The rise of the female Ivorian blogger

According to my Feedly RSS reader, I follow 279 bloggers in the ‘Ivory Coast’ category, and it’s a number I’m regularly adding to (of course many accounts are inactive). Sadly there isn’t an online directory of the Ivorian blogosphere, though the Association of Bloggers in Cote d’Ivoire promises something very soon. But I was struck recently by something quite interesting – the vast majority of regular Ivorian bloggers are women. Looking through my feed of latest articles from a little over the last 24 hours I have blog posts from Amenan, Prisca, Manuella, Mariam, Guiliane, Vanessa, Yehni, Aida, Edith, and Orphelie.

Just five years ago this was far from the case, with just pioneers Edith Brou and Ghislaine Atta the notable names on the scene, though essentially in what might stereotypically be considered male dominated areas (respectively technology, and science). Instead in the early days we had a leading brand of Ivorian male bloggers, with a heavy focus on politics and the Ivorian crisis. It’s refreshing that things have changed. Before there were specific efforts to get women to blog. Now perhaps any positive discrimination needs to go the other way.

To some extent, the stereotypes follow through; women bloggers are often covering things like fashion, beauty, health, literature, culture, society, and leisure activities. Tech, business and politics are key topics chez les hommes. For my part, I’m far more interested in the former topics, and almost all my favourite Ivorian bloggers are women, who also seem to have more staying power too.

I would suspect that if you looked at literature classes and computer classes at university in Abidjan you’d see expected gender divides. This morning I saw photos of the participants in a new exciting intiative called ‘ALLDEVCAMP 2015′ by local web organisation Akendewa to train young people in coding for several months. All those taking part are men.

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Electricity hikes

The announcement of an electricity bill increase last week by President Ouattara during a visit to Odienne in the far north-west quickly provoked a strong reaction on social media. Beyond the fact that no-one likes to see their utility bills go up, April saw large-scale disruption to the electricity supply in Abidjan as repairs were carried out, leaving bill-payers already frustrated.

Ivorian blogger Yehni Djidji gives a very articulate account of the arguments against the price hike on her blog, namely that:

– the service offered by the national electricity company, CIE, is subject to frequent interruptions i.e. sub-standard

– that the bills already include extra charges like payment for public tv (poor quality) and waste collection (which doesn’t happen in her area)

– that it will bring further suffering on poor households

– that a price hike represents a failure of government, which can no longer be excused by the conflict or the previous poor management of the former regime

– that it shows the government is out of touch

– that Cote d’Ivoire sells electricity to neighbouring countries where customers pay less for their electricity

In response to these complaints, the government already seems to have pushed back the introduction of these charges from 1 June till 1 July. Of course no-one knows how much the prices will rise by, which suggests that the government is testing the water on the subject, which should encourage those wanting to protest the hikes.

There are nevertheless some arguments on the government side (made here), which are worth reiterating, as few people seem to be making them elsewhere.

– 40% of (the poorest) subscribers won’t be touched by the rise (around 522,000) so those least able to pay won’t be hurt by this

– the government wants to avoid Cote d’Ivoire falling into the same trap as other countries who haven’t had the political courage to reduce energy subsidies and so have derailed their economies

– that Cote d’Ivoire has one of the best electricity supplies in Africa, with only 40h lost to cuts a year, less than South Africa (42h). That for coverage it is number 3 in Africa after South Africa and Morocco.

– that considerable investment is taking place in the electricity sector, taking production from 1100 MW in 2011, to 1900 MW.

(All figures above not verified)

The fact that this is being announced just months before the election indicates that i) the government is not afraid of making unpopular decisions, ii) it sees the election as a foregone conclusion.

The Africa Progress Report due to be launched on 5 June argues that power is crucial for jobs, growth and reducing poverty. As someone who is unlikely to have an issue paying my future electricity bill in Abidjan, I realise I cannot speak for the majority of Ivorians for whom this will eat into already low incomes. But if we really want Cote d’Ivoire to become an emerging economy, it will need:

– pro poor policies

– a stable electricity supply to create conditions for industrialisation

There has been considerable investment in electricity, which – provided it has been done wisely and without mismanagement or incompetence – will continue to support a power supply that is far above what most Africans on the continent experience. I am writing from Freetown where only those with generators can really count on having power (and almost no-one in Abidjan has a generator, which speaks volumes). Improvements have costs, that can either by financed by debts, or by the end users. The gamble is that we pay a little more and benefit from a world class power network.


