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On a mission to rebuild the Côte d’Ivoire

By Kristen Shane      

After the Canadian government 'de-recognized' his predecessor amid a months-long electoral crisis in 2011, the Côte d'Ivoire's new ambassador has his sleeves rolled up to help rebuild his country.

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After the Canadian government 'de-recognized' his predecessor amid a months-long electoral crisis in 2011, the Côte d'Ivoire's new ambassador has his sleeves rolled up to help rebuild his country.

That means, among other things, courting Canadian investment in infrastructure projects and re-establishing bilateral funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.

Besides defending his country's interests, managing its relations with Canada, and looking out for Ivorian citizens in the Great White North, N'Goran Kouamé sees his role as a "development agent."

Key to that is ensuring maximum Canadian investment in the Côte d'Ivoire.

"The Côte d'Ivoire is coming out of a very deep crisis that lasted for 10 years. And we have to restart everything. All of the country has to be rebuilt. So we talk about 'reconstruction and rehabilitation,'" said Mr. Kouamé in French.

"In these areas, we don't have all the means. The Côte d'Ivoire is a country with a lot of potential, so we need partners to help us, to accompany us to capitalize on our potential in a manner that's beneficial for both parties."

The Côte d'Ivoire's national secretary for reconstruction and rehabilitation, Mamadou Koné, led a delegation to Canada two weeks ago, meeting with Canadian businesspeople in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. A Canadian delegation will travel to the Côte d'Ivoire from Feb. 13 to 17.

"The Côte d'Ivoire is today a big construction site open to all, without exclusion," said Mr. Kouamé. Investment opportunities exist in almost every sector, he said, including the construction of health centres, schools, roads, and other transportation infrastructure.

Canada and the West African coastal nation already have established business links, especially in the mining industry. For instance, Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. operates two offshore oil fields in the Côte d'Ivoire, according to its website; Sama Resources Inc. of Vancouver mines nickel.

Total bilateral trade grew between 2006 and 2010, largely thanks to booming Canadian imports of mineral and food products (the Côte d'Ivoire is the world's largest cocoa bean producer), while exports to the Côte d'Ivoire stayed flat. Canada imported $420 million in goods from the Côte d'Ivoire in 2010, while it exported only $22 million.

Canada supported Ouattara

While it had been a largely economically stable, and ethnically and religiously harmonious country for more than three decades after independence from France, a 2002 armed rebellion in the Côte d'Ivoire prompted civil war that divided the country between the rebel-held North and government-controlled South.

The UN imposed sanctions in 2004 including on arms imports. Politicians stirred up ethnic and religious tensions between the mostly Muslim North and Christian South.

The war died down and presidential elections took place in the fall of 2010. The country's election commission declared Alassane Ouattara, a longtime opposition politician with a northern Muslim base, the winner against then-president Laurent Gbagbo, whose support largely came from southern Christians.

But Mr. Gbagbo clung to power, returning the country to the brink of civil war, until Mr. Ouattara's forces, with the help of the French, finally captured him in April 2011. He now faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Throughout the crisis, Canada supported Mr. Ouattara and called for Mr. Gbagbo to step down. "Canada was one of the first countries to recognize Ouattara's victory," reads the Department of Foreign Affairs' website.

In late 2010, Canada told the Ivorian Embassy that it would no longer recognize its then-ambassador, Louis Bony, appointed in 2008 by Mr. Gbagbo.

"Canada supported us during the post-electoral crisis and continues to show its trust," said Mr. Kouamé.

The two countries have very good relations, he said, proven by this year's 50th anniversary of bilateral affairs.

CIDA had lessened its bilateral aid to the Côte d'Ivoire because of the protracted political crisis, and suspended it entirely on March 31, 2010. CIDA keeps funnelling money into the Côte d'Ivoire through contributions to multilateral agencies and Canada gives support to local civil society groups.

That can continue, said Mr. Kouamé, but he added: "Our hope is that CIDA goes back to the old formula, that helped us directly through bilateral co-operation."

The Côte d'Ivoire is not one of CIDA's 20 focus countries to which it delivers 80 per cent of its bilateral aid. When CIDA changed its commitments to the country, it did so because it was thought that the country didn't need the aid as much as others, said Mr. Kouamé.

But, he said, now with the country coming out of years of political instability, "we lost a lot of gains."

Mr. Kouamé arrived in Canada on Oct. 5 and was accredited by Governor General David Johnston on Dec. 1, on the brink of winter.

Having stepped out of a higher education he completed in the Côte d'Ivoire and Belgium, and landed almost immediately in his country's foreign affairs ministry in 1978, this career diplomat has been posted to the UK, Germany, and as an ambassador in Switzerland. But this is his first experience with "Canadian cold."

Seated warm in his third-floor office in the Côte d'Ivoire's Sandy Hill embassy on Jan. 30, Mr. Kouamé stared out the window at the snow-topped roofs of neighbouring houses and said the snow is "bearable."

"Now, life in Canada, I like it," he said. "It's true it's a change from Europe because compared to Europe, Canada is a huge country. It's big. But in any case, the countryside is beautiful. Even in the middle of winter, I love it."

Perhaps typical of a career diplomat, Mr. Kouamé's four children have yet to join him in Canada as they are spread around the world in the United, States, Switzerland, France, and the Côte d'Ivoire.


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