Ivory Coast Table of Contents

Akan chief in traditional attireOBSERVERS OF AFRICA have often characterized Côte d'Ivoire as different from the rest of Africa. Borrowing the metaphor of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, president of Côte d'Ivoire, they have described it as an oasis of political stability and economic prosperity--in short, the "Ivoirian miracle." Indeed, if judged on the basis of political stability and economic performance during its first twenty years of independence, Côte d'Ivoire does appear unique: it has had only one president and no coups since gaining independence, and between 1960 and 1979 the gross national product (GNP) grew by almost 8 percent per year, compared with minimal or negative growth rates elsewhere in Africa. However, that growth produced large--some would have said dysfunctional--disparities in wealth and income and skewed development. Consequently, the country was ill prepared when, in the late 1970s, world prices for coffee and cocoa, Côte d'Ivoire's principal export commodities, dropped, while prices for its principal imports rose. Meanwhile, foreign borrowing to finance massive investments in infrastructure and public enterprises (that lost money) raised Côte d'Ivoire's foreign debt beyond its ability to meet its obligations. Budget reductions and a structural adjustment program forced the vast majority of the population to lower its expectations, which in turn contributed to, among other social ills, heightened frustrations and a sharp increase in violent crime. By the end of the 1980s, Côte d'Ivoire was confronting the same problems of political and economic development as other African countries and having to respond with many of the same difficult and often inadequate solutions.

In the early precolonial period, the dense forests covering the southern half of the area that became Côte d'Ivoire created barriers to large-scale sociopolitical organizations. In the savanna region to the north, dissimilar populations had neither the incentive nor the strength to overcome ethnic differences and forge a larger state. Prior to the eighteenth century, polities consisted of villages or clusters of villages whose contacts with the larger world were filtered through long-distance traders.

European--in this case French--interest in the area remained desultory until late in the nineteenth century. Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, for example, the French ministry responsible for colonies offered to exchange Côte d'Ivoire with the British for the Gambia, which bisected the French colony of Senegal. The British refused, and France officially abandoned the territory. By the late 1880s, however, the scramble for colonies gripped both France and Britain. In the western Sudan, French military officers and freebooters extended French domains, often without the knowledge or consent of the home government. Unsubstantiated rumors of gold and a lucrative trade in the hinterland of Côte d'Ivoire once again stimulated French interest in the colony. In 1886 France again exercised direct control over the trading posts on the Ivoirian coast, and in 1887 and 1888 Captain Louis Binger and Maurice Treich-Laplène negotiated a series of agreements with local chiefs in the north-central and northeastern regions of Côte d'Ivoire to bolster French claims of effective occupation. Thus, by the end of the decade, France exercised sovereignty over most of the coastal region of Côte d'Ivoire and claimed influence over certain regions of the interior. In 1893 Côte d'Ivoire became a colony, and Binger served as its first governor.

Over the next twenty years, French administrators used the military to subdue African populations that, with few exceptions, openly resisted French intrusions. In the 1890s, Samori Touré, seeking to construct a kingdom across much of the Sahel, including northern Côte d'Ivoire, withstood French (and British) forces until he was captured in 1898. At about the same time in eastern Côte d'Ivoire, the Agni (Anyi) and Abron peoples first resisted the French and, after military setbacks, either sabotaged or circumvented the colonial administration. In the early twentieth century, the Baoulé of central Côte d'Ivoire openly defied colonial authorities until forcibly subdued in a bloody, so-called pacification campaign undertaken in 1906 by Governor Gabriel Angoulvant.

The French administered Côte d'Ivoire in a more direct, systematic style than did their British counterparts, who preferred indirect rule. French authorities routinely dismissed locally selected chiefs, replacing them with others having no legitimate claim to authority, and regrouped or consolidated villages in an attempt to impose a uniform administration throughout the country. As late as 1958, Paris still appointed governors, who administered the colony using a system of direct, centralized rule that left little room for Ivoirian participation. Most of the inhabitants were considered subjects of France with no political rights and a separate system of law. Thus, all adult males were forced to work ten days for no pay each year, often on plantations owned by the French, as part of a tax obligation to the state, and rural males were routinely drafted to work, again for no pay, on public works projects like roads and the railroad.

