Laurent Gbagbo appears to be on the lookout for money to pay two constituencies — the military and civil servants — vital to his hold on power.
The global squeeze on the finances of Laurent Gbagbo, the strongman who refuses to cede power after losing a presidential election here, has included sanctions, asset freezes and financial interdictions, all in the hope of dislodging him without military force.
But Mr. Gbagbo, a political survivor accustomed to staying in office well beyond his legal term, has a financial plan of his own: pushing the banks and companies around him to continue supplying him with cash, diplomats and local businessmen say.
Mr. Gbagbo increasingly appears to be on the lookout for money to pay two constituencies — the military and civil servants — vital to his hold on power.
Tapping cocoa industry
So last week, his officials met representatives from the country's cocoa industry to press them to pay advances on export taxes, according to a cocoa businessman in Abidjan. Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer, and the crop is worth about $1.6 billion to the government.
“He's looking for $90 million, from here to the end of the month,” the cocoa businessman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because more than 200 people had been killed since the election and attacks on civilians are frequent.
Diplomats and businessmen here say Mr. Gbagbo's government is also pressing banks to continue lending to him, in some cases with the threat of force. “He's been strong-arming all the local banks to keep credit lines open,” said a Western diplomat here who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Many banks have continued working with the government, and a senior banker in Abidjan denied that force had been used to intimidate them. But he agreed that the state was now “chasing all over the place” for cash, repeatedly urging banks to keep credit flowing.
“It's tight,” he said. And “given the sanctions pressure here and there, it's tighter.”
The pressure is putting businessmen in an unusually difficult spot. Alassane Ouattara, the former Prime Minister who has been recognised by the United Nations, the African Union and governments around the world as the legitimate president, has already started putting together a list of treasury, banking and cocoa officials who support Mr. Gbagbo, threatening to prosecute them and impose sanctions once he assumes office.
“Some of the bankers are out of the country because they don't want to deal with this situation,” said a leading Ivorian business official. He said at least one cocoa businessman was “being visited every day” with demands to “pay cash advances on cocoa exports,” while bankers were under pressure to buy government bonds — and to pay for them with cash.
“Lately, banks have been refusing,” the business leader said. Regional leaders hope the financial pressures will allow them to avoid taking a step they are planning but also dreading: sending troops to remove Mr. Gbagbo.
But their strategy has been undermined by Mr. Gbagbo's continued access to the country's accounts at the regional central bank, which were supposed to have been cut off. Last month, West African finance ministers recognised Mr. Ouattara as the legitimate president and ordered the bank not to release funds to Mr. Gbagbo's government.
But state anti-riot troops are posted outside the bank's local branch, and Mr. Gbagbo continues to withdraw money from it, according to the senior banker and Mr. Ouattara's officials.
The bank “is not respecting the decision,” said Toikeusse Mabri, Mr. Ouattara's Planning and Development Minister. “We think they are complicitous with Gbagbo.”
In public, Mr. Gbagbo's officials appear serene about his ability to weather the financial isolation. Asked if Mr. Gbagbo risked economic suffocation, his Foreign Minister, Alcide Djédjé, said: “Never. No, not at all.”
EU, World Bank moves
But the costs seem to be rising. Ivory Coast failed to make a $29 million interest payment on government bonds at the end of last month. On January 14, the European Union approved a new round of sanctions against Mr. Gbagbo, 84 of his supporters and 11 economic entities tied to his government, including the ports, news agencies reported, adding to similar measures by the United States.
The World Bank has also stopped disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars to the country, saying it wants to send “the message to President Gbagbo that he lost the elections and he needs to step down.”
As long as Mr. Gbagbo can pay his security forces and a core group of civil servants — a tab of $50 million to $100 million a month, depending on the accounting — he is relatively secure in the short term, diplomats and business officials here say.
No one here, outside perhaps Mr. Gbagbo's inner circle, can say for certain how long he can meet the payroll. He was able to pay government salaries in December, diplomats and businessmen say, but barely. Mr. Ouattara's camp claims the government paid less than half of the wages that were due in December.
“We were paid in December, but we weren't paid right away,” said a teacher here. “I believe that in January it will be very difficult, very difficult. Really, I'm frightened. Everyone here is scared.”
Mr. Gbagbo has a proven ability to remain in the presidential palace. His term expired five years ago, long before the recent election that was “stolen” by him, as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, put it.
Even with the financial pressures he faces, Mr. Gbagbo can look to resources like oil and cocoa. Ivory Coast remains the second biggest economy in the region, after Nigeria.
But the economy here, once so vibrant, continues to wind down, and the impact of the election crisis seems evident. Businesses are laying off workers, food prices have doubled and tripled in some local markets, foreign companies are scaling back and activity has fallen at one of the continent's major ports.
The cocoa harvest has been exceptional this season, and some cocoa exporters, particularly the smaller ones, are complying with demands to pay taxes in cash. But others are resisting, said the leading Ivorian business official.
Oil exports, worth potentially even more than cocoa at about $2 billion, according to diplomats here, are perhaps an even more readily accessible source of cash because the main player, Petroci, is state controlled.
“Today, Gbagbo has some extra cash,” the leading business official said. “He's not paying debt,” he noted. “Many things like that, he's not paying. If he focusses on paying the military, the police, the gendarmerie and important civil servants, he can hang on.” (Loucoumane Coulibaly contributed reporting.) — © New York Times News Service