COTE D'IVOIRE: Livelihoods affected in north by absence of banks, civil servants

Monday, July 2, 2007


Residents of northwest Cote d’Ivoire have enjoyed cheap motorbikes and TVs from neighbouring countries thanks to the absence of customs controls since rebels chased out the government in 2002.

On balance, however, the unrest has dealt a heavy blow to the region’s economy. Unprecedented violent crime, shuttered banks and the absence of state workers and their purchasing power mean residents are eager to see the government return.

Unfettered trade between the northwest regional capital of Odienne and neighbouring Mali and Guinea helped ease conditions when access to the commercial capital, Abidjan, was cut off early in the crisis, local vendors told IRIN. The flow of goods - largely impracticable in the past because of rigid border controls and high taxes - continues.

“People here will not be ready to give up this commerce,” Lancine Soumahoro of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Community Organisation for Rural Development (OCDR) told IRIN. Soumahoro and other development workers in the region said the freer trade has pointed to opportunities the region should pursue. “Local organisations should study this question and appeal to the government to keep these trade routes accessible.”

Odienne is about 40km from the Guinean border and 115km from Mali, compared to about 830km from Abidjan.

While trade with northern neighbours has lowered prices - a motorcycle costs about a third of what it does in Abidjan - the quality of many items in Abidjan is better, said shopkeepers.

Cisse Mamadou, regional president of Cote d'Ivoire's merchants’ federation, echoed other Odienne residents in acknowledging that freer trade with Mali and Guinea had its advantages, but he thought the best thing would be for the administration to return to the region. Mounting insecurity on the roads and the absence of government institutions have severely impeded the economy, he said.


Residents of Odienne told IRIN armed robberies on the roads had increased dramatically in recent months. Some said the increase coincided with talk of the disarmament of rebels and militia. "In the past we would hear of road hold-ups in this area perhaps once every two months or so; now it's four or five times a week," said one shopkeeper who did not want to give his name. Taxi drivers and vendors in Odienne said the assailants are masked, and armed with kalashnikovs.

“I’m for conditions in this country getting back to normal. It’s more reassuring when the authorities are in place," Cisse Mamadou said.

Analysts say the benefit of the government's return vastly outweighs any immediate advantages people might perceive from uncontrolled borders. "One of the main points of Cote d'Ivoire's reunification is the government's starting to put its social and financial institutions back in the north," said Timothy Armitage, sub-Saharan Africa economist with the London-based research group Global Insight. "This facilitates desperately needed aid and development. This in the long term has a stronger impact on people's lives than being able to get a cheaper motorcycle next door."

State workers sorely missed

Having government workers back in place will mean much-needed customers in the market. Awa Kone has sold clothing and other goods in Odienne since she was a child. “Since the civil servants left, we have been suffering tremendously,” she told IRIN on a recent Sunday, Odienne’s market day. Pointing to rows and rows of dresses and embroidered traditional fabric, she said, “Look - there’s my merchandise. No one’s around to buy it. I was sleeping just a while ago, even though today is market day. If you come around in the middle of market day and see me sleeping, you know that nothing’s working here. People have trouble just finding enough to eat."

Residents of Odienne and in surrounding villages told IRIN families eat once and sometimes two times a day, compared to three meals a day before the conflict.

Lamine Diabate, a father of five in Odienne, said the adults in his household struggle to find a little something each day for the children to eat at noon so they don’t have to wait for the only main meal in the evening. “If you visit 100 families in Odienne, you’ll have a tough time finding even one of them preparing a midday meal. The rebellion has cost us dearly,” he said.

Bank closures hit remittances

Civil servants are just starting to trickle back to the north, five years after the rebellion. For those who are back to work in Odienne, the absence of banks - closed since 2002 - means people must travel to the south for their salaries. Given the expense of the trip, they go only once every three or four months so their cash on hand is limited.

"We are forced to go to Abidjan for our pay," said Tuo Legnimin, a teacher in the nearby town of Madinani. "Just making the trip I lose 25 to 30 percent of my pay."

The lack of banks and money transfer centres has also blocked a principal source of revenue for Odienne residents - money from relatives in Abidjan or abroad. “Many families here depend on this money to pay for seeds, fertiliser, manual labour, and tools, as well as food,” OCDR’s Soumahoro said. Now the only means to transfer money is by a courier service in busses that make the trip two times a week, compared to six busses daily before the conflict.

Cashew price falls

Farmers have also taken a hit with a fall in the price of cashews - one of the region’s main cash crops. Cashew farmers told IRIN they are receiving as little as 40 CFA francs (8 US cents) per kilo - less than one-fifth of the selling price before the unrest.

Fabric vendor Kone said: “We count on the cashew crop in this region. When the cashew producers make some money, we merchants are happy. But now the prices are too low.”

The fall in cashew prices is due largely to sluggish demand on the world market and currency fluctuations, an industry source in Abidjan told IRIN. But fallout from the crisis has also contributed to the price drop.

Transport costs up

With arbitrary checkpoints, road banditry, and levies imposed in both the government and New Forces rebel zones, the cost of transporting a truckload of cashews from Odienne to Abidjan has at least tripled, merchants and development experts said. Truck rental and fees alone have gone from 460,000 CFA francs (US $940) to about 1.5 million CFA francs ($3,065), Odienne shopkeeper Cisse said.

He said hauliers have to pay the New Forces rebels 250,000 CFA francs ($512) just to set off with a truckload of cashews, then as much as another 100,000 CFA francs to government forces on the other side.

Rising transport costs mean the farmers lose out, villagers say. “We are selling our cashews at about 40 CFA francs a kilo, whereas before we could get 200 francs or more," said Kone Moussa in the village of Seguebe, 40km from Odienne. “We can’t change cashews into money, so we are forced to sell at these prices so we can eat.”

Source: IRIN