll.

What separates diamonds and timber in Liberia from Ivorian cocoa is that the United Nations Security Council slapped sanctions on them in order to thwart those who profited from the sales and sustained violent regimes.

And it's not just cocoa that's used to fund Ivory Coast's conflict, says Alphonse Djedje Mady, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI), which ruled the country for nearly four decades until the 1999 military coup.

He says the government and the rebel New Forces used all of the country's resources, including coffee, cotton, and oil, for the war, adding that the sales of those commodities have never been transparent.

But Mr. Djedje Mady assigns particular blame for the opacity in the cocoa sector to the World Bank for pushing his country to drop price controls in favor of market liberalization, which eventually allowed the Gbagbo government to buy weapons.

His views are deeply partisan, yet the Global Witness report stresses there is a lack of transparency and accountability in the Ivorian cocoa sector.

It calls for the supply of Ivorian cocoa to Western manufacturers to be cleaned up in order to eliminate the possibility of conflict chocolate.

But those good intentions could backfire, warns Daniel Balint-Kurti, an Ivory Coast expert and analyst for the London-based Chatham House.

Cutting Ivorian cocoa out of the global market could harm as many as 3 million to 4 million people who work in the sector, says Mr. Balint-Kurti.

"It would just devastate millions of people's lives even further and lead to a phenomenal rise in chocolate and cocoa prices worldwide," he says.

Such a ban, which Balint-Kurti says is unlikely anytime soon, hardly fulfills Djedje Mady's goal of cocoa production benefiting producers and Ivorians.

He says he yearns for the time when the government, according to him, used its revenues to build roads, hospitals, and schools and to increase workers' salaries to help boost the lives of its citizens.

Today, Gbagbo's government gets the commodities, according to Djedje Mady, and then they disappear.

Yet Gbagbo's loyalists reject any assertions that the president has personally enriched himself through cocoa revenues.

While ordinary Ivorians and Global Witness subscribe to that opinion, Mr. Kabran dismisses it as propaganda.

Kabran even wonders why the idea of "blood" cocoa has been raised now that his country is seeking peace.

"Why don't they talk about the Iraqi petrol, which is more bloody than the Ivory Coast cocoa?"

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