Food tax protests ease after gov't backs down

Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo cut taxes on food imports on Tuesday, bowing to pressure from housewives and youths who barricaded roads for two days of violent protests that reportedly left one man dead.


ABIDJAN, April 1 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast slashed taxes on key food imports on Tuesday, bowing to protests over rising prices by housewives and youths in which residents said one young man was killed.

Protesters blocked roads with barricades and burning tyres for a second day as violent demonstrations over the high cost of food in West Africa spread to once prosperous Ivory Coast.

President Laurent Gbagbo, whose government is meant to be leading the former French colony to national elections this year following a 2002-2003 civil war, appealed for calm and called an emergency meeting at his palace on Wednesday.

“I launch this appeal for calm so as finally to lead our country towards peace,” Gbagbo said in an address broadcast on state television.

“I invite all economic operators and the representatives of consumers’ groups to meet for dialogue and consultations at the presidential palace tomorrow,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, as police fired tear gas at protesters in a smart suburb of Abidjan, government Secretary-General Felix Dyela Tyeoulou appeared on the main midday television news bulletin to announce the temporary suspension of import duties on staples.

He said other taxes would be cut on some staple foods and the government would reinforce efforts to tackle racketeering which had helped drive up prices for food and cement.

“All these measures should allow the government to bring prices for staple foodstuffs back to their level before the present increases,” he said.


A few hundred metres (yards) from state television studios in Cocody suburb, police played cat-and-mouse with scores of protesters, chasing them away and dismantling barricades.

Most shops remained shuttered on Tuesday in Cocody, where at least a dozen people were arrested when protests began on Monday. Police gave no overall figures for arrests.

Police officers and residents in other parts of town reached by phone said similar demonstrations were also under way in the populous districts of Yopougon and Port Bouet, where witnesses said one youth was killed during the violence.

“I saw one young man dead. He had a big hole in his temple,” one witness told Reuters. Police officials declined to comment.

Residents said after some disruption on Monday, traffic was unaffected on Tuesday on routes to Abidjan’s port, the main export terminal for cotton from Burkina Faso and Mali and around half the cocoa crop from Ivory Coast, the world’s top producer.

Protests over food prices have spilled over into violence in several African countries as costs have risen around the world due to record high oil and fuel prices, higher demand for food in Asia and rising use of farm land and crops for biofuels.

Ivory Coast’s unrest follows similar food price protests in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania, as well as Latin America and Asia.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates nearly 49 percent of Ivory Coast’s 19 million people live below the poverty threshold of $2 per day.

“Before you could manage with 5,000 CFA a week,” said Margueritte Ahoule, a protester in her 60s. “Now 5,000 francs doesn’t feed a family for two days.”

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