The Roots of the Côte d'Ivoire Crisis

This tropical West African nation, once the most prosperous in the region, is sliding even deeper into civil war.

At press time, after a weeklong street battle for Abidjan, the commercial capital of 5 million, there were reports of a fragile settlement. But the vicious violence could break out again at any time.

Mainstream Western press accounts included depressingly familiar explanations: the stolen presidential election in November, rising ethnic conflict.

The explanations were accurate, as far as they went.

Right now, Côte d’Ivoire’s 21.5 million people are living in a terrible human rights crisis, a catastrophe that is being downplayed partly because the uprisings in the Arab world are distracting attention. But several thousand people have already died here, and up to 1 million are refugees. The small United Nations peacekeeping force should be strengthened, and the world pressure to force the election’s loser, Laurent Gbagbo, to give way to Alassane Ouattara must continue. (Right now Gbagbo is still hanging on to power.) But a change in presidents will not end the danger—and the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire is representative of deeply rooted structural problems in many other African nations.

You have to come here, to one of the forest regions where Côte d’Ivoire’s million-plus cocoa farmers live, to find the fundamental reason that fighting is breaking out again: a profoundly unjust international economic order that pays the people who supply our primary products a pittance and leaves their nations chronically ill with unemployment and poverty, and with people who will fight one another over scarce resources. Here, too, you will learn that the giant American agribusiness corporations Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) are one part of the problem, even though their names do not appear in the grim dispatches about widespread killings and mass graves.

At first glance, this humid eastern zone, thick with tropical forest, may seem like a frontier, on the fringes of the modern world. In fact, Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans. Giant global industries are based on cocoa; any chocolate bar sold in the United States is likely to include products from here. What looks like forest turns out to be mixed plantations carved out by hard-working small growers using axes and hand tools, who have to wait patiently, living off their other subsistence crops like bananas and manioc, for three to five years until the cocoa trees bear their first golden pods.

At the moment, the world cocoa price in London is high, roughly 1,600 West African francs per kilo. But the small farmers here laugh bitterly at that figure; they are lucky if they get half of it for their sacks of beans. Cargill, ADM and a big Swiss concern, Barry Callebaut, are some of the biggest buyers; during the harvest season that ended last fall their Ivorian agents fanned out across the southern part of the country, offering much less than the world price. Then Gbagbo’s corrupt government took a big bite in “official” taxes. Finally, the small farmers paid bribes at the police roadblocks that regularly cut the highway down to the port at Abidjan.

Ivorian cocoa farmers are self-confident men and women, pioneers who take all the risks themselves. They are not like the frightened and deferential rural poor people you might find on some big landlord’s estate in Central America or Pakistan. Even though many of them have never actually eaten a bar of chocolate, they know roughly how much one costs in America and Europe, and they are indignant that they are paid so little for their years of hard work.

I visited a growers’ cooperative to learn more about how the whole setup is rigged. The co-op’s tidy office was next to a warehouse in which the sweetish odor of cocoa beans from the last harvest lingered. One of the group’s managing committee, Monsieur Henri, a patient, thoughtful man in his 50s, got up during our talk, walked over to a large metal cabinet, shuffled through well-organized files and produced a photocopy of a receipt from Cargill West Africa. The receipt, dated July 13, 2010, showed that the giant company had deducted 972 kilos from one of the co-op’s shipments because of alleged spoilage caused by “humidity.”

Monsieur Antoine, a shorter, more intense man with a striking resemblance to former New York Giants football star Tiki Barber, explained that Cargill and the other big companies have the sole right to assess quality, with no safeguard for the growers. “It is as if one of the teams in a soccer match were paying the referee,” he said.

I asked the committee members for a rough listing of their other grievances. They naturally want better prices, but also prices that fluctuate less. Just like primary producers all over the third world, they face a boom-and-bust cycle that makes it impossible to plan; and in bad years, when the international price skids because of factors out of their control, they may even work all season for nothing. They want financing at reasonable interest rates; apparently there is no land bank. They want technological help. When I explained that in America the government pays agricultural extension agents to help farmers, M. Antoine got so angry he jumped up and started pacing back and forth. “Here, we have to pay them to visit our farms!” he said.

The co-op members want Cargill, ADM and the other big buyers to deal directly with them and the other forty cocoa cooperatives in the region. Monsieur Robert, a wry, philosophical man with a gap-toothed smile, explained, “The companies want to keep us divided. They send their buying agents out into the bush to buy from individual farmers, to keep the price down. Maybe the small farmer is desperate; he has to pay school fees for his children, or for medicine. He will accept the first price Cargill gives him.” Their village has about a thousand residents. Their homes are rudimentary—made of mud or bamboo—not what you would expect for people who since the early 1900s have been the base of what has grown into a multibillion-dollar international industry. They have no health clinic, not even a pharmacy. They do have a school, but they had to build it themselves.

Neither here nor anywhere else in this southeastern region is there a Cargill Hospital or Cargill High School; there is no Archer Daniels Midland Sports Center. The farmers told me the Swiss company, Barry Callebaut, had made some local contributions. But M. Antoine added, “All they really did was spend a small part of our own money that they had already squeezed from us.”

Cargill and ADM are gigantic enterprises; millions of Ivorians know them, but probably not one American in 500 would recognize their names. Large companies like Microsoft and Apple appear regularly in the Western press, but the big agribusinesses are arguably more influential worldwide. The Cargill and ADM websites boast about how big and diversified they are. Cargill last year operated in sixty-six countries, with $107.9 billion in revenues and $2.6 billion in profits. Do the agribusinesses really have to wrest every single West African franc they can out of the small growers?

