ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Nine banks, including Ivory Coast’s largest, shut down their operations one after another Thursday, further squeezing the country’s strongman who is refusing to leave office nearly three months after being declared the loser of the presidential election.
Together, the financial institutions halting operations this week hold the vast majority of civil servant bank accounts in the West African country. The move is expected to prevent almost all government employees from receiving their salaries. Panicked people gathered in lines desperately seeking to take out their savings in fear of a cash shortage.
The international community had said it would use financial sanctions to dislodge sitting president Laurent Gbagbo, who is refusing to step down although results issued by his country’s election commission and certified by the United Nations showed he had lost the Nov. 28 ballot by nearly 9 percentage points. Among the sanctions slapped on Gbagbo’s regime was the revocation of his signature on state accounts at the regional central bank which prints the currency used in Ivory Coast.
Diplomats and analysts have been wagering that once civil servants stop receiving their pay, they will defect en masse away from Gbagbo. He is still backed by the army which has brutally cracked down on supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who has been unable to assume office even though he is internationally recognized as the winner of the vote.
Ouattara has been forced to begin his term inside a U.N.-guarded hotel. His prime minister Guillaume Soro has been touring African capitals attempting to shore up support.
Next week, a panel of five African presidents will travel to Ivory Coast on behalf of the African Union to try to persuade Gbagbo to step down. On Thursday during a stop in Senegal, Soro told reporters that its time for the Ivorian people to rise up Egypt-style.
“We don’t need the African Union … In Egypt, was the African Union there? Was there a panel of heads of state there? It was the Egyptians that chased Mubarak out …. Gbagbo isn’t stronger than Mubarak,” said Soro. “The people of Ivory Coast need to do launch their own revolution.”
In Ivory Coast, the stepped up financial pressure is starting to spill over into protests. Several hundred angry cocoa farmers set piles of cocoa beans on fire in front of the European Union office in Abidjan on Thursday, protesting sanctions put in place by the international community to try to force Gbagbo out. They say the sanctions have instead paralyzed the industry in the world’s largest cocoa growing country.