World War II profoundly affected all of French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française--AOF). The rapid surrender of France and the institution of highly discriminatory policies under the Vichy regime alienated the African political elite, many of whom had served France in World War I and expected greater respect. During the immediate postwar years, an emergent, educated African elite demanded reforms in colonial policy. In response, France joined with its colonies in 1946 to form a community known as the French Union and granted to African members rights of free speech, free association, and free assembly. France also eliminated separate legal codes and the practice of unlimited forced labor.

Despite these concessions, wealthy Ivoirian planters were still incensed at having to work on the plantations of French settlers, who by law received more for their crops than they themselves did. As a result, the Ivoirian planters formed the African Agricultural Union (Syndicat Agricole Africain--SAA) to fight for equal rights. In 1946 the SAA gave rise to Côte d'Ivoire's sole political party, the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire--PDCI) under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. During the postwar years, the party, in cooperation with a regional coalition of anticolonialist groups, militantly challenged French policies in Côte d'Ivoire. Confrontation led to such violence and repression that by 1951 the party was in near ruin. To stave off a collapse, Houphouët-Boigny abandoned his alliance with the French Communist Party and the radical politics of earlier years in favor of practical cooperation with French authorities. France then granted significant political and economic concessions to the colony, which soon became the wealthiest in French West Africa.

In 1956 the French government authorized for all of its African colonies a series of momentous and fundamental reforms, which in effect substituted autonomy for integration with France as the cornerstone of French colonial policy. Two years later, under the leadership of President Charles de Gaulle, the constitution of the French Fifth Republic provided for the free association of autonomous republics within the French Community, in which France was the senior partner. Côte d'Ivoire voted in favor of the constitution, which was thought to be a more pragmatic course than complete independence. Nevertheless, following the lead of Senegal and Mali, Côte d'Ivoire withdrew from the French Community and in August 1960 declared its independence. Houphouët-Boigny became Côte d'Ivoire's first president, an office he still held in late 1989.

The original drafters of the Ivoirian Constitution of October 1960 intended to establish a democratic government with a presidential system incorporating the principles of the separation of powers and an independent judiciary. Within a short time, however, governance became highly authoritarian. Party leadership equated a unified state with unanimous support for the PDCI under the untested belief that competition among parties would waste resources, lead to corruption, and destroy unity. By circumscribing the prerogatives of the National Assembly and tailoring election laws, Houphouët-Boigny effectively denied the assembly an independent voice; and by doling out patronage, co-opting opponents, and pitting rivals against one another, he tightened his grip on government.

Even those who objected to Houphouët-Boigny's style admired the results of his policies: twenty years of economic growth and political stability. Nevertheless, invidious habits and attitudes that had developed over the twenty years of economic growth posed a potential threat to the political order. In few other countries was materialism as open and avowed an ideology. By the 1980s, the elite, using its official positions and connections to obtain wealth, had replaced the struggle for independence with the pursuit of privilege, leading to manifest extremes of wealth and poverty. This elite was infected with consumerism, and it could not afford to lose or even share power. At the same time, the sharp economic downturn of the 1980s and Houphouët-Boigny's advancing age caused fears that the ethnic rivalries he sought to dampen might ignite under a less charismatic successor.

