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Ivorian tax-free rebel city flourishes

8 January 10 00:20 GMT

By John James
BBC News, Bouake

An itinerant salesman in a baseball cap wanders the streets of Ivory Coast's second city, Bouake, touting counterfeit perfumes.

"Here no-one can say to you: 'No, that's pirated' or 'You can't sell that here,'" he tells me when I ask if he ever has any trouble from the authorities.

"If we were in the south of the country, you could complain that no customs tax has been paid for example, but when you're in the New Forces-zone everything can come in and be sold," he says.

The north of Ivory Coast - an area covering 60% of the country and a zone bigger than England and Wales - remains under the authority of an ex-rebel group, the New Forces, who split the country in two after a rebellion in 2002.

Bouake is the ex-rebel capital of "Soroland", as the zone is sometimes nicknamed, after the New Forces leader, Guillaume Soro.

Mr Soro became prime minister in a power-sharing government and has played a key role in planning presidential elections scheduled for late February or March.

While he took charge of the unity administration after a March 2007 peace deal, the country is itself is still far from united.

Soroland may not be a breakaway zone, but for seven years the inhabitants of this zone have got used to living without government taxes, customs charges and even water and electricity bills.

Reunification - already under way - will be a challenge to complete.

Hussein Doumbia is one of many local business leaders who have learnt to profit from this vast black market zone.

"Things are a lot cheaper than in the south - we see that people from the south often come here to stock up, above all the military who come for all their electronics - mobile phones, DVDs, televisions, everything," he says.

Trading places

Members of the government's armed forces formerly aiming to recapture Bouake now profit from the duty-free shopping.

"Yes, they've become friends. It's their colleagues who are in charge of controlling the dividing line between the two zones so they can get through quite easily," Mr Doumbia says.

No-one in the rebellion envisaged this outcome when they staged their coup on 19 September 2002.

"For the rebellion it was a question of getting to [the main city in the south] Abidjan and certainly to get our hands on power there," says Andre Ouattara, Mr Soro's senior civil servant.

"It didn't work out, so, it was necessary to retreat a little bit and we found ourselves in Bouake," he says.

"For practically a year, the rebellion operated without really an exact plan - that, we need to admit."

It was at that moment that the rebels decided their survival depended on providing some degree of governance to stop the zone collapsing.

From independence from France in 1960 until the late 1990s, Ivory Coast had been one of West Africa's most peaceful and prosperous countries.

It was perhaps that legacy and a relatively high education that gave people the courage to try to make the best of difficult situation.

When civil servants fled south, volunteer teachers, like Ali Ouattara, stepped forward to try to keep things going.

"We didn't want the kids to become child soldiers, so we tried to give them something. This is how we became teachers," says Mr Ouattara, who lost his job at the university at the start of the crisis.

Most of the volunteer teachers had limited qualifications and no experience of teaching.

At first they had almost no resources as the schools had been ransacked and the lawlessness meant they were scared to discipline their pupils, who were sometimes armed.

Gradually with contributions from parents, the ad-hoc schools helped save a generation of children, and in some years the rebel zone got better results in national exams than the government zone.

Other volunteers helped cover for the absence of the state in other ways: setting up an ad-hoc postal service; their own television stations and some basic policing.

The New Forces do collect taxes in some areas - like from cocoa and cotton producers but most areas of business are unregulated in the city.

Banned boom

For example, Bouake now has a booming business in motorbike taxis - illegal under Ivorian law.

But here it is a sector that has kept hundreds of young men off the streets.

The problem is they will not have a place in a reunified Ivory Coast, what with their untaxed scooters, unlicensed businesses and lack of driving licences.

"We created our union so that if the state comes back, we can continue," says Kone N'ze Siaka from the Union of Moto Taxi Drivers and owner of three scooters.

"There are some of us who used to be civil servants but who lost their jobs with the crisis," he says. "They took their motorbike to make a living and at least feed their family."

UN observation points along the former ceasefire line have already been dismantled but the most delicate part of reunification - handing over guns and control of taxes - still seems a long way off.

And, seven years without traffic lights, taxes or utility bills develops habits that are hard to budge.


To hear more about life in Bouake tune into African Perspective on the BBC World Service on Saturday 9 January at 0830 GMT. The programme will also be available as a BBC podcast.

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