Ivory Coast leader leans on banks, companies for cash

Amid global financial pressure, Gbagbo seeks crucial funds to pay civil servants, the military

Adam Nossiter / New York Times News Service /

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The global squeeze on the finances of Laurent Gbagbo, the strongman who refuses to cede power after losing the presidential election, has included sanctions, asset freezes and financial interdictions, all in the hope of dislodging him without military force.

But Gbagbo has a financial plan of his own: pushing the banks and companies around him to continue supplying him with cash, diplomats and local businessmen say. He increasingly appears to be on the lookout for money to pay two constituencies — the military and civil servants — vital to his hold on power.

So last week, his officials met representatives from the country’s cocoa industry to press them to pay advances on export taxes, according to a cocoa businessman here. Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer, and the crop is worth about $1.6 billion to the government.

Diplomats and businessmen here say Gbagbo’s government is also pressing banks to continue lending to him, in some cases with the threat of force.

“He’s been strong-arming all the local banks to keep credit lines open,” said a Western diplomat here who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The pressure is putting businessmen in an unusually difficult spot. Alassane Ouattara, the former prime minister who has been recognized by the U.N., African Union and governments around the world as the legitimate president, has started putting together a list of treasury, banking and cocoa officials who support Gbagbo, threatening to prosecute them and impose sanctions once he assumes office.

“Some of the bankers are out of the country because they don’t want to deal with this situation,” said a leading Ivorian business official. He said at least one cocoa businessman was “being visited every day” with demands to “pay cash advances on cocoa exports,” while bankers were under pressure to buy government bonds — and with cash.

As long as Gbagbo can continue to pay his security forces and a core group of civil servants — a tab of $50 million to $100 million a month, depending on the accounting — his short-term position is relatively secure, diplomats and business officials here say.