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A busy month in Abidjan

With hindsight, it was a bad move leaving Abidjan this morning, just hours before the latest TedX event. Then again, it seems to be generally a busy time in Abidjan so it’s hard not to miss things. In the week I caught the Journees NTIC (‘new information communication technology days’) at Hotel Ivoire (I gave a couple of presentations on photography and multimedia), I had a look around new expositions at the Cecile Fakhoury and Rotonde galeries, I attended the carnavelsque start to the Afrik UrbanArts festival at the Institut Goethe, caught Yehni Djidji’s Livresque event (literature discussion afternoon), and attended the Connectic event (discussion with Senegalese startups).

A longer list could be made of the activities I missed in the week including Franck Baye’s fashion event (Back Stage), attending the cinema (including the newly opened Majestic 3D Cinema at Hotel Ivoire), a colloque on the church and political elections, slavery memorial events organised by the Association for Antillais and Guyanais, new works at the Fondation Donwahi and Basquiat galleries, a book dedication ceremony, and concerts by Manu Gallo at Parker Place. In short there’s a lot going on, and as a new father living away from my family for most of the time, I had to balance events, friends and spending time at home.

With the TedX and the subsequent AfDB annual general meetings, there’s a certain buzz at the moment in Abidjan. The newly refurbished AfDB headquarters looks like it’ll be quite special once open. Note everyone is upbeat – water and electricity was cut several times in the week in my area, electricity bills are going up, traffic can be bad, and there’s still a litter problem, but enough seems to be going right to make it an exciting place to be.

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What’s it like to live in Abidjan?

Around West Africa it’s common to meet expat aid workers who’ve spent time in Abidjan. I’m biased, but in all honesty, I’ve never heard anything negative and many people talk about the experience as one of the highlights of their career so far, which is good news if you’re thinking of moving there. Here are the first things that regularly roll off people’s lips:
– Great food
– Fantastic night-life
– Cool beaches
– Ivorians are really fun

The latter is particularly striking. Although many West Africans are considered welcoming – Ghanaians, Burkinabe, Senegalese (though opinions vary), Sierra Leoneans – I do notice that foreigners tend to be pointing to a particularly good relationship they’ve had with Ivorian people.

It’s hard for me to pin down what that might be, but let me have a stab. I was recently lunching with a friend from Cameroon in Dakar and he said (to paraphrase very poorly) that he felt Ivorians were notable for being at ease with modernity, and not being torn between a traditional and modern side. My own experiences as a westerner in Abidjan is that I found far less barriers between myself and nationals, something that can be a wide gulf in other countries. Intercultural relationships are common.

There may be many reasons for this. A common language for one. A development project that bore fruit in the 60s and 70s rather than being a new phenomenon. Perhaps the large French population in the two decades after independence. Relatively high levels of education. A large Ivorian middle class.

Walking down the street is not as traumatic an experience as elsewhere – in my experience you’re rarely asked for money, and rarely singled out with shouts akin to ‘moundele’ (Congo) or ‘mazungu’ (Kenya). You’re not made to feel as odd and freakish as elsewhere.

To use an Ivorian phrase, the electric current flows.

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Faut laisser ca

This week Ivory Coast’s minister for sports and youth, Alain Lobognon, was pushed to resign as the scandal around the unpaid bonuses for the country’s African Cup of Nations team continues to cause casualties. I have no idea whether the minister is guilty or innocent, but between the treasury, the ministry and the football federation, it’s clear that something has gone wrong. I hope we eventually get the full story on this, and work out where the missing money went. Sadly, as a long time watcher of Ivorian affairs, I’m not 100% sure we’ll ever get the full story (cf stadium stampede). From what I can tell, the football federation has had limited involvement in the affair, though many people think it’s much in need of reform.

