A spreading West African drought has exacerbated the deepening domestic woes of the Ivory Coast, for many years the region's paragon of economic development and political harmony.
The lingering global recession already has had a devastating economic impact throughout West Africa, which is dependent on commodity exports, but the drought, coupled with recent brush fires, has endangered even domestic food supplies.
A prolonged harmattan, the dust-carrying, dry Saharan wind that normally blows to the tropical West African coast from November to January, worsened the parched conditions by blowing until the end of March this year and fanning the brush fires.
The Ivory Coast, after two decades of agricultural planning, is expected to weather the drought with a tight food supply if the rainfall returns to normal at the end of the dry season in May.
In Africa as a whole, however, the food supplies of an estimated 50 million people are threatened along the West African tropical coast from the Ivory Coast to Cameroon, the nine-country zone known as the Sahel, running on the southern edge of the Sahara desert through Ethiopia in East Africa.
Because of years of prosperity, the Ivory Coast is in a better position than its neighbors to adjust to the region's climatic vagaries. But the government's belt-tightening measures have rent the tight political fabric woven by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the Ivorian president since independence from France in 1960.
The drought-caused economic deterioration has triggered a sharp cutback in government largesse, an uncharacteristic crackdown on party officials who were pocketing public funds, and rising unemployment. The trouble has provoked similar consequences in the weaker economies of other West African countries, but the impact is perhaps wider here because Ivorians had come to expect their "economic miracle" to continue unabated.
That was acknowledged by Houphouet-Boigny in a January public meeting, which led to the sharp cutback in the extraordinary government subsidy for 30,000 civil servants' housing--from a high of $240 million a year to $48 million.
"I know that to ask a brother to reduce his style of living to which he is accustomed is painful," said Houphouet-Boigny. "But facing our present situation, what else can one do?"
In March, seven secretaries of the Ivory Coast's sole party, the Democratic Party, were dismissed at public tribunals after being found guilty of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars of party members' donations. Their photographs were prominently displayed in the government-controlled Fraternite Matin, the only newspaper, over a three-day period. In previous scandals, Houphouet-Boigny had ordered the officials concerned to resign quietly and had issued face-saving bureaucratic excuses on their behalf.
Gnogbo Gouamene, secretary of state for internal security, said in a published interview in April that the new public exposure policy "is necessary to give examples. It is necessary that everyone know if he commits such malpractices, he will be known to all Ivorians."
The Ivorian economy has been contracting since a plunge in world cocoa and coffee prices, the country's major exports, four years ago. With half of the 8 million population under the age of 20, the government is nervously faced with increasing pressure for jobs as 185,000 primary, high school and college graduates enter the job market each year.
Added to the economic malaise is the political uncertainty of what would follow Houphouet-Boigny, who has not designated a successor.
Since no one has been named to the empty vice presidential slot, if Houphouet-Boigny, 77, were to become incapacitated "there is legally no successor," said a well-informed source who insisted on anonymity. "There is a widespread apprehension in the Ivory Coast that there would be a scramble for power" if something should happen to the man who has been the dominant politician here since 1945.
That source and several Ivorians said, however, that it is understood Houphouet-Boigny does not want to "openly" choose his successor for fear of disrupting the balance among the more than 60 ethnic groups. These sources said it was possible that the vice presidential candidate for the 1985 elections will be chosen next year in an open primary contest among half a dozen candidates.
Given the Ivory Coast's mounting economic difficulties, "there is a good chance a young technocrat will emerge as Houphouet-Boigny's successor," according to this informant, who noted as precedents the recent handovers of power from Leopold Senghor to Abdou Diouf in Senegal and Ahmadou Ahidjo to Paul Biya in Cameroon.
Perhaps a crowning glory for Houphouet-Boigny is a development that has caused some muted popular resentment in these hard times--the National Assembly's vote by "acclamation" in March to move the capital from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, the president's home village 166 miles northeast of Abidjan.
Houphouet-Boigny already has poured hundreds of million of dollars of the country's cocoa and coffee revenues into transforming Yamoussoukro from a village of 1,300 in 1955 into a modern city of eight-lane, practically empty boulevards with an estimated metropolitan population of 70,000. Abidjan's population is close to 2 million.
Government planners indicate the government's move to Yamoussoukro is still far off. "The country simply does not have the money," said one African urban planner. "The vote was more of the country saying 'thank you' for what he has done over the past two decades."
While the brush fires in the past weeks have destroyed some cropland, it is estimated that the drought has done far more damage and that the harvest of cocoa this month may drop by a third.
The Ivory Coast has another advantage over its neighbors, though: offshore oil production takes care of domestic petroleum needs, 25,000 barrels a day.