January 26, 2011 / 6:12 PM / in 8 years

Ivorian rivals grapple over West Africa central bank

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s presidential rivals grappled for control of the West African central bank’s offices on Wednesday, with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo still in control despite efforts to cut off his cash flow.

The intensifying struggle over sources of funding comes as a month-long ban on cocoa exports called by Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised president, appeared to bite and amid further appeals for Gbagbo to step down.

Ouattara was named winner of a November 28 election by United Nations-certified results but he remains holed-up in a hotel, while Gbagbo controls most institutions and has the loyalty of the military in the world’s top cocoa grower.

Ouattara announced on Wednesday the closure of Ivorian branches of the central bank, which heads of state of West Africa’s single currency zone have said are under his control but were surrounded by heavily armed Gbagbo loyalists all day.

“Such a measure is intended to securitise the financial assets of the Ivorian state and of individuals,” Ouattara’s parallel government, which is operating from a U.N.-guarded hotel in Abidjan, said in a statement.

Ouattara’s order came after Gbagbo late on Tuesday decided to requisition the bank and its employees in an effort to push through pension payments, which were blocked when the central bank refused to disburse funds.

Officials said that the Gbagbo government succeeded in paying pensioners through the central bank on Wednesday.

The delay to pension payments appeared to be the first publicly recognised hitch after West African leaders forced the pro-Gbagbo central bank governor from his job, denying Gbagbo access to the country’s accounts at its headquarters in Abidjan.

It was not immediately clear how much money is held by the bank locally but diplomats say the figure is relatively small compared to Gbagbo’s spending needs, including a $100-million monthly wage bill for the army and public sector workers.

The squeeze on the banking system followed a string of measures including asset freezes and bans on doing business with a number of Gbagbo’s supporters and institutions.

However, Laurent Dona-Fologo a pro-Gbagbo head of an economic and social advisory council, said Gbagbo was merely fighting for the country’s economic independence and his camp would continue to resist efforts to oust him.

“We think our country should rethink regional cooperation and our policy of integration,” he said, raising the prospect of Ivory Coast pulling out of the CFA franc zone.

COCOA HURTING

Cocoa exporters said a European ban on EU-registered ships doing new business at Ivory Coast’s two ports was delaying exports and straining storage warehouses, as exporters have also stopped registering new beans for shipment.

In a further sign of disruption, new sales offers from Ivory Coast for cocoa beans and products such as cocoa butter and powder have come to a virtual stop, several major European physical cocoa traders said.

Cocoa futures have hit 12-months peaks on concern over supply from the top producer country, which accounts for about a third of the global harvest.

Both Ouattara and Gbagbo have dispatched emmissaries to drum up support for their positions ahead of a key summit of AU leaders in Ethiopia this weekend.

Like other bodies, the AU has recognised Ouattara as president but there are splits emerging with some nations less eager in their support and a number unhappy at the prospect of ECOWAS ousting Gbagbo by force, as has been threatened.

“A military operation which only targets Gbagbo and the soldiers supporting him will spare us civilian casualties,” Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader named Ouattara’s prime minister, said in Zambia on Wednesday.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who has mediated in many African conflicts, called for Gbagbo to go too.

“Except for Gbagbo and his group, everyone accepts the results as they came out,” Annan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “If he were to prevail, it would be a real setback for Africa.”

Writing by David Lewis; Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Paul Taylor in Davos and Michael Hogan in Hamburg; Editing by Louise Ireland

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