Ouattara’s four big challenges

To continue my series of ‘fours’, I haven’t seen too much analysis on the challenges facing Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara. What I have seen is very dominated, as my recent thinking has been, with talk about ‘recovering from the post-election crisis’. I’m beginning to think that there’s a risk of missing some bigger issues.

How can you get anything more difficult than recovering from a conflict, you might ask. Well, few thought that the threat of violence from the pro-Gbagbo camp would dissipate so quickly – leading diplomats here expected at least some terrorist style attacks on pro-Ouattara figures or some coup d’etat/rebellion plots hatched from the exterior. I’m beginning to think that outside of the unrest in the West, there isn’t a major pro-Gbagbo military threat now.

The conflict also left the country’s infrastructure largely untouched – with 5.3% negative growth this year and 8-9% next year (IMF estimates) the recovery looks to be rapid. Abidjan does not resemble Tripoli and visitors I’ve had in the last few weeks had to search harder than you might expect to see find signs of a conflict.

So, here are four challenges that we don’t much talk about, but probably should;

reunification or ‘don’t forget the previous civil conflict’ – since September 2002, the northern half of Ivory Coast (60%) has been a vast rebel zone, outside state control (customs, taxes, police). It wasn’t a rebel zone in the way that most rebel zones are in Africa – there was a sort of functioning administration and relative peace, but it was a non-official-state zone all the same. With the post-election conflict, those ex-rebels took control of the whole country. The result? The frontier between formal south and informal north no longer exists and black market smuggled goods have travelled south. Sales for instance of palm oil products from Sania’s factory in Abidjan have dropped sharply because the market is now dominated by illegally smuggled (and untaxed) Asian oils.

The black market was immensely profitable for the ex-rebel leaders and they don’t seem ready to give up their trade – possibly even extending it. The key threat lies in the cocoa sector, with the official main harvesting season due to start on Monday. Formerly, cocoa in the ex-rebel zone was smuggled out north, taking a long route via Burkina Faso and then out through Ghana or Togo. But almost all the cocoa grows in the southern half of the country and there are signs that more and more cocoa is now being directed north because the ex-rebels are now in the principal cocoa zones. Such smuggling would make them a lot of money. Farmers and local authorities don’t like it, but when attempts have been made in the Daloa-Vavoua area to halt the long convoys of cocoa trucks heading north, ex-rebel elements have intervened with powerful phone calls from Abidjan and the trucks have been released. As one cocoa expert here said – if the ex-rebels get to make money from each lorry in this cocoa season, either from trafficking or racketing, it’s all over and they’ll never leave. Ouattara needs to find a way to control the former warlords from the north.

big business – it’s quite clear that Abidjan is looking in better shape than it has done for years and there are numerous signs of a new serious and disciplined government prepared to work for the good of its citizens. Yet, the vast programme of destruction known as ‘Operation Clean Country’, has bulldozer-ed hundreds if not thousands of small businesses. However noble the motivation, small entrepreneurs from the lower ends of society have lost the businesses they spent years establishing. Maybe they will quickly re-establish, legally, elsewhere. I hope so. However looking at the the restoration of the university campus, it seems the government wants to replace the hundreds of stall holders with formal big business shops. All very modern and Western, but what’s being done to encourage the small (and often informal) businesses that are the seeding ground for Ivorian entrepreneurial activity, not to mention the main source of income for the urban poor?

Such destruction of illegal businesses can be done now, without many people raising their voice. But opposition voices are fragile and weak, and there’s no reason to believe they will stay like this. When opposition movements in political life or civil society find their voice, they may discover they can profit from a bed of resentment if small businesses aren’t supported, and if food prices don’t stabilise or come down. Attractive national economic figures and booming big business won’t necessarily mean life is getting better for the majority of people.

changing culture – few things can perhaps be harder than changing the way people think and work. Take the civil service – it isn’t weak because 140,000 people aren’t enough to do the job. It’s weak because 140,000 people aren’t performing anywhere near the level they should. It’s easier to build a school than to motivate personnel and install a spirit of citizenship that means doctors spend as much time on their public sector patients as at their private clinics and that civil servants come to work to work and not just to sign in and clock off.

In politics, the parties that form the RHDP alliance have a mixed record – think of the management of the RDR districts in Abidjan, the RDR ministries in the Gbagbo coalition government and the PDCI government 1993-1999. To create long-term sustainable growth, President Ouattara needs to create a legacy of competence, service and discipline before he leaves the scene after two mandates, or fails to get re-elected in 2015.

– the wild west – the problems in the west pre-date this post-election crisis and the 2002 civil crisis as well. You can’t generally fix long crises with quick solutions – it will take a real sustained effort to create a lasting peace in the West and tackling land rights is almost certainly key. The rewards though could be huge;

i) prospering mining interests in the 18 Montagnes region, plus the dividends from transporting mining materials from Guinea and Liberia to the Ivorian port of San Pedro via railway.

ii) greater agricultural production from a region with a strong potential that’s under-producing due to conflict and land issues.

iii) tourism – the Tai national park and the area around Man are arguably the country’s most attractive tourism sites away from the beaches.

iv) a peaceful West would encourage stability and peace in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea, where mining, human and agricultural resources remain underexploited and for which Ivory Coast could provide leadership and transport.

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