My cynical self though has been contemplating the wider question this week about whether Ivorian elites ever really punish themselves, especially when it comes to corruption. You can’t help feeling that misusing public funds is not really considered a great crime, and that you’d probably on the right track to think that almost everyone is either in on it, or protecting those who are. The only other minister who lost his job due to allegations of corruption in the Ouattara regime is apparently thriving in the private sector, and a leading member of the RDR party. On the PDCI side, a leading member of that party lost his job in a corruption scandal in the 1990s when EU funds meant for a hospital got diverted. In all the cases that I know of with the exception of the cocoa trials, the very worst that can happen is that you lose your job, no matter how many millions disappeared. Any talk of long-term disgrace or (dare I say it) prison, doesn’t seem on the agenda. The latter is a place for people who steal mobile phones. Sometimes I even wonder if the real sense of outrage people feel about sending politicians to The Hague, is not because it’s one sided, but because elites actually face the real prospect of imprisonment for their actions.

I’ve known the departing minister for a while, and as I said above, I’ve no idea if he’s guilty or not. On the positive side, he was the first major Ivorian figure that I know of to set-up an account on Twitter, and I suspect he played a strong role in encouraging his mentor Guillaume Soro to join as well. Both of them communicate directly with Ivorians through their posts, in a way that I think deserves applause and I haven’t seen well done by anyone else. As in the past, I suspect his future prospects depend on whether Soro rises or falls in 2020.


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The Moroccan takeover

For Ivory Coast watchers it’s been a busy week in the international media, what with Chelsea and Drogba securing the Premier League title, an Ivorian boy caught being smuggled into Spain in a suitcase, the continued rumblings over the disappeared football bonuses, this amazing set of photos of former Gbagbo militia, a ban on skin whitening cream, strong Amnesty International criticism of opposition arrests, and this Reuters Special feature on the continuing influence of the ex-Com Zone commanders.

I wanted to briefly note another article though which appeared in Le Monde (in French), highlighting the growing influence of Morocco in Ivorian affairs. Ivorian politics is a head-scratching shadow-game sometimes. We used to be told that if Ouattara got into power, the country would be sold down the river to France. Instead, we seem to have moved from a regime that was in talk anti-French, but allowed the French to control and keep the commanding heights of the economy, while under Ouattara, we’ve seen the Chinese get a huge number of contracts (Soubre dam, Bassam road, Bonoua water plant, electricity infrastructure), and the increasing influence of the Moroccans. The French seem to be floundering, and it’s hard to think of a major project they’ve been given.

For the Moroccans, relations seem to be excellent, and Ivory Coast is seen as a logical francophone base for their ambitions to be a bridge between the West and sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a growing presence in the banking sector, following the takeover of Credit Agricole’s African assets, and the Ivorian government is ceding further ownership over the SIB (bank) to the Moroccans. They are due to lead the Cocody bay water front scheme (part of which saw the destruction of the Oil Libya petrol station – perhaps a symbolic move for one former north African regime with desires to increase influence south of the desert). The Moroccans had a heavy presence at the recent massive agriculture fair, while they are also part of an American financed project to build three new hydroelectric dams.

It’s been an interesting development, and these sorts of partnerships receive far less attention than either western investments or scare stories about a Chinese take-over.

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Deja vu: And if the cocoa price dropped?

A thumb sketch of Ivorian economic history from independence goes like this: a major cocoa farmer becomes president, encourages the development of the sector by opening up new land and encouraging farmers to cut down the forests to become productive. The cocoa sector becomes the biggest in the world by the end of the 1970s, the state creams off a good portion, and invests in great infrastructure. The country is peaceful and prosperous (hailed as the Ivorian economic miracle).

But from 1980 things change drastically as the price of cocoa drops, the country goes into a down-ward spiral, structural adjustment, political protest, and finally war. The country seemed to have great leadership in the first decade, but then the same people were in charge in the 80s, so was it more about commodity prices than vision?

