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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: En Afrique, la situation est devenue explosive

by Vincent Defait

In Africa, the Situation has Become Volatile

Translated Thursday 27 March 2008, by Susannah Readett-Bayley

In many countries on the continent the price rise has hit hard, causing protests in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon.

West Africa,

Special Report.

In the hubbub of Treichville market in the south of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic capital, two friends on greying horses wind between the cages of chickens and stacks of vegetables. By their own description — not really poor and not really middle class either — they confirm how difficult it has become to fill their shopping baskets. “Today, with 10,000 CFA (23 USD), you can feed your family for 3 days. A few months ago, that was enough for a week.” As a result, these two mothers leave out certain products. They no longer buy milk or butter, which have gone from 400 CFA (0.91USD) to nearly 1000 CFA (2.29USD). Some families are only eating one meal a day. "I sometimes skip lunch”, says one of them.

Further on, Mady digs her hand into her sack of Asian rice “I have to sell the kilo at 350 CFA (0.80USD) compared to 250 CFA (0.60USD) a couple of months ago” she explains. It’s the same story with oil, another staple for cooking in Africa. “Last year, I would buy a 200 litre barrel for 100,000 CFA (229USD). Today it costs me 146,000 CFA (335USD)” Nearly a 50% price rise impacting directly on the price of a bottle. “Now, the women are only buying 3 litres instead of the usual 5”.

In his little office in Yopougon, the huge suburb to the north west of Abidjan, the president of the General Union for consumers in Ivory Coast seems helpless. “The government is totally deaf to our warnings” criticises Kouakou N’Guessan. Last September, he managed to organise protests in some areas. The government’s solution: to suspend customs duty on imported wheat for 4 months. An old favourite…

“In Africa, the governments have exhausted the 3 economic levers that they have available: lowering VAT, lowering customs duty and cutting the seller’s margin” explains Abdou Dieng, the WFP’s representative in Ivory Coast. “If prices continue to rise, they will have to be absorbed by the products themselves, and then there will be conflict’.

Will be? In some countries the conflict is already visible. Notably, in Burkina Faso where unions and opposition parties have already organised several protests. Back in February, some leaders served months in prison as a result. The most recent, last weekend’s march, saw several thousand people gather in the streets of the capital Ouagadougou. “We will continue our action until the government has understood the public’s discontent”, warned Tollé Sagnon, the general secretary of the General Confederation of workers for Burkina (CGTB) .A nation-wide strike is announced for the 8th and 9th of April. Last month, the rise in the price of petrol, together with exasperation against the ruling government, caused violent protests in Cameroon. Some months earlier, Senegal experienced similar unrest. Each time, it’s the poorest for whom the price rise is critical, manifesting their frustration to the government. These governments are often perceived as corrupt or indifferent - and this perception is perhaps not all that far off.

Of even greater concern, the NGO Afrique Verte (Green Africa) who specialise in the ‘food security and sovereignty in the Sahel’, forecast that the continued increase in rice prices, the staple food of this region of Africa, could seriously rock an already very unstable situation. In his office in Abidjan, Abdou Dieng insists “If African countries want to consume rice, they are going to have to produce it. Governments must structure their agricultural sectors to be able to ensure a buying price for farmers”. Unfortunately, when it comes to agricultural policy, there’s many a slip between cup and lip.

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