Wealth Gap Leaves Ivorians Craving Share of Booming Economy

Updated on
  • High expectations fuel outbreaks of social unrest in country
  • Gap in development between biggest city and interior widens

Standing knee-deep in muddy water to sift gravel in oppressive heat, a handful of middle-aged miners search for diamonds, clinging to what seems like a dying trade in a region with few job opportunities.

“It’s unpredictable,” Pierre Silue, a 46-year-old miner wearing ragged clothes, said as he took a break to stretch his back. “Sometimes you go a week without earning anything.”

Diamond miners wash tailings near an old diamond mine in Tortiya.

Photographer: Pauline Bax/Bloomberg

Tens of thousands of diamond miners used to work around Tortiya, an isolated town at the end of a 48-kilometer (30-mile) unpaved road through grasslands in northern Ivory Coast. At its height, the mining company that developed Tortiya -- named after John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat -- produced 175,000 carats a year. Now it’s a symbol of the widening gap between the interior and the booming coastal south in an economy that’s expanded at an average annual rate of 9 percent over the past five years, the fastest in Africa.

While a surge in construction is transforming the biggest city, Abidjan, and attracting investors from Mauritius to Morocco, many ordinary Ivorians are wondering when they’ll see the benefits of growth. In the face of daily broadcasts on state TV celebrating the nation’s so-called economic miracle, the worst social unrest this year since 2011 signals that some people are running out of patience.

“There’s a colossal development gap between Abidjan and the interior,’’ said Youssouf Carius, an economist and founder of Pulsar Partners, a private-investment fund. “Even though some areas have a lot of potential, private investment won’t arrive as long as public services remain largely non-existent.’’

Military Crisis

After a protracted military crisis that partitioned Ivory Coast for nine years and culminated in a battle for Abidjan in the wake of disputed 2010 elections, President Alassane Ouattara inherited a nation in tatters. His focus on rebuilding the economy earned widespread praise from donors including the World Bank. But he’s yet to bring his strongest opponents into the political system, and his technocratic approach has failed to generate enthusiasm among many of his supporters.

While the minimum wage has been increased, expectations have soared with the opening of shopping malls and luxury hotels in Abidjan and the government’s touting of prestige projects such as a city-center marina, said Laurent Assouanga, a history professor at the Universite Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan. That fueled a civil servant strike in February, days after soldiers staged a mutiny. Last year, the city of Bouake, once a Ouattara stronghold, saw riots over an increase in utility fees.

“When there is growth, people assume that there is wealth to be shared, and they expect to see that on their dinner plate,” he said.

Porsche Cayenne

The number of dollar millionaires in Ivory Coast climbed 45 percent in the past decade to 2,500, more than the African growth average of 19 percent, AfrAsia Bank Ltd. said in a report. It’s likely to jump another 80 percent in the coming decade, according to the report. The World Bank estimates that Ivory Coast’s income inequality is comparable to the U.S. and Qatar.

Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

“People feel that inequality is growing, and it’s a feeling that’s fanned by symbols: in Abidjan, you won’t go a day without seeing a Porsche Cayenne,” said Ranie Kone, an economist. “We’re in a culture where showing off is very important and people tend to live above their means.”

Tortiya used to be a magnet for adventurers from all over the region. Small-scale diamond miners arrived in droves after the town’s only mining company closed in 1975, and they stayed even after rebels invaded the area and collected illicit taxes for almost 10 years.

Today, it’s a backwater. Many have left to find gold in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. After the United Nations lifted an embargo on rough diamond exports from Ivory Coast three years ago -- smuggling of the gem was seen as benefiting the rebels and perpetuating the conflict -- the government banned small-scale mining. That’s left only cashew nuts and cattle herding as potential income earners -- cocoa, the nation’s biggest export crop, doesn’t grow in the north.

Mining Company

“Everybody thinks we’re all millionaires here,” said Marius Sauvade, a 65-year-old Belgian native and ex-miner who runs a riverside hotel from what in colonial days used to be housing for white mining executives. “The opposite is true.”

The residents’ best hope for a revival of local industry is the state-run mining company Sodemi, which got an exploration permit in 2015 and should actively search for new reserves, a UN expert group said last year.

But Sodemi officials have largely remained absent, said Mohamed Camara, a diamond trader who’s turning to buying gold from illegal mines in the northwest.

“They came and said they wanted to organize things, but so far nothing has happened,” he said. “I’m a member of the ruling party, but I’m a bit disappointed with my president. It’s wrong to develop only the economic capital and forget about the interior.”

A miner shows the rough diamonds he’s collected in Tortiya.

Photographer: Pauline Bax/Bloomberg

At the muddy pool where Pierre Silue spends his working days, Abidjan seems a faraway dream to most. Silue has never made the 636-kilometer journey to the city, and doesn’t think he’ll ever have enough money to do so.

“Miracles -- over here we don’t know about that,” he said. “It’s only in Abidjan that you find big miracles.”

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