West Africa's Central Bank – perhaps its most important institution – may also be its least transparent. But in the midst of Ivory Coast's conflict, a tradition of secrecy may be an early casualty.
When an infrastructure-strapped backwater such as, say, Guinea-Bissau looks to borrow the tens of billions of West Africa CFA francs it needs to tar rural roads and string power lines, its functionaries fly here, to La Banque Central des États de l’Afrique d’Ouest: the central bank for eight West African nations (Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Niger). It's where government debt is sold in the form of treasury bills to whatever arcane financiers harbor a niche interest in owning a chunk of Africa's debt.
Built in the shape of a Baobab tree at the end of the colonial era, the bank is as vital to its region as it is anachronistic – it has the feel of a secret society for African High Finance.
Three decades after the International Monetary Fund (IMF), NGOs, foreign leaders, and African reformists turned "transparency" into a generational rallying call, La Banque continues to define the lack thereof. The bank – a place as pre-Internet as Tutankhamun's tomb – communicates very little to the world outside its walls, and even less to callers who identify themselves as press. No reporter I know has ever been inside. I imagine it must be vacant, dim, and filled with terra-cotta soldiers.
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