ABIDJAN—It’s an irresistible sweet to many in the West, but in the country that supplies the majority of chocolate’s key ingredient to the world, cocoa has long been associated with corruption, conflict, human rights abuses and, now, as a source of funding to a president who refuses to cede power to the internationally proclaimed winner of Ivory Coast’s election.
While the stalemate between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and president-elect Alassane Ouattara drags on and the death toll climbs higher, cocoa production and export has remained steady during this peak time of year. And Gbagbo has managed to hang on to power for nearing two months despite an ever-tightening noose of economic sanctions against him.
“The cocoa produced in Ivory Coast, everybody knows it’s one of the most vital resources in the country,” said a source close to the European External Action Service, a diplomatic wing of the European Union.
“It’s known, too, that (the cocoa industry) is very important to financing the regime,” the source said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
The EU imposed a new round of sanctions against Gbagbo on Friday, including freezing the assets of cocoa and petroleum enterprises, the Abidjan port, banks and the state broadcaster in hopes of choking off cash-flow to the defiant president.
Economic sanctions, negotiations and the threat of military invention have so far been unsuccessful in removing Gbagbo, who remains insistent that he won the Nov. 28 election. Frozen out of government and personal bank accounts, Gbagbo is relying on exports of cocoa and petroleum, a resource that’s even more lucrative than cocoa, to fund his government, said the EU source. The sanctions target people and enterprises found to be financing Gbagbo’s hold on power.
“These are established facts,” said the source. “These are things our operatives have known for a long time. I can’t tell you how we know it, but it’s been confirmed for a long time.”
Ivory Coast has missed a payment on its $2.3 billion Eurobond, though it has promised it will pay before the one-month grace period is up at the end of this month. The EU is continuing its investigations into Gbagbo’s sources of finances and further sanctions are likely, said the source.
“An important part of his capacity to hold power is to pay off his army. The day he doesn’t do that, he’ll probably lose power.”
Ouattara’s envoy to the United Nations, Youssoufou Bamba, vowed earlier this week that his party would soon control revenues from customs on cocoa exports as well as the country’s two ports, though it was unclear how Ouattara would seize these state structures.
The cocoa industry in Ivory Coast, worth an estimated $1 billion a year, has always been “very opaque,” said Emilie Serralta, who researched and authored a 2007 report for international watchdog Global Witness on cocoa’s role in funding the country’s civil war in 2002-2003. In “Hot Chocolate,” Global Witness said Gbagbo had drawn more than $58 million to finance the fight against rebels, while the rebel Forces Nouvelles had made $30 million a year smuggling cocoa grown in northern, rebel-held territory.
“It’s very easy for funds to be diverted to other purposes, like conflict,” said Serralta, whose report made a slew of recommendations to increase transparency in the industry. “Unfortunately, the cocoa industry wasn’t very interested and I guess now they’re in a bit of a pickle with the current situation. When you look at the human rights violations taking place, they could be accused of complicity.”
The UN, which maintains a 9,000-strong peacekeeping force in the country, has accused Gbagbo’s forces of a slew of violations, including attacks on UN personnel, murder, kidnapping and torture. At least 250 people have died in post-election violence so far and 25,000 have fled the country.
Serralta said large-scale cocoa buyers, such as Hershey, Nestlé and Mars, have a responsibility to open the doors on the industry by publishing what they pay for raw product and other financial records and refuse to make any payments that could be diverted away from Ouattara’s government.
“They’re a key actor in that sector so they can’t just be silent and hope no one will notice,” said Serralta.
Michael McGovern, a Yale University expert on Ivory Coast, said a complex web of corruption engulfed the country’s key crop for decades under long-time president Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his successors. That was the story French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer was chasing when he was kidnapped from an Abidjan parking lot in 2004, never to be seen again.
McGovern, however, warned that since gaining power in 2000, Gbagbo has moved away from the cocoa industry to focus more on petroleum.
“The question is how much of a cushion does he have? I don’t think there would be that much from cocoa,” said McGovern. “The understanding is that it’s primarily petroleum.”
Advocates, meanwhile, are using the current crisis in Ivory Coast to draw attention to another of the cocoa industry’s controversial elements — that of slavery and child labour. Despite an ongoing public outcry and several international agreements, experts say progress is slow. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 109,000 children in Ivory Coast work under “the worst forms of child labour,” and 10,000 or more are victims of human trafficking.
Michael Byers, a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law, said appropriate international legislation to stop child labour already exists and is ratified by Ivory Coast.
“Those rules are being wildly violated in Ivory Coast,” said Byers. “We need rules to be enforced.”