Cocoa Plays Role In Ivory Coast's Political Crisis

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Cocoa and cash have become important in the struggle for power in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. Two rivals have claimed the office of president since a contested election in late November. The standoff has disrupted sales of a vital export. Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Cash and cocoa have become important in the struggle for power in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. Two rivals have claimed the office of president since a contested election last fall. The standoff has disrupted sales of a vital export. Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa.

Joining us from the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan is NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. And Ofeibea, break down for us how cocoa came to be at the center of this political fight between the man who had been president and his challenger, who is claiming that he won, backed up by the international community.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Because cocoa revenues are so important to Ivory Coast, being, of course, the chief export. So the presidential challenger, Alassane Ouattara, the one who's internationally recognized by the White House, African leaders and others, really wants to get a hold on the financial levers.

Now, he is still sheltering at a hotel here in Abidjan, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers with very limited movement. But he feels that if he has his hands on the finances and he's a U.S.-trained economist, then he can show Ivoirians that although he doesn't have the full run of the country, he controls the finances.

So he has imposed a month-long ban on cocoa exports and threatened those who violate that ban that when he comes to power, if he comes to power, they will be sanctioned. Now, Renee, you have big companies - U.S. companies like Cargill and ADM, Archer Daniels Midland, who, you know, they face a quandary, because they need to get their cocoa beans out but they could face sanctions.

And this has meant that the market price for cocoa has gone zooming up to a one-year high because of this problem here in Ivory Coast.

MONTAGNE: So what other strategies are these two men using to hang on, in the case of the incumbent president, hang onto the presidency, and in the case of the challenger, you know, grab a hold of it?

QUIST-ARCTON: For the challenger, Alassane Ouattara, it's the financial squeeze that's important to him, and he's already managed to get hold of Ivory Coast accounts at the regional central bank, which was also vital because Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, who's refusing to step down, needs that money to pay civil servants and, of course, the security forces that he still controls.

MONTAGNE: So what about talk - and this has been going on since this dispute began - of possible intervention by Ivory Coast neighbors, which would be a pretty big deal, other African countries just going in there and shoving out the president?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, as we speak, Renee, a West African delegation is in the U.S. They have spoken to President Obama's national security advisor and they're lobbying for U.S. and U.N. support for a regional military force. Nigeria, which is a regional peace broker, seems gung-ho. They feel that if they don't remove Gbagbo by force, that Ivory Coast could spiral into a civil war.

But African leaders are meeting at the weekend for an African Union summit. There are already cracks in what was a united front against Gbagbo, ordering him to step down. We'll have to see now which countries are going to support which presidential claimant.

MONTAGNE: We will keep following this with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Thank you, Ofeibea, very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: And NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton was on the line from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

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