Ivory Coast, the largest economy in francophone West Africa, is too focused on doing business with France and should open up its market to investors from a wider range of countries, an opposition leader said.
“Sixty years after Ivory Coast gained independence from France, French companies still dominate trade,” Mamadou Koulibaly, a 62-year-old former parliament speaker who plans to run for president next year, said in an interview.
A former French colony, Ivory Coast has retained close political, economic and cultural ties since gaining independence in 1960. Under President Alassane Ouattara, who assumed office in 2011 after a French and United Nations military intervention, those ties have flourished.
As the country recovered from a decade of civil conflict with large infrastructure projects that eased congestion and helped fuel a real-estate boom, French companies have been at the forefront of a building frenzy. Bouygues SA is working on a $1.5-billion commuter train in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and on weekends, shoppers flock to brand new supermarkets operated by France’s Carrefour SA.
At the same time, Ouattara has courted investors from across the globe and enabled Chinese newcomers to build roads, set up a nationwide pay-TV network and complete the Soubre hydropower plant. China Road & Bridge Corp. this year won a $134 million contract for a bridge in Abidjan. Nearby, a Moroccan company is transforming the city by building a lagoon promenade near the business district of Plateau.
“Whether they’re from Russia, Chicago or Guangzhou, working with other investors to reduce the influence of France is in Ivory Coast’s best interests,” Koulibaly said.
Previously a prominent member of the Ivorian Popular Front of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo, Koulibaly broke away to set up his own movement, Lider, in 2011. His decision came months after the end of a brief civil war triggered by Gbagbo’s refusal to accept defeat in 2010 presidential elections. Koulibaly was one of few Gbagbo loyalists who didn’t take sides in the conflict, which proved the most violent in the country’s history.
Under Gbagbo’s 2000-2010 rule, relations with France became strained when Paris brokered a peace accord between his government and a rebel group that had seized the northern half of the country. Anti-French rhetoric peaked in 2004 as mobs went on a rampage through the main cities, attacking symbols of French influence and intimidating mainly white foreigners. The French army evacuated about 8,000 people before calm was restored.
One of Koulibaly’s collaborators, Swiss-Cameroonian national Nathalie Yamb, was expelled earlier this week for posting comments on Twitter the government considered “malicious” and “incompatible with the national interest.” She’s known to be hostile toward France and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Koulibaly is also a longtime critic of the CFA franc, which was established after World War II to help France import goods from its colonies. The currency, used by eight West African nations, is pegged to the euro and its convertibility is guaranteed by the French Treasury.
“The CFA is part of the closed market that I want to get rid of,” he said. “The argument that the currency is good for business between France and Ivory Coast simply doesn’t hold. By removing the CFA we might upset France, but we’ll open up our market to Nigerians, Russians and the Chinese, who will be very pleased.”
For now, Koulibaly is still looking for funding for his political campaign — and said he won’t turn down help from Russia, which is trying to expand its influence on the continent. His trip in October to the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi hasn’t yet resulted in a deal, he said.
“I’m open to anyone who’s prepared to finance my campaign, whether its businessmen from Russia, China or the U.S.,” Koulibaly said. “What I offer in return is access to the Ivorian market and the possibility to come and invest here under the same conditions as everyone else.”