ABIDJAN: After a decade of political and military crisis, the economy of Ivory Coast has taken many setbacks, but the country’s people hope that Sunday’s presidential election will bring an improvement.
"The crisis is not just politico-military, it is also economic and social," stresses the president of the West African country’s chamber of commerce and industry, Jean-Louis Billon, questioned by AFP.
Ivory Coast saw a military putsch in 1999, then a foiled coup bid in 2002 against President Laurent Gbagbo, who was elected two years earlier.
Gbagbo survived and is still head of state, but the country is divided in two, with former rebels of the New Forces in control of the north.
Back in the mid-1980s, the "Ivorian miracle" brought about by the "father of the nation", President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (1960-1993) was hard hit when the prices of essential goods collapsed, notably that of cocoa, of which Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer.
To face such a challenge, the country ran up debt, before having severe structural adjustment plans, with budget cuts and privatizations, imposed on it by international financial institutions.
Since the rebellion, the Ivorian state has been weakened by political jolts. With the north controlled by the New Forces, export income and taxes from that territory do not go to the state but to the former rebels.
The private sector has not been spared.
"The last 10 years have been catastrophic for the formal sector. We have lost half our companies. From 26,000 firms in 2002, we went down in 2008 to 13, 000," Billon said.
For many Ivorians, the degradation of around 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) of tarred road, which once constituted the finest network in West Africa, symbolizes the economic collapse.
Severe power cuts at the beginning of 2010 also made a considerable impact on a country that once prided itself on exporting electricity to other nations of the region.
The Ivory Coast wound up finding itself poor. Between 1985 and 1995, the number of people living in poverty went from 10 to 36.8 percent of the population, according to the UN Development Program.
Then from 2002 to 2008, during the toughest years of crisis marked by the destruction of infrastructure and the displacement of people, poverty increased sharply from 38.4 to 48.9 percent, affecting almost one in every two Ivorians.
Still the leader of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMAO), Ivory Coast can still hope to recover a stable growth rate because of its solid fundamentals – a restrained budget, control of inflation and economic growth on the increase – which have been commended by foreign partners.
While a sensitive and long-awaited reform of the cocoa sector, which accounts for 40 percent of export income with coffee, has yet to be undertaken, Ivory Coast still outpaces its rivals like Ghana. Rubber plantations are also on the increase.
Oil – officially said to have an output of 50,000 barrels a day – offers other opportunities, as well as the exploitation of untapped resources of iron ore, manganese, nickel and copper.
Finally, having qualified in March 2009 to be treated as one of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, Ivory Coast is looking to the presidential poll to speed up its progress towards debt rescheduling or even relief of almost all the debt. Some economic sources believe this could happen in 2011.
"The Ivorian economy is simply waiting for political stability that comes out of the election to get moving again, and the big international companies are waiting for that signal to reinvest," said one expert.