[ABIDJAN] While political rivals in Côte d’Ivoire trade barbs, diplomats make declarations and regional groups issue warnings, many Ivoirians are eating less so they can feed their children, as prices for basics like cooking oil, rice and flour climb, in some cases doubling.
For now the crunch is hitting mostly poor families, Ivoirians in the commercial capital Abidjan told IRIN. This is a growing population group: In 2008 nearly half of Côte d’Ivoire’s then 20 million people were below the poverty threshold of about US$1.25 per day, compared to about one-third in 2000, and 38 percent in 2002, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“Poverty has increased on a steady trend [in the past 20 years] as a result of the successive socio-political and military crises,” IMF said in a May 2009 country report.
“We’re at the end of our tether,” Françoise Mahan, a midwife in Abidjan’s Abobo District, told IRIN, one month after the presidential run-off election which ended in unprecedented deadlock with two political camps claiming power. Already after the October first round, tensions led to some prices creeping up.
“I can no longer get what I need at the market with 2,000 CFA francs [$4] for my family of three. Now I need about 50 percent more - but at the moment we just can’t afford that.”
Food prices are soaring in Abidjan and other main cities. In the northern city of Odienné and in Gagnoa in central Côte d’Ivoire, before the election crisis a kilogram of sugar cost the equivalent of about $1.25. It now costs $2.40; and the same goes for a litre of cooking oil. A sack of rice now costs around $35 in Odienné and the centre-north city of Korhogo; families could buy the same sack before the political crisis for around $26.
In Abidjan a kilogram of meat cost $2.80 before; now prices range between $4.40 and $5.
As the government of the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, called for a nationwide strike to begin on 27 December - to try to force incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo to step down - many Ivoirians are simply trying to make ends meet.
“We heard about the strike call,” said a youth in the central town of Gagnoa. “But it’s the holiday season and some people wanted to come out and try to make at least a bit of money.”
Karim Koné, petrol station attendant in Abidjan’s Adjamé District, said he eats less per day to make whatever food the family has go further. “I’ve started depriving myself of food during the day. I prefer to leave whatever I’d eat in the middle of the day for the family’s evening meal.”
People’s lack of buying power is hitting vendors and this is having a snowball effect. “Before, I could make about 15,000 CFA francs [$30] a day, but since about a week ago that’s impossible,” said meat vendor in Adjamé Ousmane Diallo. “People just aren’t buying.”
In Abidjan’s wealthier neighbourhood of Cocody, Fatim Touré sat waiting for clients. “Many people just turn around when I tell them the prices,” she told IRIN. “But it’s not the vendors’ fault; with this crisis, hauliers are charging more for moving vegetables into Abidjan.”
She said a sack of aubergines which used to cost her $20, now cost $26.
For now petrol prices, which fluctuate periodically, have not yet risen significantly during the crisis; but chauffeurs told IRIN given the instability fewer drivers are venturing out and transport prices – for both passengers and goods – are up.
“Some of our colleagues have not come out because of the strike,” Abidjan taxi driver Drissa Fofana told IRIN. “But we’ve got to feed our families. The situation is tense so we take the risk; we’ve doubled our tariffs, even if petrol prices have remained the same.”
Cooking fuel is costing families more: In Abidjan a 12-kg bottle of propane gas that went for about $9, now costs about $13. A market vendor in Gagnoa told IRIN charcoal there used to be $10 a sack; now it’s double that.
“Everyone's having a tough time, so one really can’t blame the vendors,” said the mother of seven who sells juices and other items in a Gagnoa market. The crisis has simply worsened what was already a bad situation for her family; she said her husband is unemployed and they cannot afford to put their children in school.
Higher-income families in Abidjan are able to keep extra food at home just in case of further unrest. Some said the most significant impact for now is that they feel confined to their homes.
“Every week we stock up at the supermarket, just in case,” bank executive Bertrand Comoé said. “I don’t allow the children to be out after 6pm. Everyone is home by that hour; it’s like a prison. It’s stressful, but we have to do what we can to avoid the worst.”
A 5 December joint statement by the African Development Bank and World Bank expressed concern about the political situation’s impact on the average Ivoirian. Having re-engaged in Côte d’Ivoire in 2008 after suspending relations in 2004, the World Bank has closed its office in the country and stopped disbursing funds since the election crisis.
“The sustained crisis in Cote d'Ivoire will drive many more Ivoirians further into poverty and hurt stability and economic prosperity in the West African sub-region,” the statement said.