The Ivory Coast cocoa trade is carrying on business as usual regardless of European Union sanctions intended to pressure incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to quit, and any tougher action is not on the cards for now.
In the latest international effort to squeeze Gbagbo out of power after a Nov. 28 presidential election he is widely seen to have lost, EU governments on Saturday extended a freeze on Ivorian assets and funding to the top cocoa grower’s main ports.
But while Brussels-based drafters of the measures style them as prohibiting European firms from conducting any new business with the ports, the cocoa trade itself has other ideas.
“Everyone is interpreting them as they wish, so we are carrying on as normal,” said the head of an international exporter in Abidjan, who declined to be named.
The story is the same in the western port of San Pedro.
“At the moment I am loading cocoa for Amsterdam and Antwerp and I’ve got another ship due this month to take cocoa to eastern Europe. No one has told me of a problem and the shipper hasn’t changed his schedule,” said an exporter based there.
Ivory Coast supplies over a third of the world’s cocoa and—despite fears the election dispute could tip it back into civil war—is having a pretty good season so far.
Around 744,000 tonnes reached Abidjan and San Pedro by the end of last week, according to exporters’ estimates seen by Reuters, up nearly 20,000 tonnes on the same point last year.
Successfully depriving Gbagbo of cocoa taxes worth around $1 billion a year would leave him short of cash to pay $160 million a month of public sector and army salaries, potentially precipitating a fall from power.
European Firms Hurt?
According to the text of the measures published in the EU’s Official Journal at the weekend, 11 Ivorian institutions including the ports, cocoa body CGFCC, three banks and the state broadcaster will have their EU-held assets frozen and any future funding from within the bloc cut off.
“The basic rule is that you cannot make available economic resources, so you cannot pay for instance a designated entity,” said a European Commission foreign policy official who declined to be named.
“So that would essentially result in a prohibition to do business with those entities,” the official concluded.
Not so, says Abidjan port director Marcel Gossio, who argues that the only victims will be European firms who have carried out work for the port and could now end up unpaid.
“So they are freezing the accounts of Abidjan port held in their countries, but those are there to pay European contractors. So I won’t pay them and that’s that—it’s not my doing; it is the doing of their governments,” he told Reuters.
So far, cocoa futures markets have shrugged off the sanctions, even easing slightly on Monday, the first working day after their publication.
NO Appetite Seen for Tougher Moves
Several local exporters said they were reserving judgment on the measures, while their headquarters went over the fine print with lawyers.
A Brussels-based lawyer representing commodity traders was advising clients to “hold their horses” and not trade for the moment until the impact of the measures becomes clear.
One derogation from the freeze authorises the flow of funds to bodies on the list if they are covered by a prior “judicial, administrative or arbitral lien”.
That could be interpreted as meaning there is no direct consequence for Abidjan port operator Bollore of France, whose existing contract with the port runs to 2019 and which is responsible for dealings over container traffic.
“The general consensus is that the EU sanctions will have little impact simply because the current focus and structure of the sanctions is too narrow,” said Hanna-Caroline Imig, risk consultant with security firm AKE Ltd, noting that few of the vessels calling into Ivory Coast were EU-flagged anyhow.
African security adviser J. Peter Pham said if the EU were serious about hurting Gbagbo, it would be studying an all-out trade