A Cocoa Clean-up in the Côte d’Ivoire?

Last week several news outlets (Agence France Press and Bloomberg, among others) reported that 23 officials related to the cocoa sector in the Côte d’Ivoire had been arrested on charges of fraud and corruption. Among the individuals arrested was Lucien Tape Do, the head of the Bourse du Café et du Cacao, the key Ivorian cocoa agency. Other suspects worked for the FDPCC – Fonds de Développement et de Promotion des Activités des Producteurs de Café et de Cacao – and the FRC – Fonds the Régulation et Control.

The arrests did not come as a surprise to those following affairs in the Côte d’Ivoire. In her 2006 book Bitter Chocolate. Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, Carol Off outlined in great detail the degree of criminality present in the Ivorian cocoa sector. According to her investigation, a French-Canadian journalist, Guy-André Kieffer, was abducted and killed because he was about to expose the extent of the corruption. Most of the individuals named were – and presumably are – close associates of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, a man at least partially responsible for he terrible civil war that ripped the country apart after the failed coup d’état in 2002.

The crimes in question occurred several years ago and had been well documented. The FRC, for example, bought a defunct chocolate factory in Fulton, NY. By 2003, through a system of shell companies, Ivorian politicians started to divert funds intended for the facility to their own accounts. Bloomberg estimates that the venture cost more than three time the amount it should have cost. And Off suggests that the whole enterprise was simply an effort to divert funds to finance the civil war even after a cease fire had been negotiated. Global Witness, a British NGO, has documented the ways in which cocoa funds and revenue in the Côte d’Ivoire have been used to finance the fighting.

Given the close relations between Gbagbo and those arrested, I wonder why the crackdown occurred now. Yes, local papers have started to report on these crimes and maybe the president’s hand was forced by the publicity. But I’m not holding my breath that the sector will be reformed sufficiently to keep such activities at bay.

One of the problems is that the alphabet soup of new organizations that sprouted after the liberalization of the cocoa sector in the late 1990s up to 2000, exist in a murky legal zone, they are not governmental agencies, but they are not entirely private sector entities either. Existing in such a legal twilight, they can act as extensions of the state without being subject to public control. Such a status opens up all kinds of opportunities for mischief.

This is not to say that the prior system built around the Caisse de Stablization was free of corruption or other malfeasances. However, the Caisse at least provided some income guarantees to the farmers. The current system only benefits a tightly knit clique of individuals. No wonder that the standard of living for most Ivorian cocoa farmers has dropped precipitously since liberalization.

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