Government and Politics

Ivory Coast Table of Contents

THE FIRST POSTINDEPENDENCE regimes of sub-Saharan Africa were characterized by some form of personal rule. In theory, such regimes would govern during the transition period following independence but preceding the full development of the governing institutions of the newly independent states. In reality, however, the leaders of the various independence movements, who subsequently had become government officials, often manipulated public resources, acquired vast wealth and status, and generally consolidated their hold on power. Where the transitional systems acquired legitimacy, as in Côte d'Ivoire, it was almost entirely the result of the ability of the leader-politician, in the absence of strong governing institutions, to provide adequate material and political rewards to a broader constituency.

In 1988 governance in Côte d'Ivoire remained the province of one man: President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, affectionately called le vieux (the old man). He had ruled since independence and had dominated Ivoirian politics since the stirrings of nationalism in the mid-1940s. From the onset of his tenure in 1960, debate was virtually suspended as Houphouët-Boigny subjected the polity to his paternalistic yet stern control. He wielded executive power as head of state, head of government, head of the ruling party, and commander in chief of the armed forces. In his role as head of government, he appointed his cabinet (Council of Ministers), named the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and selected the heads of all extragovernmental commissions and councils. As head of state, he formulated and conducted foreign policy. As head of the party, he set policy directions and appointed the entire membership of all policy-making boards. Although there were occasions when popular sentiment as expressed through party organs or the National Assembly forced the president to alter a policy decision, he was without question the dominant political force.

Houphouët-Boigny's charisma contributed to the myth of Houphouëtism, as his ruling style was labeled, enabling him to convert the skeptics and awe the faithful. In spite of his power, Houphouët-Boigny's style of rule was by choice paternalistic. Houphouët-Boigny became a transcendent symbol of unity to the disparate groups in Côte d'Ivoire, and his charismatic authority supplanted the traditional authority of the local chiefs. Although Houphouët-Boigny's hold on the national imagination was weakening by the late 1980s, many Ivoirians continued to reject out of hand any reports of the president's avarice or violations of trust.

To repay his supporters with adequate material rewards, Houphouët-Boigny developed economic policies that combined free enterprise and state capitalism with liberal foreign investment and continued economic dependence on France. Houphouët-Boigny's strategy for development also led to a broad gap in wealth and power between the urban elite--the rulers--and the rest of the population.

As a measure of Houphouët-Boigny's success, liberal economic theorists and conservative students of African politics cited Côte d'Ivoire as an economic and political miracle. Indeed, through 1979 Côte d'Ivoire posted one of the highest rates of economic growth among all developing countries, and the highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of any nonpetroleum-exporting African country. Coupled with the rapid rate of growth was a political stability unparalleled in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike most of his counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa, Houphouët-Boigny resisted pressures to sever ties with the colonizing power (France) or to Africanize the bureaucracy, two steps that, when taken in other former colonies, usually meant reduced funds for investment and expanded opportunities for corruption. He also resisted pressure to subsidize large industrial projects with revenues from cash crops. Instead, he relied on foreign--mostly French--investment, technology, and support to develop the country's economic base and administrative infrastructure.

Under Houphouët-Boigny's administration, Côte d'Ivoire's foreign policy was consistently pro-Western. Its fundamental objective was to promote economic development at home by promising peace and security within West Africa. Côte d'Ivoire also maintained extensive economic and military ties with France, even though this meant bearing the neocolonialist label. Diplomatic relations with the United States, if less substantial, were also warm. For instance, Côte d'Ivoire was sub-Saharan Africa's staunchest supporter of the United States in the United Nations. Matching the strength of its support for the West was Côte d'Ivoire's distrust of the Soviet Union. Côte d'Ivoire did not establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union until 1967, severed them in early 1969 amid accusations of Soviet subversion, and did not reestablish them until 1986, as part of Houphouët-Boigny's quest for international stature. HouphouëtBoigny also broke with most other African leaders by attempting to establish a dialogue with South Africa and, in 1986, by reestablishing diplomatic relations, which had been broken following the October 1973 War, with Israel.

For more information about the government, see Facts about Ivory Coast.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress