The workers’ grievances include overdue back pay, poor retirement conditions, and limited freedom for unions. The government has addressed most of those concerns, but there is still the core issue of more than $400 million in back pay the workers say they are owed.
On Jan. 27, the unions announced a one-month suspension of the strike to hash out the outstanding issues. Negotiations, though, are dragging on, and some union members are agitating to resume the strike if their demands are not resolved soon.
Ivory Coast, a former French colony, emerged from a nearly decade-long civil conflict to average about 9 percent annual economic growth since 2012. The nation is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, and President Alassane Ouattara has invested in roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects that have lured back multinational corporations that fled during the conflict.
But the fruits of that growth have not reached large parts of the population, and with over three years left in his term, Mr. Ouattara is facing arguably the biggest challenge of his presidency.
Mr. Ouattara, an American-trained economist, is under acute pressure to solve what the local media refers to as “the social discontent,” a term that encompasses the striking teachers and workers, the raging students and a recent military mutiny that revived painful memories of a civil war that left thousands dead. Groups as varied as Catholic bishops and local chieftains have expressed concern about where the social tensions could lead.
“All of the social discontent that’s building worries me and doesn’t bode well for calm in the future,” said Edith Brou, a prominent Ivorian blogger whose two young boys could not go to school during the strike.
The demonstrations stem from the belief that “every Ivorian thinks the time is ripe to have his share of the ‘emergence,’ the term used by authorities, in relation to Ouattara’s vision for Ivory Coast in 2020,” said André Silver Konan, an Ivorian journalist and political analyst. Despite the country’s impressive economic growth, 46 percent of the population still lived in poverty in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The strike came on the heels of a multiday military revolt that erupted in early January. Soldiers, many of them former rebels who helped bring Mr. Ouattara to power, threw up barricades and fired shots into the air across the country to demand back pay and better living conditions.
After a tense standoff, the government agreed to pay the 8,500 or so mutineers an estimated $19,500 each. Though an uneasy calm now holds, the haphazard nature of the agreement could encourage future uprisings.
The government’s capitulation to the rogue soldiers had a “psychological effect” on the civil servants, said Théodore Gnagna Zadi, the head of the country’s biggest conglomerate of unions, which has led the strike. “Why can’t we get our money?” he said the thinking was, with workers reasoning that the state “should give it to us if they give it to others.”
Government officials have struck measured tones in their responses to both the mutiny and the strike, calling for calm and emphasizing that aggrieved parties’ demands will be heard.
A government spokesman did not respond to questions on the government’s strategy for alleviating the social unrest. But Joel N’Guessan, a spokesman for Mr. Ouattara’s political party, Rally of the Republicans, said he was confident the government had a handle on the situation.
Adding to Mr. Ouattara’s woes are recent struggles in the cocoa sector, a vital source of export earnings. During the mutiny, the military police fired shots near the port of Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital, temporarily disrupting commerce and rattling cocoa exporters. The country’s cocoa regulator said recently that late rains and inadequate equipment had led to backlogs in shipments.
The flow of commerce is crucial as the government tries to tame the unrest. If the government agrees to all of the workers’ demands, the strike and mutiny would have cost more than $600 million, about 1.6 percent of Ivory Coast’s projected gross domestic product for 2017.
The money could be found by cutting spending elsewhere or increasing borrowing. But raising wages for public-sector employees would be a drain on the treasury.
With the Ivorian treasury under pressure, Mr. Gnagna Zadi said his group of unions would accept the back pay in tranches.
Christian Bouquet, a professor at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne in France who specializes in Ivory Coast, said the long-brewing unrest was “one of the most serious challenges” to Mr. Ouattara’s presidency because these social problems have not been “addressed comprehensively and sustainably.” To do that, Mr. Bouquet said, the Ivorian government should take full stock of the myriad social and economic grievances in the country.
Even as the government tries to do that, though, new grievances could spring up, and the ability of street demonstrators to quickly force the government to the negotiating table is not lost on Mr. Gnagna Zadi.
“We’re optimistic,” he said confidently, after the strike and the three-week disruption for the country. “The government doesn’t want to relive this.”
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