Over 8% growth, vanishing traffic jams, happy farmers— Ivory Coast’s Ouattara shows how to 'own' an African election

The country holds presidential elections October 25, and just years after standing at the brink, has been near-transformed by mega-projects

FRESH out of France’s best business school, Issa Sidibe flew to his native Ivory Coast hoping to start a business in 2011. He quickly returned to Paris after finding a country devastated by almost 10 years of conflict.

Today, Sidibe, 31, is part of a wave of Ivorians flocking back to invest as President Alassane Ouattara promises to spend $25 billion on infrastructure and energy until 2020. That’s lured companies to the world’s biggest cocoa producer including Carrefour SA, which is set to open its first store in sub- Saharan Africa, and put the economy on pace to expand 8.2% this year, more than twice the continent’s average.

“It was a good time to come back,” said Sidibe, who is seeking $2 million to finance the taxi-booking company TaxiJet, a service similar to Uber Technologies Inc., he set up with two Ivorian business partners. “The country is rebuilding, and it looks like everyone has learned from the mistakes of the past.”

Ivory Coast will hold presidential elections on October 25 that, if peaceful, are likely to boost private investment in the West African nation. Five years ago, Ouattara sheltered in a hotel behind razor-wire barricades, lobbying the United Nations and African Union for support as then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to acknowledge he’d lost the elections. Gbagbo’s stance unleashed a brief civil war that left at least 3,000 people dead and forced the economy of about $35 billion to default on its international debt.

“It will be a good sign for investors if the election goes well,” Ayso van Eysinga, West Africaresearcher at Eurasia Group, said by phone from New York. “We’ll see continued high rates of growth.”

Ouattara, 73, will probably win the vote in the first round, Raza Agha, chief economist for Middle East and Africa at VTB Capital, said in e-mailed comments.

Ouattara’s biggest achievement so far is a $300-million toll bridge spanning the Abidjan lagoon.

The opposition is fractured by leadership disputes since the arrest of Gbagbo, who was deported to The Hague to face war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. Among seven opposition candidates vying for the presidency are two former prime ministers, Charles Konan Banny and Pascal Affi N’Guessan.

A new outbreak of violence is unlikely. The run-up to the elections has been relatively calm, and Ouattara has the support of the army, Eysinga said. If he wins a second term, Ouattara will need to take a harder line against graft, he said. Ivory Coast was ranked 115th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year.

Ivory Coast’s recovery began in 2012, following years of crisis under Gbagbo, who lost control of the north after rebels attempted to oust him in a 2002 insurgency that destroyed the country’s reputation as a safe haven in West Africa.

From 2012, the economy expanded an average 9% annually, with record cocoa and cashew crops boosting revenue, according to the government. Private investment soared 28% in 2014 from a year earlier to reach 968 billion CFA francs ($1.65 billion), government data show.

Supporters of Ivory Coast’s president Alassane Ouattara campaign in the streets of Abidjan ahead of presidential elections (AFP Photo)

Ouattara, a former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has tried to sway Ivorians with ambitious infrastructure projects. He expanded the road network with a highway to the capital, Yamoussoukro. South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem Co. Ltd. and France’s Bouygues SA are building a $1-billion commuter train in Abidjan, while China Harbour Engineering Co. Ltd. will expand the city’s port.

But his biggest achievement so far is a $300-million toll bridge spanning the Abidjan lagoon. The project was a long time in the making: the government first took a tender in 1996. The bridge and its multi-storey interchanges have transformed the city, dissolving many of its traffic jams and pushing up real estate prices in surrounding areas.

From his desk on the 16th floor of a high-rise building, Emmanuel Essis, head of the Investment Promotion Center, has a bird’s-eye view of the bridge. The structure isn’t only very beautiful, he said, with a sweeping gesture towards the window. It symbolises the rebirth of Ivory Coast, said Essis, who returned in 2011 after working in Guinea and South Sudan.

“We’ve had a decade of non-investment when our infrastructure was just falling apart,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not going to sort out all our social and economic problems in the next few years. But we’re on the right track.” (Bloomberg)

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