For Côte d'Ivoire, ethnicity was a particularly thorny problem. The population included some sixty indigenous ethnic groups. The largest group (that of Houphouët-Boigny) was the Baoulé, which comprised 15 percent of the population and was centered in the forest region southeast of Bouaké. The Baoulé were part of the larger Akan ethnic cluster, which also included the Abron and the Agni groups. The chief rivals of the Baoulé were the Bété, who in the 1980s made up approximately 6 percent of the population. During the twentieth century, the Bété achieved recognition for their success in cash cropping and for their widespread acceptance of Christianity. Because the Bété nurtured strong beliefs in the superiority of their culture and had a long history of resistance to foreign domination, they have often been accused of fomenting antigovernment dissent. Other major ethnic groups included the Dan, the Malinké, the Juula, the Sénoufo, and the Agni. The largest single foreign minority group was the Burkinabé (natives of Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta), who were generally Mossi. They were concentrated in rural areas, where they worked as farm laborers. The Lebanese, officially estimated at 60,000 but possibly numbering 180,000, dominated sectors of the wholesale and retail trade. In 1988 there were approximately 30,000 French citizens in Côte d'Ivoire, or about the same number as at independence.

Because no single ethnic group held a preponderance of power, none could automatically impose its will. Ethnic politics, therefore, were important in Côte d'Ivoire, notwithstanding presidential statements to the contrary. And because of that cultural diversity, Houphouët-Boigny, making a virtue of necessity, perfected the politics of inclusion. All major ethnic groups were represented in his cabinet and the major policy-making bodies of the PDCI, making it easier to deflect responsibility at a time when the rising expectations of Ivoirians were being thwarted.

The Ivoirian economy in the late 1980s continued its downward spiral, primarily because world prices for coffee and cocoa, the country's two principal exports, remained low. At the same time, exports of timber, the third largest source of foreign exchange, declined because of continued overexploitation. Two offshore petroleum fields, which in the early 1970s were projected to make Côte d'Ivoire self-sufficient in fuel, failed to achieve projected outputs, let alone self-sufficiency. Because of the relatively low world prices for petroleum and Côte d'Ivoire's high production costs, all the wells in one field were capped.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the government undertook a major effort to diversify the export economy by expanding production of palm oil, natural rubber, coconut oil, cotton, sugar, and tropical fruits. Ten years later, the government implemented a program to modernize its import substitution industries, sell off unprofitable parastatals, and further expand exports to include processed foods, textiles, wood, and such nonagricultural products as building materials, chemicals, and electronics.

The results of all three plans were mixed. The market for palm and coconut oils was eroded by substitutes with less saturated fat; sugar, produced by a grossly inefficient parastatal, simply added to a world surplus; and in other areas Côte d'Ivoire was competing with other states of Africa and Asia producing many of the same tropical agricultural goods. Exports produced under the industrial expansion program were more expensive--at least initially--than similar goods produced elsewhere and so required export subsidies. Subsidies, however, required scarce funds. Meanwhile, Houphouët- Boigny adamantly refused to cut producer prices for coffee and cocoa; consequently, production levels increased--some estimates for the 1988-89 cocoa harvest were as high as 700,000 tons--,which further depressed commodity prices. Finally, divestment from parastatals yielded lower returns than anticipated. Moreover, the larger, more profitable companies were purchased by foreign interests, further adding to capital flight.

The lack of investment capital was the undoing of the Ivoirian miracle. To finance development, Côte d'Ivoire borrowed substantial amounts abroad, especially during the mid-1970s when unusually high coffee and cocoa prices led planners to overestimate the potential of the economy. Thus, by 1976 high debt payments together with repatriated profits and foreign worker remittances had produced a negative net reserve position for the first time in the country's history. Debt servicing costs continued to mount to the extent that in May 1987 the government announced that it would suspend payments on its foreign debt.

To stave off a financial collapse, Côte d'Ivoire negotiated an economic recovery and structural adjustment program with the Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the London Club that provided a respite from debt repayment. The subsequent retrenchments mandated by the programs affected all income groups in the country, but they had the greatest impact on the poor. These measures gave rise to such symptoms of violent social dislocation as drug abuse and crime--which required additional expenditures and new political options from the government.

The party-government of Côte d'Ivoire in the mid-1980s most closely resembled an old-fashioned political machine. Although it called itself a one-party democracy, Côte d'Ivoire was not a democracy in the Western sense: the government controlled the press, limited civil liberties, and allowed no institutionalized opposition to frame debate. As economic austerity exacerbated political tensions, individuals and informal groups called for greater political choice, which the government seemed unprepared to grant.

Meanwhile, students protested against the role of foreigners in the economy and the government, which they saw as controlled by a small number of party leaders for the benefit of a privileged class of bureaucrats and landowners. Corruption in the business community, long considered an affliction of other African states, was becoming embarrassingly obvious in Côte d'Ivoire. Reduced services, coupled with wage freezes and higher costs, were alienating mid-level civil servants and professionals. And increasingly brazen attacks against expatriates by well-armed bandits were affecting tourism and foreign investment. A growing number of Ivoirians was questioning whether these problems could be solved by a government dominated by an octogenarian president with no apparent successor.

In the late 1980s, the choice of a successor to Houphouët- Boigny remained a dominant issue in Ivoirian politics. Because the style, form, tone, and policies of the government were the personal creation of the president, the succession question had substantial implications. Two plausible contenders in 1989 were Philippe Yacé and Henri Konan Bedié, representing, respectively, the first and second generations of Ivoirian politics. Houphouët-Boigny refused to designate an heir and left the decision to the political process, believing that the Ivoirian polity was mature enough to make a decision without recklessly endangering national security or precipitating military intervention into civilian politics.

With the exception of a small uprising (the true size of which has never been documented) in 1970 near Gagnoa in the Bété region, the military has played no role in domestic peacekeeping. Moreover, Houphouët-Boigny co-opted the military with sufficiently attractive perquisites (including high salaries and positions in the party) so that the senior officer corps had little interest in political meddling. To further promote satisfaction, the military was equipped with advanced equipment purchased from France.

In its foreign affairs, Côte d'Ivoire either befriended or attempted to isolate its immediate neighbors. Recognizing that the "oasis never encroaches upon the desert," Houphouët-Boigny sought mutually beneficial ties with Côte d'Ivoire's neighbors despite ideological differences. And for good measure, he insisted that France maintain a battalion of marines near Abidjan to buttress his own military.

As Côte d'Ivoire faced the 1990s, the problems of finding a successor to Houphouët-Boigny, discontent on the campus of its only university, an ossified party, and a beggar-thy-neighbor materialism concerned Ivoirians. At the same time, a history of political stability coupled with a tradition of civilian rule and an apparent willingness on the part of the second and third generation of Ivoirian politicians to liberalize the political process and accommodate divergent views promised a less troubled future for the country.

In mid-1989, as the economy continued its decline, even leading members of the establishment began voicing discontent, albeit in guarded terms. In September 1989, Houphouet-Boigny invited political leaders--critics and supporters--to Abidjan for what was called "five days of dialogue." Uncharacteristically sharp and candid criticisms of the party and government over the five days conveyed a lack of confidence in the ruling elite, which was labeled narrow and selfish, and called for a more responsive party in a multi-party system. Less than a month later on October 16, 1989, Houphouet-Boigny reshuffled his cabinet and, in response to World Bank recommendations, reduced it from 29 to 21 members.

Four months later, students protested recently announced wage cuts, tax increases, and the longstanding issue of single party rule with large scale demonstrations that at times turned into violent confrontations with police in the streets of Abidjan and, in one instance, in Abidjan's Roman Catholic cathedral. In April and May 1990, army and air force recruits protesting the cost- cutting decision to limit their military service to a single tour of duty demonstrated in bases across Côte d'Ivoire; a group of armed air force recruits even took over the international airport outside Abidjan for twelve hours. Police and firefighters also staged highly visible protests for higher wages. By mid-May, Houphouet-Boigny had capitulated on the issues of military duty and higher wages for police and firefighters, and he scrapped plans to increase income taxes. Most significantly, he pledged for the first time to legalize opposition parties and promised to name a successor, although as of June 1990, he had not yet done either.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress