The ongoing revolt against the abusive pricing of electricity, which seems to have taken the government by surprise, was brewing for a long time. Social problems have accumulated in Cote d’Ivoire: low wages, food crop shortages, rising tuition fees at university, deterioration of hospitals, widespread corruption, etc.
In that sense, the rise in electricity prices was the eventual ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ for many Ivoirians, everywhere in the country, regardless of the ethnic or political affiliation.
Who sows misery reaps rage!
This revolt marks a real break. The period of fear, fatalism, passive discontent and suffocation, seems behind us. The Ivoirians are willing to take back the road of struggle.
The government thought to be in a comfortable zone. The political opposition that has not been destroyed, killed, forced to exile or imprisoned was divided, corrupted and tamed. The trade unions and the so-called “citizens’ movements” are spread also out in countless chapels between which mistrust and misunderstanding dominates, not to mention the disregard for their support base and the inaction on the part of the union leaders. Journalists are under pressure and threatened when they show too much incisiveness.
In short, the RHDP [Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace] regime has artificially cut itself from criticism and, drunk by its own propaganda that “All is well, the country is developing” (a mantra which does not convince anyone but themselves and their foreign friends), and was totally taken aback. They thought that we were sheep, and they do not even understand where and how such a movement could develop. This explains the words of the executives of the ruling coalition who accuse mysterious “obscure forces” of being behind this movement of popular revolt. The idea that this revolt is genuine, and coming from the population itself, does not even seem to have crossed their mind.
It is true that social discontent had grown more vocal, already before May Day. Several trade union confederations had filed a strike notice, and some newspapers carried articles on burning social issues. So much so, that the government, represented by the President of the Republic, had made a step back by announcing “measures” against the high cost of living,. This was particularly concerning the cancellation of the rising cost of electricity and the reimbursement of overpayments, as well as a promise to break the monopoly of the CEI (Ivoirian Company of Electricity) by introducing the liberalization of the electricity market, supposedly aimed at lowering the costs.
Yet two months later, new bills fall. The deferred bill from March-April (due on 14 July) arrived at about the same time as the May-June bill (due on August 11). For many people, this meant having to pay two bills at the same time: impossible, especially since the price is far from having fallen! In response, riots took place in all major cities of the country, accompanied by looting, fires, arrests and even deaths. In response to these, all that the regime came up with was an extension of the deadline for the payment of the bill of May-June to 12 September. In other words just a little adjustment to enable us to continue to pay this exorbitant bill.
Why is electricity so expensive?
All this raises the question of why electricity has become so expensive.
Many people accuse the government of preferring to sell electricity in Ghana and Burkina Faso rather than responding to national needs. Others challenge the fact that the CIE is abusing its monopoly position on the market and highlight market liberalization as the solution, which would, they argue, automatically bring down the prices.
We would like to answer these arguments with some figures. In fact, the production of energy in our country is much higher than the consumption: 8100 GWH are produced for 5500 GWH consumed; the amount sold abroad represents only 500 GWH, representing 6% of the total electricity produced. The problem is that 20% of the electricity produced in Cote d’Ivoire is lost as a result of diversions and network failures (remember that, even though the sale of electricity is the responsibility of the CIE, a private company, the state remains the sole owner of all transport infrastructure). The 20% losses mean that, in fact, people pay 10 GWH to receive only 8! As we can see, the sale abroad is actually not the problem at all.
Regarding the monopoly of CIE, it is clear that this is a real problem. But it has been over 20 years that the CIE holds the monopoly: it does not explain why the bill has increased so much lately. The fundamental reason why the electricity price has shot up is that this price is subsidized and that recently the Ivorian government, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank, has sought to reduce these subsidies, which cost it billions every year. That is why the CIE, not receiving subsidies anymore from the state, seeks a new profitability to the detriment of the consumers, i.e. of us all.
