Government authorities in Ivory Coast have announced that an investigation into the country's cocoa and coffee sectors has officially begun. President Laurent Gbagbo called for the inquiry last week, following accusations published in the local press that management of the cocoa and coffee boards were embezzling public funds. Phillip Wellman reports for VOA from Abidjan.
Government Prosecutor Raymond Tchimou said Tuesday the investigation was beginning to examine the several agencies that make up the cocoa and coffee boards.
Non-government watchdog groups and local newspapers have recently accused the management of both bodies, which set prices for crops and oversee exports, of using profits for their own gain rather than for the benefit of producers. Farmers are obliged to pay a percentage of their income to the boards that are supposed to provide assistance when market prices fluctuate.
The accusation that prompted the current investigation was that the cocoa board was using a chocolate plant in the United States in a money laundering scheme. Several attempts to speak to officials of the organization have been unsuccessful, but prosecutor Tchimou says the board's actions will soon become transparent.
Tchimou says the investigation will determine whether the accusations of fraud have any merit. If they are found to be true, he says authorities will work until they discover exactly who is responsible for the crimes and prosecute anyone who is found guilty.
He says the investigation is helping farmers to know exactly what their funds are being used for and is aiming to make the procedures of the cocoa and coffee boards more visible to the public.
But critics say the investigation is nothing but political maneuvering by President Gbagbo. Several opposition leaders, including Secretary General of the Ivory Coast Democratic Party, Djedje Mady say if President Laurent Gbagbo really wanted to help the country's farmers, he would have launched an investigation much earlier.
Mady says some members of the government have been aware of corruption for years and have been benefiting from it themselves. He says he believes the motive behind the investigation is to divert attention from the fact that presidential elections continue to be postponed.
Mr. Gbagbo's presidential mandate was supposed to expire in 2005, but his term has been extended twice by the United Nations as the country remains split in two. A new election is the overall aim of a peace accord signed in March, but its projected date continues to be pushed back as necessary procedures run into frequent hurdles.
Deputy spokesman of the Ivory Coast Democratic Party, Boa Amoakon, who is also vice president of the government's legislative branch, the National Assembly, says President Gbagbo had no choice but to launch the investigation.
Amoakon says there is no question that cocoa and coffee funds have been embezzled at the expense of farmers.
"Even the president himself acknowledges it. So for us we are waiting for the confirmation. It is incredible what is going on. And we hope that the inquiry meeting will bring some [justice] after the investigation," he said.
Amoakon adds he believes the investigation will render results. He says he does not believe the inquiry is just a political strategy of the president because of the seriousness of the allegations and because so many people are dependent on the cocoa and coffee sectors in the county.
"I am sure they will find something," said Amoakon. "I do not know at what level," he said. "You know a lot of things are going on . We hope that our men in the justice [system] will do a good job for us so we can go and ask the government to do what it has to do. It is a question for the government."
Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa producer with half of the country's population dependent on the crop for their livelihoods. Ivory Coast is also Africa's leading producer of coffee.