Sanctions on Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo are starting to bite, with cocoa exports drying up and banks lacking liquidity, but it is not clear how much his rival Alassane Ouattara will benefit from any economic meltdown.

Ouattara beat Gbagbo in a November 28 presidential election, according to U.N.-certified results, but Gbagbo has refused to go, defying international condemnation and Western sanctions.

In a bid to squeeze him financially, West Africa's monetary union last week cut off his access to state accounts at the central bank, saying it recognised Ouattara as president.

Ouattara also called for a one month ban on cocoa exports that exporters have so far observed in the world's top grower.

Gbagbo responded by sending soldiers to seize the bank's Abidjan branch and appropriate local reserves, forcing the bank to close its Ivory Coast operations completely.

Bankers say this has led to serious cash liquidity problems and days of delays in clearing cheques, which now have to be done manually.

It's like trying to pilot a plane blindfolded, said a senior official at an international bank who could not be named.

You can risk taking a cheque from another bank but there's no way of verifying they have the cash to back it and no central bank to regulate it. That can't last more than a few months.

And, without the central bank's electronic system to guarantee transactions, many are being rejected as too risky.

We are no longer accepting other banks' cheques. Traders walk in and are being sent away, said Evelyne Kouassi, agent at the Ivorian-owned International Bank for West Africa (BIAO).

Prices of food and consumer goods are going up and there are fears of widespread shortage, partly as EU restrictions on shippers disrupt port activity.


The mountains of trash and dust piling up in Abidjan's once gleaming streets, the growing numbers of beggars and the increasingly pungent smell of its filthy lagoon attest the dysfunction gripping West Africa's former economic star, whose GDP still makes up 40 percent of the 8-nation CFA franc zone.

The election was supposed to end a stalemate since a 2002-3 rebellion divided the country, but has worsened those divisions.

At least 260 have been killed in post-poll violence, many of them by pro-Gbagbo security forces, the UN says. Restaurants and bars are empty after dark as the city becomes a ghost town.

As cash fears boil over, the risk is of panic withdrawals.

It's going to make things difficult even to pay cash into ATMs soon. We can't meet demand, said Perfect Kouadio, a teller for Societe Generale's local subsidiary. Our fear is that everyone rushes to our tills next week to draw out cash.

Businesses, including cocoa exporters with huge accounts at the banks, have had restrictions slapped on daily withdrawals in order to ration liquidity -- although the squeeze will also hit Gbagbo's soldiers and civil servants, as it is meant to.

Even if the government pays public servant salaries that does not mean the cash will be there to service the payment, said Standard Bank's Samir Gadio. Looking forward there is a risk of a run on the banks ... (as) happened in Zimbabwe.

The cocoa export ban and liquidity shortage have conspired to plunge the cocoa industry into chaos, with beans piling up on farms or being smuggled out, farmers say .

Since Monday I've paid suppliers cash because they refuse cheques but I can only withdraw 30 million CFA per month, when I need up to a billion, said a San Pedro exporter.


Because of the cocoa ban, 40,000 tonnes arriving at ports last week was not registered for export.

And an Abidjan exporter said farmers will suffer worst as they can't dry their beans well so can only stock short term.

There is an African proverb; when two elephants fight it's the grass that gets flattened. There is a chance that as Gbagbo and Ouattara battle for the presidency it is the local population, particularly 700,000 cocoa growers, that will feel the pain, said the Economist Intelligence Unit's Joseph Lake.

That won't necessarily help Ouattara, as Gbagbo is adept at blaming governance failures on his opponents. He blamed the worsening poverty and crumbling infrastructure that marked his decade in power on the short rebellion, with some success.

Ouattara's government spokesman Patrick Achi said by phone they are aware of the risks but the cocoa ban is short term and Gbagbo's regime will fall before the pain gets too much.

That may be wishful thinking.

If Gbagbo can survive ... the danger is that Ouattara looks increasingly like he is the cause of economic pain, Lake said.

In Zimbabwe, people kept predicting that the collapse of the economy would force Mugabe from power but ... he was able to hold on thanks to the military and his ability to paint himself as the saviour, despite economic evidence to the contrary.