An interesting new report from the World Bank asks if Cote d’Ivoire is experiencing its second economic miracle. What do we see? High cocoa prices (see 10 year price data here), high production, a healthy agricultural sector (especially cocoa, cotton and cashew), and infrastructure investments. And so, it would seem pertinent to ask if the country is again too vulnerable to cocoa price changes. One may recall that when Gbagbo took power, farmers were getting paid as little as 150 cfa at the farmgate – due in part to a botched liberalisation for which Gbagbo must bear some blame (though it started before he came to power). Gbagboists could well argue that if the cocoa price for Gbagbo had been what it is for Ouattara, maybe he would have got off to a better start. Discuss.

I don’t have comparative figures to hand, but there’s no doubting the importance of cocoa. It’s estimated at 22% of the national economy and 50% of export revenue, employing 800,000 farmers, and bringing in more than two billion euros annually. The country has been in the news for the last few days for a new target of attempting to transform 50% of cocoa beans to a semi-finished level of production by 2020. There were also headlines about producing chocolate locally.

[I’ve ranted against journalism on these things before on this blog. The 50% transformation target dates from the 1990s, and most recently it was fixed at 2015. I don’t mind dates being shifted – we all need to re-evaluate – but what I find worrying is that there seems to be a general amnesia about the original target date’s existence. When the date is changed, instead of being reported on as the moving of goalposts, it’s reported on as if the government has set itself a new objective, and that that is positive and inspirational. Chocolate has been in production in Abidjan for a long time (the Chocodi project in Gbagbo’s time). But from the news reports you’d think that no-one has ever thought of producing chocolate in Cote d’Ivoire before, and that Ivorians are suddenly going to be buying chocolate by the bucket full in a couple of years’ time.]

So, are we naive about the sustainability of the Ivorian recovery? A recent article by a Moroccan economist has added fuel to the fire. He argues that the impressive recent Ivorian economic growth is almost entirely based on high commodity prices, making it vulnerable to cyclical price changes, and climate. The head of the International Cocoa Organization, Jean-Marc Anga (an Ivorian) recently warned against the dangers of over-production.

In an editorial in the main government newspaper (which he edits), Venance Konan argued that the author makes some good points, but saying that unlike the 1960s and 1970s, the government is aware of these dangers and is working to combat them. He says the government’s investment in big infrastructure projects is proof of the willingness to diversify. If you’re not convinced by Konan, then you can find some stronger arguments in the above World Bank report (in French) which interestingly cites the increase in private sector investment as one of the key drivers of the Ivorian recovery. What does worry me though is that in almost all the economic reports from the World Bank and IMF that I see, the growth is attributed to the primary and tertiary sectors, while the industrial sector doesn’t seem part of the growth story, despite being generally acknowledged globally as being key to ’emergence’ (it is growing, but not as much).

Development is something that takes decades and will not come overnight. Despite all the positive work being done in Cote d’Ivoire I’m amazed at how much there is still to do. How water and electricity cuts are still common, how roads like Yamoussoukro-Daloa and Abidjan-San Pedro are still in such a deplorable state, how very little has changed in four years at the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro, how the university sector still seems in trouble.

As far as I can see, sparking industrial growth is something no-one quite fully understands. On the positive side, the government has initiatives to build roads, improve the electricity supply, reform business laws and change taxes. On the negative side, human resources, corruption, small markets, limited availability of credit, and administrative challenges still seem as obstacles without much hope of rapid progress.

Will the cocoa price go down hill soon? Who can tell? At least the EU market is in bad shape, and prices are holding. But diversification away from cocoa must remain a significant part of Ivorian economic planning to avoid another disaster.


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Journal Gbayé – Ivory Coast’s news in rap and nouchi

I’d seen the stories about the rap news in Senegal (the JT rappé) , but now from the same outfit we have an Ivorian version, rapped/sung in French and Nouchi (local Ivorian street slang), with support from George Soros’ Open Society foundation. Things got under way a couple of weeks back and there are already three episodes out (see below). The idea is to rap about 3-4 main topics each week in a way that appeals to youth, and aside from a bit of occasional uncertainty from the presenters, it really is a fun recipe. The presenters are Nash (a well known Nouchi ambassador and rap artist), and Smile.

I’m really impressed by the creativity – after seeing the pilot I assumed the music bed wouldn’t change, but in three episodes we’ve already covered a good range of West African music styles. Not sure if they want to stay a YouTube phenomenon of if they’ll try to reach a wider audience through the main state television channel (though would that hinder their independence?).

