- Businessmen, truckers remain sceptical
- Rackets cost business hundreds of millions of dollars
By Tim Cocks
ABIDJAN, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's military says it is dismantling checkpoints that block the country's roads, but businesses still see no end to the hassle and extortion that add millions to their transport costs.
The roadblocks, which menace civilians, choke trade and discourage foreign investors, sprang up across Ivory Coast after the war of 2002-2003 divided a nation once seen as West Africa's most stable and attractive for business.
Army Chief of Staff General Philippe Mangou held a ceremony last week to remove a roadblock in Abidjan, symbolically relaunching a campaign to dismantle some checkpoints nationwide.
"We've said that when there's an improvement in security, we would remove checkpoints to give traders ... free movement."
A similar initiative last year led to some soldiers being court marshalled but came to a halt after running out of funds. Consequently, business leaders remain sceptical.
"(There is) not much difference," said Cyril Durand, communications director of Sifca Group, a privately owned agro-industry firm specialising in palm oil, sugar and rubber.
"They make an effort to clear them and then they reappear in other places. Unfortunately these bad habits come back again. The consumer is the one who pays at the end of the day."
Gun-toting government soldiers and rebel fighters still man checkpoints across much of Ivory Coast, despite a 2007 peace deal meant to pave the way for disarming the rebels and reuniting the country in a national election.
The polls are years overdue. The latest in a string of deadlines, Nov. 29, was missed due to delays in working out who will be eligible to vote.
Some say President Laurent Gbabgo and the rebels profit from the status quo, a charge both deny.
"I'm so angry," said truck driver Adama Coulibaly, as he waited for days in Abidjan's trash-strewn port depot for an escort to accompany his lorry load of engine oil to Burkina Faso.
"You travel in a convoy and yet still at every checkpoint, they take your money. What can you do? You have to pay."
BUSINESSES ARE SHY
The World Bank estimated last year that racketeering by government and rebel forces cost freighters 95 billion to 150 billion CFA francs a year ($210 million to $330 million).
The crisis has plunged West African trade routes into turmoil as landlocked neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso rely heavily Ivory Coast's ports of Abidjan and San Pedro.
Trader Francois Bassole, whose truck ferries cement to both countries, said fleecing by gunmen, especially in the rebel-held north, often doubled the price of his wares.
Before the crisis, he did four journeys a month, compared with two now. His monthly profits have halved to 1 million CFA ($2,250).
Abdoul Bakayoko, director of the Ivorian freight office, said traffic remained a third of what it was before the war.
Rebel official Idrissa Dembele denied extortion, but told Reuters the rebels, who still control much of the north they seized during the war, had to take taxes for road maintenance.
Meanwhile, potential investors are waiting for the country, which produces over a million tonnes of cocoa a year, to hold elections.
"Businesses are still shy," said Jean Claude Schmidt, Ivory Coast director of French drinks company BGI Castel. "We can only hope the polls happen and things start to get normal." ($1 = 445 CFA francs)
(Additional reporting by Alain Amontchi and Loucoumane Coulibaly; editing by David Lewis)
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