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Why Ivory Coast's economic comeback could be brisk

Three economists interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor forecast Ivory Coast's annual economic growth to accelerate to an impressive 6 to 7 percent toward the end of 2011.

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But when the millennium turned, simmering anti-France, anti-immigrant, and antinortherner sentiment boiled into 10 years of civil conflicts. The timing was tragic: West Africa’s most promising economy spent Africa’s most prosperous decade in recorded history recording its dead.

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Now, though, economists say Ivory Coast can lead the emergence of West Africa – if it can hold a peace.

“If the country has political stability, [economic growth] could become quite rapid within a year and half, easy,” says a top Ivory Coast-watching economist with a major financial institution who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ivory Coast's riches

The nation still enjoys all the soil necessary to reign as an agricultural powerhouse in a time of pricey food. Its fields produce more cocoa – 40 percent of the global supply – than any other nation. Less famously, the country is also the world’s top exporter of cashews.

More important, Ivory Coast has oil, which is needed for the 10 million cars bought in China annually; grows abundant rubber – needed for those 40 million tires; and grows coffee, ripe for China’s 20 percent increase in annual coffee consumption.

“Oil, coffee, cocoa – it’s quite an attractive combination right now,” an analyst Anne Fruhauf with the London-based research group Eurasia says.

Then there’s Abidjan: Even after a decade of urban violence, the city of 6 million remains the de facto financial capital of the francophone tropics. Much of the city remains intact.

“The recovery in Ivory Coast will be far faster than it was in, say, Sierra Leone or Liberia, where war ruined the infrastructure,” says Ms. Mhango.

Recovery won't be easy, though

Yet the rot of 10 years spent in on-off war has left its mark. The nation’s cocoa trees are old, and many cocoa farmers haven’t planted new trees – which take five years to produce a pod – in a decade. The nation’s mighty power plants, which churned a prewar 1,200 megawatts, now produce just 850 megawatts thanks to poor upkeep, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Abidjan’s banks and stock market were looted throughout the civil war. It will take a staggering amount of bureaucracy to reopen them, Mhango says.

“Basically, 2011 will have been a lost year in terms of economic activity,” she says.

Security must come first

That, of course, is assuming Gbagbo's capture calms, not incites, his youth militias – still a bold assumption in a week when human rights researchers have reported hundreds of killings, particularly in the country’s volatile west.

“Even as Gbagbo leaves power, it will take a few weeks to bring a minimum of public order to Abidjan,” says Giles Yabi, West Africa director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Right now, you have no police, no gendarmerie. It will be extremely difficult to recover all the weapons that have been distributed to people who have been indoctrinated over the course of years with this nationalist rhetoric.”

“The situation in the West will probably remain precarious, not just for weeks, but for months,” he adds. “For the entire territory, especially the West, I’m afraid it will take more than six months to bring security. It might take the full year.”

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