In Ivory Coast, Power Struggle Halts Cocoa Exports

February 9, 2011

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Cocoa farmer Yoboue Brou.

Cocoa exports are being used as a weapon in Ivory Coast, the world's top exporter of beans that is locked in a deadly presidential power struggle.

Most of Ivory Coast's cocoa is shipped from San Pedro, the country's second port, on the palm tree-lined southwest Atlantic shore. Dockers here, such as Leonard Massa Yahi, load countless jute sacks, packed with burnt orange-colored cocoa beans, onto vessels heading out to sea.

Yahi says he's busy packing cocoa, timber and other goods onto waiting ships. But, if Ivory Coast's would-be president, Alassane Ouattara, has his way, no more cocoa shipments will be leaving the port before the end of February.

Political Limbo

Ouattara has ordered a month-long halt to the export of cocoa beans on which the world depends for chocolate. Ivory Coast's Election Commission, certified by the U.N., says Ouattara defeated incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, in November's presidential runoff. But Gbagbo refuses to relinquish power, claiming he won the vote, endorsed by the Constitutional Council. So Ouattara has imposed an embargo on shipping out cocoa, the country's top revenue earner, in a bid to financially strangle his rival.

Pascal Jose Dally, the technical director of the state-run San Pedro Port Authority, says export restrictions have had an impact on port activities.

The main cocoa exporters, including Minnesota-based U.S. giant Cargill, which has a huge warehouse in San Pedro, appear to be obeying the cocoa shipment ban. This briefly sent cocoa prices soaring on world markets.

Companies violating the embargo have been threatened with unspecified penalties, should Ouattara come to power.

Another leading American company, Archer Daniels Midland, with its home base in Decatur, Ill., declined to confirm whether it would comply with the cocoa ban.

ADM said in a statement last month, "ADM is carefully assessing the situation in Ivory Coast and its impact on our business. We will take appropriate actions as the situation evolves."

Gbagbo's camp has dismissed Ouattara's export ban as unenforceable. Spokesman Ahoua Don Mello says the reality is that cocoa shipments continue. "Every day cocoa is being shipped out," he says. "Trying to cripple Ivory Coast economically is not possible. Cocoa exports will continue. Coffee too and rubber — because it's the foreigners themselves who need them."

An estimated seven million people live off cocoa in Ivory Coast.

Francophone West Africa's economic powerhouse has been in political limbo since November's election. The vote was supposed to end almost a decade of turbulence, which split the country in two after a rebellion in 2002. Instead, it has deepened divisions. Gbagbo remains in the presidential palace and residence, while Ouattara has been isolated in a lagoon-side hotel on the other side of Abidjan, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers and blockaded by loyalist Gbagbo troops. The sometimes-violent standoff has disrupted the economy."

Thriving Black Market

On market Friday in Petit Pedro, an ethnically mixed farming village 15 miles outside San Pedro, farmers have gathered across the road from the market, kicking back with rum and locally brewed, frothy palm wine drunk from calabash gourds. Speaking in Baoule, cocoa farmer Yoboue Brou explains how Ouattara's cocoa-export ban is affecting his family.

Farmers have plenty of cocoa and beans piling up on the plantations in the bush. In fact, it's a bumper cocoa crop in Ivory Coast this year. But Brou says unscrupulous middlemen are operating a thriving black market, trying to buy up their cocoa on the cheap, for half the price it was worth a month ago, and smuggle the beans across the borders into Ghana, Guinea and Liberia.

Brou's wife, Madeleine, says come Valentine's Day, chocolate eaters in the U.S. and around the world should please spare a thought for the cocoa farmers of Ivory Coast. She then added, let them help us pray for peace and an end to our troubles. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.