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West African Currency Swap Reaches Rebel Areas

  • Nico Colombant

A massive currency swap in West Africa has finally ended, with extended operations in remote and rebel-held areas, to make sure all residents could replace old series of money with new bills and coins.

Money changers busily converted old West African CFA francs for new ones at this abandoned government office in Man in the final hours of the currency swap.

A dozen people waited in line behind razor wires, also protected by two armored vehicles, and several dozen French and United Nations peacekeepers.

A woman, arguing with a small boy, says that, before, she had to go through freelance money changers, and lost nearly a third of money she changed in commissions.

She was also afraid to travel with her money to the government-run south because of police extorting money at security checkpoints.

There has no been working bank system in rebel-held Ivory Coast since civil war broke out in late 2002.

Now, the woman says, she is relieved to finally keep what is left of her life savings.

Thirty-five-year-old used clothes salesman, Robert Tia, went to the wrong place at first, but peacekeepers pointed him in the right direction.

"It's very, very good. The personnel is good, it's gentle, they're gentlemen, they take me to change my money," he said.

Mr. Tia is also here to get change. Shiny new 500 CFA coins, worth about one dollar, have been lacking.

"For me it's important, very important because I am a businessman, so I need the coins to do my business," he said.

During the initial currency swap, the central bank of West African states held just three days to change money in the main rebel-held city of Bouake.

U.N. peacekeeper Lieutenant-Colonel Asad Khan, who has been in Ivory Coast for several months, says many residents from rebel areas seemed afraid.

"From the very beginning, they were apprehensive about their security, last time was in December, they came, they were apprehensive about their security. They were not satisfied last time," he said.

As the hours winded down in this one-month extension period, the Bangladeshi peacekeeper says most people were trying to get desperately needed coins.

"The old money is less. People are coming to change their new currency to change into coins because since there is no bank operating here, coins were a problem," he explained.

A self-proclaimed social activist in the rebel-held north, Mamery Soumahoro says he is relieved peacekeepers are finally helping with economic problems of war-afflicted civilians.

He says during the initial swap, three days was just too short for half a country to get their new money.

Bank officials say about $1.7 billion have been exchanged in the eight West African countries using the euro-pegged currency.

One reason to replace the 1992-series was to make counterfeiting more difficult. The swap also followed the theft of $100 million worth of the old currency from banks in rebel-held Ivory Coast. The currency exchange helped prevent much of the stolen money from being laundered.

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