Cash-strapped Ivorians queue as banks reopen doors

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Ivory Coast’s banks began reopening after a 10-week shut-down that strangled the local economy, with cash-strapped Ivorians forming long queues to withdraw money and receive delayed salary payments.

The restart of the banking system is for many locals the clearest sign yet of a return to normality in the West African state after a four-month power struggle that brought the world’s top cocoa grower to the brink of a new civil war.

It comes after Alassane Ouattara’s government said it was making 177 billion CFA francs available to pay two months of salary arrears to public sector workers, a cash lifeline officials hope will filter down to local businesses, Reuters reports.

The restart of the banking sector could also pave the way for a revival of cocoa trade, the country’s main economic engine stalled for months by the conflict but now seen resuming exports in a matter of days.

Banking officials said there were some shortages of cash for over-the-counter transactions but clients said cash machines appeared to be well-stocked. Armed soldiers were posted outside many of the newly opened banks.
“I have been here since 6:30 this morning to get my two months of salary,” 32-year-old civil servant Adelaide Gbocho said outside a bank in Abidjan’s Plateau business district.
“Things are tight at home. The children need to eat.”

Ex-president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down after a disputed November 28 election triggered Western financial and trade sanctions, prompting international banks to close their local branches despite threats by Gbagbo to nationalise them.

Gbagbo lost the election, according to U.N.-certified results, but he said they were rigged and refused to quit.

Local units of banks BNP Paribas, Societe Generale, Citibank
announced in mid-February they were suspending operations. Some top executives fled the country.

Souleymane Diarrassouba, vice president of the bankers’ association, said that no official withdrawal limits had been imposed but banks would independently establish how much cash clients could take out at a time to prevent stocks running out.

Inter-bank transfers and the clearing system would not be up and running until next week and some branches that were looted would remain closed, he added. “We will start where we can and then gradually extend it across the whole country,” he said.

COCOA TRADE STIRS

Ivory Coast’s cocoa farmers said they expected the reopening of the country’s banks to kickstart trade and lift prices deeply depressed by the effects of the conflict.
“The banks reopened this morning in Daloa. This is a good sign for the future, even if the buyers and exporters have not immediately restarted,” said Attoungbre Kouame, a cocoa farmer in the key growing region northwest of Abidjan.

Exports from the country — which produces about a third of the global supply of the main ingredient in chocolate — could restart by the end of next week, exporters said, after being virtually halted since late January.

The arrest of Gbagbo in a French and U.N.-backed raid on his residence by pro-Ouattara forces brought the prospect of peace closer, but the new president has had to tackle pro-Gbagbo militia holding out in parts of Abidjan as well as divisions within his own ranks.

The in-fighting reached a peak on Wednesday with the killing of Ibrahim Coulibaly, who was known as “IB” and had led the initial attacks on Gbagbo’s forces in Abidjan before he clashed with Ouattara’s military supporters in a resurgence of a long-time rivalries between former rebels who backed Ouattara.
“The death of IB will boost the standing of his long time rival (Prime Minister) Guillaume Soro who has become one of the most important political players in the country,” said Joseph Lake, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Ouattara told French newspaper La Croix in an interview released on Wednesday that close to 3,000 people were killed in the conflict, nearly double previous official tolls.

Gbagbo, his wife Simone and dozens of close associates are under house arrest at various locations around the country.



Ouattara’s government said on Wednesday Gbagbo would face charges of human rights abuses. French radio RFI quoted prosecutors as saying the charges would be linked to violence after the disputed election, in which dozens of opposition protesters were killed in clashes with his security forces.