West Africa Rising: Ivory Coast recovering from season of violence

Alassane Ouattara was sworn in as the country's president and cocoa exports critical to the nation's economy have resumed. But the damage from the recent power struggle that claimed 3,000 lives still lingers.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Alassane Ouattara gestures during his inauguration ceremony, in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, on May 21. Ouattara was inaugurated as Ivory Coast's president on Saturday, in a ceremony meant to mark the return of constitutional order and the end of a political standoff that sparked a conflict that killed hundreds earlier this year.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

It’s now been six weeks since Laurent Gbagbo, the erstwhile president of Ivory Coast, emerged in his undershirt from a bunker beneath the presidential palace in Abidjan, ending a four-month standoff that claimed 3,000 lives and ground the country’s economy to a halt.

With its ports reopened and a new leader in place, Ivory Coast – once West Africa’s most vibrant economy – has begun to get back on its feet. But the country has been deeply wounded by its season of violence, and the effects of the turmoil are lingering.

In a key political display on Saturday, Mr. Gbagbo’s successor, Alassane Ouattara, was formally sworn in as the country’s fifth president. Twenty heads of state attended the inauguration, as did United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“This ceremony today is not about the victory of one side over another, but about rediscovered brotherhood and new beginnings,” Mr. Ouattara told the gathered dignitaries in the capital Yamoussoukro, AP reported.

Meanwhile, nearly 200 miles away in the remote northern city of Korhogo, Gbagbo remained under house arrest in a villa guarded by UN peacekeepers and soldiers loyal to Ouattara. The former leader, who refused to relinquish his decade-long hold on the presidency after losing an election late last year, is being held for questioning over his role in the violence that gripped the country during the ensuing power struggle.

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It’s not yet clear whether Gbagbo will face any sort of trial in his home country, but it seems increasingly likely that he could face prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Earlier this month, Ouattara invited the ICC to look into the country’s post-election violence, saying that conducting such an investigation within Ivory Coast “would risk running into all kinds of difficulties.”

As the political dust begins to settle, life is slowly getting back to normal in Ivory Coast. Banks have reopened, schools are back in session, government salaries are being paid, and the ports are functioning again.

Critically, exports of cocoa – Ivory Coast’s most important cash crop – resumed earlier this month. About 400,000 tons of cocoa beans had accumulated in warehouses since January, when Ouattara announced a ban on all exports in an attempt to cut off funds to Gbagbo, who still controlled the ports. The resulting drop in supply caused cocoa to hit its highest price since 1979.

The first post-election shipment of cocoa sailed on May 8, Reuters reported, and prices on the international market have eased. But in many of the rural areas where cocoa beans are picked, life hasn’t yet returned to normal.

Aid groups say that many of the roughly one million Ivorians who fled their homes during the crisis are too scared to return. An estimated 160,000 refugees are still living in Liberia, according the UN refugee agency.

“I can't go back to my field,” one refugee in western Ivory Coast told Reuters last week. “I think someone has occupied it. The cocoa's just sitting there.”

“They killed a lot of people,” the farmer added. “I saw my neighbor shot dead with a Kalashnikov in front of me, but I ran away.”

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