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Ivory Coast Cocoa Investigation Implicates Top Officials


Twenty-three top officials from Ivory Coast's cocoa sector face charges of corruption, forgery and embezzlement following the public release of an investigation requested by President Laurent Gbagbo. The West African nation is the world's leading cocoa producer, but a lack of transparency has plagued the sector for many years. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

The top officials implicated include Lucien Tape Do, the president of the Coffee and Cocoa Bourse marketing body, Henri Kassi Amouzou, the president of the Fund for the Development and Promotion of the Activities of Cocoa and Coffee Producers and Angeline Zilahon Kili, the president of the Regulatory and Control Fund.

The investigation accuses them of siphoning away money intended to help develop the sector, which was liberalized in 2000. It is now run by a complex arrangement of public-private bodies, which promote and regulate production.

Maria Lopez, a campaigner on natural resources and conflict with the London-based organization Global Witness, is not surprised by the new findings. She regrets that no official from the Authority to Regulate Coffee and Cocoa, the only 100 percent state-owned institution, has been charged, however. Lopez contributed to a report last year, called Hot Chocolate, which said money from the sector was being used for illicit purposes, including a war chest to fight northern rebels.

"There are very important sums of money in the cocoa sector being transferred to national cocoa institutes," she said. "There was a complete lack of transparency in the sense, there was no date available to the public about how much money the national cocoa institutions were getting from those levies, and also how these national cocoa institutions were using these important sums of money."

Opposition journalists have said the indictments will help President Laurent Gbagbo's cause ahead of scheduled November 30 presidential and legislative elections, by giving him an anti-corruption image.

Lopez says she would not draw such conclusions so quickly.

"Of course, it is the cocoa sector, and it is a big sector, and it is important economically for the country," added Lopez. "But I am not sure it will influence voters that much to the point it could threaten anyone trying to get re-elected or getting elected."

Lopez says, more importantly, she hopes the investigation will lead to a judicial process.

"What we would like to see is more information about the nature of the charges for each individual. We would like them to be made public. We would also hope that the case would be brought forward transparently, and that justice - [that] there will be justice without any interference once they go to trial, any political interference," continued Lopez. "That is why the real test is basically how we go beyond just the charges, and how the trial takes place, and if people will indeed be sentenced."

Those who face charges remain in their jobs. In the run-up to the release of news about the investigation, they accused each other of being behind large-scale corruption.

President Gbagbo has promised prosecutions and jail time, and says the process will open the way to a new reform of the cocoa sector. Ivory Coast usually produces more than one million beans of cocoa a year.