ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast's incumbent leader seized the nation's electric company and its distribution center Thursday in his latest effort to maintain control of the country nearly two months after the international community said he lost the election.
Laurent Gbagbo's allies took over the West African regional central bank's offices in Ivory Coast on Wednesday in an attempt to keep their access to millions of dollars in state coffers. Those funds are needed so Gbagbo can continue paying civil servants and soldiers.
The national electricity company issued a statement Thursday saying its central distribution center also had been seized by Gbagbo's government, which cited reasons of national security.
The bank and the international community recognize Gbagbo's rival, Alassane Ouattara, as the winner of the presidential runoff election held two months ago. Some say Gbagbo has been able to withdraw tens of millions of dollars in recent weeks to keep his government functioning even though he was supposed to be cut off.
In a statement released Thursday, the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), protested Gbagbo's decision to take over its operations in Ivory Coast, calling the move "a flagrant violation of international agreements."
The bank ordered all its offices in the country closed until further notice.
Soldiers and military police surrounded the bank's Abidjan headquarters on Wednesday. Local press reports said that safes at the bank were opened and that the cash stores on the premises were seized, though these accounts could not be independently verified.
While bank employees were ordered to report to work on Thursday, computer networks with the outside had been cut, preventing Gbagbo's allies from being able to access funds, local press reports said.
"In the coming days, if the central bank remains closed, the commercial banks will not be able to operate," said Ouattara's acting finance minister Patrick Achi. "This will paralyze the economic activity in the country," he said.
The Dakar, Senegal-based regional bank formally recognized Ouattara as president in late December and ordered that Gbagbo's access to state coffers be cut off. Gbagbo, however, continued to withdraw funds from state accounts until the bank's governor, a close Gbagbo ally, was forced to resign last weekend.
Achi says that in the interim, Gbagbo was able to withdraw 57 billion francs ($120 million) illegitimately to keep his government functioning.
Gbagbo then had the bank's Ivorian offices seized, but it appears that the move was largely symbolic because Achi says there is not a significant amount of money on the premises.
The Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) regroups the treasuries of eight West African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.
Ouattara, a former BCEAO and International Monetary Fund official, ordered a one-month moratorium on cocoa exports earlier this week, attempting to cut Gbagbo off from another important source of revenue in the world's largest cocoa producer.
The two measures taken together strike a blow to Gbagbo's ability to stay in power about two months after he was declared the loser of the presidential election by the electoral commission and the United Nations.
The constitutional council later overturned those results by invalidating more than half a million votes in Ouattara strongholds in the north and proclaimed Gbagbo the winner.
Both men have set up governments in the meantime, and despite Ouattara's international support, he has been unable to wrest control of the country from Gbagbo, who continues to control the army and security forces.
The West African bloc of states known as ECOWAS has threatened military invasion to oust Gbagbo if negotiations fail, though several countries have since expressed reservations about using force and no deadline has been set.
Ouattara's camp hopes that a financial squeeze could prevent Gbagbo from being able to pay civil servants and army salaries, provoking a mass defection so that such a military operation would not be needed.