We must also emphasize that for us, the liberalization of the electricity does not constitute a solution. Rather, it is a dogma of economic theory ignoring practical realities. Wherever the electricity market was liberalized, whether in Europe or Africa, we saw prices increase further and the quality of supply deteriorate. Just take a look at the situation in Nigeria, where one day of power a week is charged 50,000 francs a month. The only sustainable solution is the renationalisation of the CIE, subject to the control and management of the population, workers and consumers.
Finally, it is also clear that our country has many resources which should logically allow us to produce our electricity at a low cost and without depending on external imports. Just think of this hot sun that illuminates our country every day. With a large application of solar panels, power cuts and expensive bills would be history. But again, it is the policy of the Ouattara government that prevents the access to solar panels in our country.
The struggle must continue in an organized manner
The regime is disoriented. It is also not only faced with the revolt of electricity, but also with a movement of struggle on the university campus against the eviction of students for the benefit of athletes of the ‘Francophone Games’ (a competition aimed for the sole prestige of the government, for which the latter seems determined not to invest a franc while pocketing large subsidies), to the problem of microbes, to the jihadist threat, etc. while it is planning a referendum on the constitution and preparing legislative elections.
Its first reaction is to bring the military onto the streets of Abidjan, to ban all demonstrations and to banish once again the student unions. So much so that even some FPI activists seeking to sign a petition to release the ex-President Gbagbo were beaten up and arrested in Yopougon. However, as the riots of the past week have shown, the regime can arrest individuals but they cannot prevent explosions of genuine public anger.
People are hugely fed up, not only against the CIE. In Bouake, the house of the mayor and other administrative buildings were attacked and looted. The population is seeking to express its disgust, revulsion, contempt, vis-à-vis the entire Ivorian ruling class.
If the explosion took the form of spontaneous and decentralized riots and was accompanied by looting and violence -which is reprehensible though very understandable- it is essentially because it has not been channelled; no political or trade union force presented itself to play the unifying role that could give a direction to this movement.
The real culprits of these looting are for us the union leaders, who hailed Ouattara on May Day after pocketing $ 800 million paid to their organizations by the State. They were walled into a guilty silence, mistakenly thinking that their own inaction would extend to their base and to the rest of the population. If the union leaders played their proper role we could see a real protest movement against high prices, in the form of disciplined marches and strikes organized nationally. But that was not the case.
With the outbreak of the struggle, a dam seems to have given way. But the struggle must continue not only against rising electricity tariff, but also against the cost of living, in general. The regime was made to step back, but fundamentally has given nothing, since the bill remains to be paid. However, we will not get anywhere with riots and vandalism. It is the responsibility of the union leaders to call for the formation of a common front of all workers’ and student unions against high prices, in addition to the numerous neighbourhood associations throughout the country that are, until now, the true leading forces of this scattered movement.
It is urgent to reframe the struggle against high prices by not calling for riots, which are a pretext for all sorts of abuses, but for a general strike throughout the country, along with “dead city” operations in major cities, accompanied by marches of workers and citizens against high prices. At the same time, neighbourhoods need to set up local committees (whose members are to be appointed democratically) to avoid vandalism on the side-lines of demonstrations and to ensure that their inhabitants are not disconnected from the power grid by the agents of the CIE.
The consequence of the neoliberal policy of the RHDP regime
We will need to go further and understand where the high cost of living and the many evils that afflict Ivorian society come from. All these problems are ultimately the consequence of the neoliberal capitalist policies implemented by the RHDP regime – which fail the population. Let us come together to put an end to the arrogance of this regime and to its anti-social policies.
For an in-depth renovation of the electrical infrastructure by the State
For mass public investment in solar panels
Maintenance of state subsidies, immediate decrease of the prices
No to liberalization, yes to the renationalisation of the CIE under the control of the workers and the population
Nationalization of the strategic sectors of the economy to use our national resources for the benefit of our country and for a massive investment in public services, in industry and in agriculture to end insecurity, unemployment and poverty