Journal Gbayé – le pilote : “Nouveau pont”  Major topics – child kidnapping, new bridge, hygiene of homemade drinks, Congolese politics

Journal Gbayé (S01, ép. 01) : “Djassa pinhou au Plateau”  Major topics – university facilities, prostitution, elections, Senegalese politics

Journal Gbayé (S01, ép.02) : “Les Djobages”  – Major topics – covers electricity cover, university strikes and destruction of illegal constructions (with links to field reports on Arafat-style, and then reggae to celebrate the Alpha Blondy concert)

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Ivory Coast – after Houphouet’s ‘heriteurs’

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think most Ivory Coast observers regard the 2015 presidential election as anything much more than a foregone conclusion. The principal question seems to be how much Ouattara will win by, and whether that percentage (and turnout) signals failure or success.

But 2020 looks a whole lot more interesting. While the country’s ‘heriteurs’ (the big three ‘inheriters’ who battled it out after Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s death; namely Bedie, Gbagbo and Ouattara) will probably all still be alive, they will have all almost certainly taken their leave: all will be over the constitutional age limit. Ouattara will have completed his two constitutionally mandated terms. (Gbagbo’s trial at the ICC will be likely finished and I don’t think anyone can be certain of the result of that.)

So who are the names to watch in the new generation? I’m in the airport in Conakry belatedly going through a list in Jeune Afrique magazine of the 50 most important people in Ivory Coast, and it’s as good a place as any to pick out a few names of people who have a good chance of being either strong candidates for the election in 2020, or at least powerful people in deciding which direction things go. Here are some of my picks with comments.

Guillaume Soro (42)
A skillful politician and constitutionally the current number two in the country as head of the National Assembly. He has a power base drawn from his time at the head of the Forces Nouvelles rebellion (a significant part of the current national army) and from his days at the head of the powerful student union, the FESCI. He has been drawing closer to Ouattara’s RDR party.
Comment: A strong contender for 2020 and never one to underestimate. Will face some resistance from within the party from any attempts to be the RDR candidate in 2020. For many in the south he will always be tainted as the ‘rebel’ and many still campaign for him to answer for crimes committed by rebels during that period.

Pascal Affi N’Guessan (62)
Head of the opposition FPI party, he is facing a fierce internal war for control of the party with hard liners who want to limit all engagements with the government until Gbagbo is out of The Hague. He’s also not from the natural ethnic base of the party in the south-east. Nevertheless he still looks like the big name in the opposition camp at least until Simone or Laurent Gbagbo are freed.
Comment: May be in a stronger position by 2020 but if the government track record is solid he would likely struggle unless the governing coalition fractures. The big drama would be if either of the former ruling couple are freed and return to Abidjan. Alternatively he may be severely undermined although the party lacks many other alternatives.

Hamed Bakayoko (49)
Along with Soro, Hambak is likely to be the main contender for the RDR card in the 2020 election. That’s if he’s want it – I don’t know him well enough to know if he’d see the top job as just too much limelight. He has strong roots in the RDR particularly with the youth, and has an established network of friends in the Abidjan elite, including in the communication sector (notably Voodoo). His time as interior minister has strengthened his hand as well. More high profile than Soro at the moment.
Comment: A strong contender for 2020, especially if he ends up receiving the blessing of Ouattara.

Mamadou Koulibaly (57)
I don’t think anyone would give him much chance in 2020 but I’ll include the name anyway as a major opposition political figure. His is considered by many as the most eloquent critic of the ruling coalition since 2011. But he has a very limited support base, especially geographically, so only really has a chance if the opposition unite around him, which is something I would judge unlikely.
Comment: An interesting figure on the Ivorian political scene, but likely to remain marginal.

Beyond the talk of Soro or Hambak, I can see two major alternatives. The first is that the PDCI succeeds in imposing their candidate as some sort of RHDP consensus (or stitch up). There is already talk of this ‘Alternance’ theory in the pro-PDCI press, though I haven’t even see an RDR figure mention it, which would seem to be crucial given it would involve the RDR agreeing to step aside in 2020 and allow a PDCI candidate to take the throne.

