I’d like to think that with each year that goes by in Abidjan I get closer to understanding how things work. There are some things though that get more difficult to understand the deeper you dig. Anyone who has bought a second hand car in Abidjan knows they can cost about 3-4 times the value on the European market. Anyone who’s bought a house in Abidjan knows that housing costs aren’t that much cheaper than in Europe, certainly if you consider quality. And yet, many people in the large middle class area of Cocody, as elsewhere, own homes that are worth a lot of money, and the roads are filled with large expensive saloon cars and 4×4, the minority of which belong to the UN and humanitarian sector.
So where does the money come from? There is much that lacks transparency. I don’t have data on earnings, but I would think that the number of people who earn more than 1 million CFA a month ($2,000) would be extremely rare. GDP per capita is $1,680 a year (2010). The salary of a Member of Parliament is only 1.4 million cfa a month. From memory, a government minister earns about 4-5 million cfa. The private sector may have higher salaries, I’m not sure. But I still think that there can’t be many people who are officially earning more than 1 million.
So why do you often see finer cars than you see in Paris, clubs where champagne is drunk like orange juice and vast mansions in Cocody? Especially when you consider that it’s almost impossible to get a mortgage or simple credit. Even for some of my friends, I have no idea how they earn their money – it’s certainly not from their principal public activity. In Europe, things seem to be more straight-forward – most people have a single full-time job, which represents 99% of their income.
So what’s the answer? Some of it must be corruption and some of it informal earnings, I would guess principally from rental income and agriculture. The figures for natural rubber farming (popular with the urban middle class) and teak forests make them look like incredibly good earners. But of course it’s all so non-transparent and it’s still difficult to know how people are as rich as they apparently are.