W. Africa feels Ivory Coast woes

This week, West African leaders are meeting in Togo to try to end the six-week standoff.

Abdullahi sits in one of Abidjan's sprawling markets, idly fanning flies from a piece of warm, dirty beef. Normally, Abdullahi, who would only give his first name, does a brisk business. But for the past six weeks, since the attempted overthrow of Ivory Coast's government, meat prices have shot up and nobody's buying.

"There are no clients," he says, tapping his machete on the chopping block. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

Abdullahi is feeling the ripple effect of the standoff between the government and rebel forces. Rebels hold all of the north, and regional trade, such as the import of beef from Burkina Faso, has ground to a halt. Now, as prices shoot up and products become scarce in many parts, observers worry that economies throughout the region could be plunged into chaos.

"The tremors from the conflict have already shaken the fragile economies of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and of other countries further afield," says Ahmed Rajab, the editor of Africa Analysis in London. "These countries are petrified by the prospect of their citizens resident in Ivory Coast, numbering some 5 million, returning home.... This would mean the end of the millions of dollars in remittances, the rapid decline of the already weak economy, humanitarian crisis, and possible political upheavals."

Ivory Coast has long been the economic anchor in the region, providing jobs for locals and migrants alike, and fueling economic growth both here and in neighboring countries. Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer, helping make its economy the biggest in the subregion with a GDP of $12 billion – twice as big as neighboring Ghana and four times bigger than Mali and Burkina Faso.

Hopes were high for the region earlier this year. The Central Bank of West Africa States predicted in June that the GDP of the region would grow 4.5 percent. Ivory Coast's cocoa crop was expected to be bountiful, and there was optimism for more foreign investment.

But all this became threatened following an attempted coup on Sept. 19. Demobilized and disgruntled soldiers were first believed to be behind the uprising. But now a political party, the Patriotic Movement of the Ivory Coast (MPCI), has emerged with several demands, including the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo, a six-month transitional government, and new elections. Negotiators from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are meeting in Lomé, Togo, this week to try to reconcile the two sides.

Meanwhile, regional economies are feeling the pinch. Louis Speet Amedé, the economy editor at Fraternité Matin, a daily newspaper here, says the gravity of the situation increases daily.

"I'm not sure the other countries understand the urgency of the economic situation," he says.

He says that most surrounding countries rely on the Ivory Coast for goods such as soap, oil, manioc, and bananas. Rebels in control the northern half of the country have cut off shipments heading north. Goods now must be transported via a circuitous route through Accra, Ghana, adding 160 percent to their overhead cost. He says the crisis has also halted beef imports from Burkina Faso. The prices of beef here has jumped 20 to 30 percent.

"Truckloads of potatoes and onion are sitting in Mali rotting," Mr. Amedé says, noting that exports such as these are key to the Malian economy.

Ethnic tensions have come to the fore in Ivory Coast recently. Mr. Rajab says that these tensions may be exacerbated by the economic woes.

"When the Ivorian economy was strong, there were no problems of ethnicity," he says. Rajab says that after the death of President Félix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993, a political power vacuum opened.

"Politically insecure leaders then resorted to exploiting ethnicity to consolidate their power base," he says. The country is home to some 2.3 million Burkinabe and close to 800,000 Malians, many of whom work in the cocoa and agriculture industry. Amedé says that Malians living in Ivory Coast send home more than $750,000 each year, which helps prop up their fragile economy. But these remittances have slowed recently.

A young Ivorian woman, who fled to Bamako, Mali's capital, after rebels captured her town of Mbengué and recently returned to Abidjan, says the price of yams, peppers, eggplants, cooking oil, and other goods grown or manufactured in Ivory Coast have increased in Mali – sometimes doubling. She also noticed an anti-Ivorian sentiment on the streets.

"As soon as you arrive at the market, the first vendor informs the others that an Ivorian has come to the market," says the woman, who requested anonymity.

Compounding the wave of inflation is the shaky political climate in surrounding countries. Liberia is in the midst of an insurgency allegedly backed by neighboring Guinea; Mali is taking its first steps into democracy; and Nigeria is locked in a land dispute with Cameroon. The fragile social infrastructure in these countries could be broken with the return of 5 million foreigners living in the Ivory Coast.

Rajab says the region needs to be aware of insurgents in other countries taking advantage of the increasingly destabilized political climate.

"Past experience has shown that an event occurring in one country is often repeated in another," he says. "Therefore the possibility of copycat revolts in the subregion should not be discounted."

According to Rajab, the key for the region lies in revitalizing the economy.

"The panacea for the ills that are currently visiting Ivory Coast is a restructured economy and good governance," he says. "It is also important that citizenship issues are addressed at a subregional level within the context of ECOWAS."

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