A second (potentially related) alternative is that Ivory Coast’s political class decides that they quite liked their nine years under a technocrat and would like more of the same. What would the major choices be:

Bruno Kone (52), RDR
This former telecommunications boss recently married Ouattara’s niece and communications director, and is minister of Information, Telecommunications and the Post Office. He’s also the government spokesman.

Thierry Tanoh (52), PDCI
Assistant Secretary General for the president, he’s currently on the recovery from a rough and brief spell as the head of Ecobank, which followed his vice-presidency of the IFC. Harvard-educated, and pushed by some (himself?) behind the scenes for several years. Limited profile within the country though.

Jean-Louis Billon (50), PDCI
Business leader, minister for commerce and one of the country’s richest people, Billon has a fair bit of local credibility and is well respected. I’m not sure how strong his voice carries in the PDCI party though, even if it has authority elsewhere.
I confess that I’ve pretty much come to the end of my list of names for the next generation. I still think Charles Ble Goude will return one day to be an influential player, but 2020 may be too early for that. Two other people to watch in the coming years are Yasmine Ouegnin, the young MP for Cocody who has shown an independent spirit in the otherwise compliant National Assembly, and (this really is an outside chance) new Credit Suisse boss, Tidjane Thiam. Both may face criticism for being too foreign.

Many of the above candidates would look ill at ease addressing a mass rally in Yopougon or Abobo. Most Ivorians are young, employed in the informal sector and not from the elite backgrounds of the above. Through a long process and a dedicated communications team, figures like Ouattara have been able to develop a common touch, but as Gbagbo and Ble Goude showed, there can be immense power in those who can mobilise and sound in touch with ordinary voters. To that extent Soro and Hambak remain very strong candidates, while any alternatives seem to lack either the powerful networks or the ability to excite a crowd.

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Back home

Over the last week back in Abidjan, I had the pleasure of living again in the house we bought in 2010. Previously we’d been hiring a small studio for my wife to sit-out the Ebola crisis with our new baby, but the (terrible) tenants who’d been living in our own house moved out, so we took advantage to move back in, even if only for a few months. I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t sure I’d ever be sleeping in the house again.

When I first left Abidjan at the end of 2012, I went through a period of being disconnected. It wasn’t a conscious ploy, but those first 12 months in Dubai were a time when I almost stopped any activity on Twitter, the only time I’ve not blogged regularly since I started, and a period of nearly 1.5 years where I didn’t visit Abidjan. In comparison, in the last 12 months my passport testifies that I’ve gone through the arrival gates at Abidjan airport five times.

Coming back to the topic of the house again, I sometimes wonder if I’ll live there long-term again. It really is a decent place, and the roads have improved significantly around the area. There was a shortage of piped water in the sector in the last week, but hopefully this shouldn’t be a long term problem. It has plenty of rooms (three bedrooms, two lounges, a maid’s bedroom, and a three room apartment out the back, up some steps) and there’s really as much space as a normal family would ever need.

Still, I don’t know if I suffer from a lack of contentment but it has two major flaws (not uncommon in Ivorian construction) – there are almost no windows, particularly in the most important rooms, and the garden has long been almost entirely built over. All I ask is that the next place has a garden that can host a decent barbecue, and some windows that show something semi-attractive. A home on two levels might be nice too – I haven’t lived in a home with stairs since Norwich (c. 2005). Perhaps if I had those things, I’d be dreaming of a swimming pool, but we’ll see.

I’ve actually been thinking of buying a second property in Abidjan but I don’t think I can afford/justify buying the right place at the moment. The market does seem buoyant, with prices / rents rising and land being snapped up as the city pushes ever outwards. Many of the buyers (I hear from one friend in the sector) are from elsewhere in ECOWAS. Burkinabe and Nigerians (“Hausa”) were nationalities mentioned by name. I imagine Abidjan makes an attractive investment proposition for rich people in the region, perhaps some of them with cash of dubious provenance (there are less questions and pesky taxes than in Europe). The land ownership laws are liberal, the legal structure is reasonably sound, the currency is stable and secure, the economy is doing well, Abidjan is liveable, and property prices still seem low by regional standards.

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