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The Costs of the Road in a Divided Côte d’Ivoire

Thomas J. Bassett, Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Figure 1

Top-heavy trucks that seem about to tip over are a common sight on the main road between Korhogo and Abidjan. These so-called “forty-ton” trucks are intended to carry just thirty-two tons, but the costs of racketeering along commercial corridors force drivers to overload their trucks to pay for the frais de route or “road levies.” For the ten years (2002-2011) the country was divided between the New Forces (Forces Nouvelles) Army in the north and government forces in the south, merchants plying Côte d’Ivoire’s roads paid an assortment of taxes and rackets on both sides of the divide, as they did prior to the rebellion. In the north, New Forces commanders and their underlings taxed everything that moved. Trucks of all sizes, automobiles, motorcycles, and even cattle herders and researchers had to obtain permits to travel from one zone to the next. New Forces soldiers stood outside the gates of cotton ginning companies to make sure that each overloaded truck had the two requisite receipts: one for a merchandise tax paid to the New Forces treasury, La Centrale, the other a laissez-passer to traverse the New Forces zone (Figure 1). South of the demilitarized zone, company truck drivers were met by the corps habillés (literally, “uniformed bodies”)—government-controlled soldiers, gendarmes, police, and militias—who imposed a mix of formal and informal taxes. This double burden of taxation fell most heavily on the shoulders of farmers, who produced the cargo transported in these trucks.

The New Forces divided the north into ten political-military zones that differed from the country’s official administrative regions (Figure 2). A New Forces official said that the zones’ boundaries owed their origins to military strategies, a desire to give each zone a comparable area, and to “other considerations” (field notes, Abidjan, May 6, 2008). Zones became fiefdoms ruled by military commanders popularly known as “Comzones.” Each zone was subdivided into “sectors” comprised of two to three subprefectures governed by a “sector chief.” Comzones, sector chiefs, and accountants elaborated a revenue-generating system that enriched the powerful, provisioned the troops, and impoverished ordinary people. Some Comzones used these funds to make road repairs and to construct public buildings. But such investments were rare and varied widely among zones [1].

Mike McGovern [2, pp. 184-190] describes the roadblock economy in the government-controlled south, which yielded tens of thousands of dollars daily to the corps habillés in 2004. In the North, checkpoint extortion was equally profitable. The example of one Korhogo cashew merchant, who sold 150 truckloads of cashews in 2011, illustrates the mechanics of this revenue-making machine.

The merchant sent buying agents to rural towns across the north to buy nuts from farmers whose orchards averaged five hectares in size. After filling a forty-ton truck, each driver headed south to the Port of Abidjan via Bouaké. The merchant paid road taxes and rackets that amounted to 615,000 CFA francs ($1,305.00) per truck. Forty percent of these receipts went to the New Forces’ Centrale. Another 20% was collected in Katiola for the benefit of the ten Comzones. In Bouaké, the center of New Forces operations, the merchant paid three separate “tickets” to pass through the city, accounting for 20% of total costs. After leaving the New Forces zone, the merchant made just one payment on the government side—125,000 CFA francs ($262.00) to the corps habillés stationed in Tiébissou. Of the total road levies, 80% went to the New Forces, 20% to the loyalist government.

In 2009-2010, Côte d’Ivoire exported 350,000 tons of cashew nuts, the equivalent of 8,750 forty-ton truckloads. At $1,300.00 per truck, the taxation on cashews alone amounted to more than $11 million. And this was just one commodity among many that was subject to road levies. I conservatively estimate that cotton generated $2.5 million for New Forces and government forces. The New Forces also extracted an estimated $30 million annually from cocoa traders [3, p. 37] and millions more from illegal diamond exports [4, p. 23].

Farmers bore the brunt of this taxation. For example, the official price for cashews was set at 200 CFA francs/kg (42¢) in 2008. But Korhogo-based merchants declared this an impossible price. They purportedly received just 150-175 CFA francs/kg from exporters that year. To cover their costs, including road levies, they paid cashew growers a measly 75 CFA francs (16¢) for a kilogram of unshelled nuts.

The newly elected government of Alassane Ouattara dissolved the New Forces zones in October 2011 when he redeployed law enforcement agents to the north. He also launched a highly visible campaign to end racketeering along the country’s roads. This is good news for Côte d’Ivoire’s businesses and hopefully for its rural producers, who are usually the last to profit from the products of their labor.

Figure 2


Figure 1. A New Forces roadblock at the northern entrance to Bouaké and examples of New Forces tax receipts for a shipment of fertilizer. Photos: T. Bassett, April 2008.

Figure 2. Map of New Forces Zones overlaid onto the official regional administrative divisions of Côte d’Ivoire. Map: T. Bassett.


[1] Airault, Pascal. 2010. La fin des comzones? Jeune Afrique, June 23 (accessed May 24, 2012).

[2] McGovern, Mike. 2011 Making War in Côte d’Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Global Witness. 2007. Hot Chocolate: How Cocoa Fueled the Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. Washington, D.C.: Global Witness (accessed May 24, 2012).

[4] Balint-Kurti, Daniel. 2007. Côte d’Ivoire’s Forces Nouvelles. Programme Paper, Armed Non-State Actors Series. London: Chatham House (accessed May 24, 2012).