The chronic crisis in the cocoa industry has contributed to the present slide into civil war in two ways. First, and most significant, the persistent poverty and stagnation causes war. Second, the ethnic tensions, which arose in the cocoa industry itself, gave unscrupulous politicians the chance to make a bad situation even worse, for their personal gain.

Côte d’Ivoire over the past decades has done just about everything mainstream Western economists suggested—and it remains trapped in poverty. The country concentrated on growing and exporting products it was “good” at, cocoa and also coffee, instead of trying to industrialize. But the chronically low world prices for these products kept the country poor. With better prices—a little more like what protected and subsidized farmers in the United States and Western Europe earn—my friends and the millions of others in the cocoa-growing regions here could have started to consume more themselves, which in turn would have promoted local industries, p reduced unemployment and gradually raised the country’s standard of living.

Meanwhile, Côte d’Ivoire’s education system has continued to produce graduates who cannot find work in the stagnant economy. Richard Achi, my closest Ivorian friend, is a thoughtful 35-year-old social worker. He explains, “Every year, 40,000 young people sit the nationwide exams for government jobs. But there are only, say, 300 posts available. The rest of them have to find something else. Many of them survive by going out into the streets to do ‘marketing’—selling gadgets. Some of them get tremendously frustrated.”

Despite all the poverty and soured dreams, you witness a surprising paradox here; the country has unquestionably lurched into civil war, but the overwhelming majority do not want violence. Most Ivorians have strong and conflicting opinions about who won the presidential election, but it is only a small minority, from among the disaffected, underemployed, hopeless young men, who actually are prepared to kill. Achi says, “In some cases, political leaders have promised these youths they will eventually get government jobs in return for joining their armed militias.”

Ethnic tensions, in large part connected with the history of the cocoa industry, add to the violence. When the cocoa planting accelerated decades ago, there were not enough people in the southern rainforest region to do all the work. The president back then, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, encouraged people from farther north—some from Côte d’Ivoire, others from nearby countries—to migrate and help clear the land. For decades the various ethnicities got along fine, and the cocoa belt became a mosaic of peoples. Here in the far southeast, I met a number of farmers who originally came from neighboring Burkina Faso or Mali, and you will see churches right down the street from mosques. Back then, there was no talk of “ancient tribal animosities.”

Once the economic crisis started to bite in the late 1980s, certain dishonorable politicians saw an opportunity. They would not—or could not—confront the international economic structures of exploitation that were at the root of the problem, so they started to mobilize their own ethnic followings by scapegoating and name-calling others. Ivorians can usually distinguish one another’s background by appearance, dress and name, and friction started to grow in the mixed rural areas and in neighborhoods in Abidjan.

Just before the latest wave of violence started, you could see one painful sign of the ethnic tension at newsstands, located on street corners or in the open-air bus stations. In Côte d’Ivoire there are as many as a dozen daily newspapers, twelve- to sixteen-page tabloids that are nearly all ferociously partisan for one side or the other, and that shamelessly slant the news and resort to innuendo, sometimes with an ethnic subtext. The newsstands displayed these papers side by side. Every morning, as soon as the papers arrived from the capital, dozens of passers-by showed up to read the headlines. They stood in somber rows, showing no emotion. Throughout the day, new bystanders stopped by, intent but expressionless. Achi explains, “People are hiding who they support. They have to be careful if violence does break out. Most of them can’t afford to buy a paper. But those who can will conceal it, so they don’t give away their views.”

* * *

There is hope that worse fighting can be avoided. The regional grouping (the Economic Community of West African States), the African Union, the United Nations and the Western powers all applied economic pressure on Gbagbo’s government, which slowly but surely weakened his clan’s grip. A big part of the pressure was an embargo on the export of cocoa, which the elected government of Alassane Ouattara declared in mid-January, and which was meant to deprive the illegitimate regime of one of its major revenue sources.

The indispensable human rights organization Global Witness, based in London and Washington, DC, has pointed out (in “Hot Chocolate,” an important 2007 report) that cocoa has helped fund the violence over the past decade. Not only did the Gbagbo government heavily tax exports but the rebel forces in the north that support Ouattara also diverted cocoa money to buy weapons.

Cargill said promptly that it would respect the export boycott; ADM and Barry Callebaut took another six weeks to comply. So, mountains of cocoa beans—some $1.5 billion worth—are supposed to be sitting in Ivorian warehouses. But as the chaos increases, there is no way to be sure the big agribusinesses are respecting the embargo. The temptation to add to their profits by smuggling some of those stores out of the country must be great. Global Witness is therefore calling on the giant exporters to publish what they are paying and to guarantee they are observing the boycott.

When Westerners look at Africa at all, they have an unfortunate tendency to see things in black and white. In Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, the man who refused to recognize that he lost the internationally supervised election, unquestionably committed crimes. His army opened fire with heavy weapons, reportedly killing peaceful women demonstrators. He was allied with a youth militia led by a sinister little man named Charles Blé Goudé, which even before the battle for Abidjan allegedly stopped people at roadblocks, murdered them because of their ethnic background and then threw them into mass graves. Gbagbo and his clan are also suspected of massive theft.

The installation of the duly elected president, Ouattara, will not end the Ivorian crisis. Among Ouattara’s supporters are armed young rebels who have almost certainly committed massacres just as criminal as the killings by Gbagbo’s thugs. Even if a fragile peace is restored, if the unequal international economic structures do not change, the best possible prognosis is for an uneasy calm, disfigured by poverty, exploitation and persisting tension.

Côte d’Ivoire may seem away, and exotic. But every time those in the more prosperous parts of the world buy chocolate, we are exploiting the people who produce it. As long as we continue to tolerate this injustice, there will be no peace in Côte d’Ivoire.


Source: James North,

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