As Gbabgo seizes Central Bank assets in Ivory Coast, a look at the arcane institution
West Africa's Central Bank – perhaps its most important institution – may also be its least transparent. But in the midst of Ivory Coast's conflict, a tradition of secrecy may be an early casualty.
When an infrastructure-strapped backwater such as, say, Guinea-Bissau looks to borrow the tens of billions of West Africa CFA francs it needs to tar rural roads and string power lines, its functionaries fly here, to La Banque Central des États de l’Afrique d’Ouest: the central bank for eight West African nations (Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Niger). It's where government debt is sold in the form of treasury bills to whatever arcane financiers harbor a niche interest in owning a chunk of Africa's debt.Skip to next paragraph
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Built in the shape of a Baobab tree at the end of the colonial era, the bank is as vital to its region as it is anachronistic – it has the feel of a secret society for African High Finance.
Three decades after the International Monetary Fund (IMF), NGOs, foreign leaders, and African reformists turned "transparency" into a generational rallying call, La Banque continues to define the lack thereof. The bank – a place as pre-Internet as Tutankhamun's tomb – communicates very little to the world outside its walls, and even less to callers who identify themselves as press. No reporter I know has ever been inside. I imagine it must be vacant, dim, and filled with terra-cotta soldiers.
"We've never really known the ins and outs of how the bank is governed," Eurasia Group Africa Analyst Anne Fruhauf said in a phone interview. "It's always been extremely nontransparent."
Battle over Ivory Coast's finances
But the ice facade around La Banque Central may have formed its first crack, last Saturday, when its boss, West Africa's Burkina Faso-based monetary union, forced the bank's Governor Philippe-Henri Dacoury-Tabley from office.
Mr. Dacoruy-Tabley's resignation came weeks after he balked at orders to stop his longtime colleague, Ivory Coast's renegade President Laurent Gbagbo, from accessing Ivory Coast's Central Bank account. Mr. Gbagbo, who is is now recognized worldwide as the clear loser of his country's Nov. 28 election, today responded to the news by surrounding the banks Abidjan branches with armored trucks and sending in soldier to loot the place.