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Ivory Coast: Two presidents, one state

15 December 2010, 18:41

Abidjan - For now it is a political and constitutional question: who rules Ivory Coast? Come Christmas it will be an economic problem: who will pay 160 000 civil servants?

Will their families get presents?

Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo both claim to have won last month's election and both have declared themselves president. Ouattara has the backing of the international community. Gbagbo has the army and the ministries.

Who will win out will of course depend on who controls the main military units and the ports from which Ivory Coast exports its massive cocoa crop - but also, on who plays Father Christmas to nervous civil servants.

For now, Gbagbo has the upper hand in this respect - as he does in the military and the ports - with his own "prime minister", Ake N'Gbo installed in government headquarters and his placemen in the ministries.

Ouattara, meanwhile, is holed up in a golf resort in a plush suburb of Abidjan, protected by UN peacekeepers, and issuing calls for his supporters to mobilise to take over state television and the prime minister's offices.

His rival candidate for the premier's job, former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, called last week for civil servants to "end all collaboration" with Gbagbo's "illegitimate regime" - but state offices remained open.

Peaceful combat

Now, he plans to bring crowds into the street to lead a "peaceful combat" to seize control of government headquarters, a tough task given the strength of the loyalist security forces ranged against them.

Things might not all go Gbagbo's way, however.

Ivory Coast's civil service payroll reached $1.47bn in 2009.

Gbagbo's camp seems to be able to cover the bill for now but, fortified by backing from the United Nations and African Union, Ouattara's "government" is leaning on the West African Central Bank (BCEAO) to cut it off.

Some of the most senior regime employees are also facing the prospect of losing European travel privileges and access to any accounts they might hold in the EU, under sanctions being drawn up this week.

Despite the stand-off, civil servants are still turning up to work. Each day that passes since the disputed election results has seen more traffic return to the streets of the Plateau administrative district in down town Abidjan.

"If, in ten years of crisis, government workers still got their salaries without problem - and their end of year bonus - it's not this month that's suddenly going to be a problem," said Martial Wadja, a ministry bureaucrat.

North-south divide

At the higher education ministry, Salomon Kouassi agreed, saying he was convinced he would get his Christmas pay packet.

Nevertheless, nervousness remains, or Gbagbo's civil service minister Elisabeth Badjo Djekouri had to publish an order in newspapers urging government employees to return to work.

And it appears that the north-south divide between the Ouattara and Gbagbo camps has spread to the civil service.

Gbagbo bases his claim to have won the November 28 vote on allegations of fraud in northern voting districts. His friends in the Constitutional Council cancelled the vote in several pro-Ouattara regions, skewing the result.

But the state's representatives in the northern regions, its prefects, this week broke with their traditional reserve on political matters, and declared that voting had gone smoothly there - effectively recognising Ouattara.

Against such a backdrop, some functionaries are scared. "There's no calm," admitted Diane Mobio, a young employee still waiting for her first pay packet.

"People are afraid."



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