Orientation Toward the Political System

Ivory Coast Table of Contents

Starting with independence, the Ivoirian polity experienced an unusual reorientation of political and moral values not found elsewhere in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Strong economic growth (at least through the mid-1970s) and relatively high rates of urbanization and literacy, in combination with a pervasive media, have exposed the polity to Western cultural values and the politics of consumption. In few other countries was materialism as open and avowed an ideology as in Côte d'Ivoire. Consequently, the salient divisions in the Ivoirian polity were economic rather than ethnic or religious. Stratification by class was congruent with the fundamental difference between rulers and ruled. In many instances, class differences also coincided with ethnic divisions, which tended to exaggerate the importance of ethnicity while permitting some observers to diminish the importance of class membership. This was no new phenomenon--the same stratification characterized most precolonial societies in Côte d'Ivoire. Nevertheless, the expanded opportunities for material consumption and the manifest extremes of wealth and poverty that subsequently emerged were new. Members of the elite translated the struggle for independence into a quest for privilege. They insisted that the interests of all Ivoirians were in harmony, a supposition that allowed them to rationalize the use of public policy on their behalf. For their part, the have-nots not only envied the elite for its material attainments but also knew how the elite, using the political system, attained them. So while rich and poor--the rulers and the ruled--nurtured vastly different expectations of the political system, they shared a clear understanding of its ultimate purpose.

Historically, the political elite included the wealthiest 10 percent of the plantation owners. By the late 1980s, however, with the bureaucratization of the state, the nature of the elite had changed markedly. Most often its members were high-level bureaucrats and party officials. Simultaneously, and as a direct consequence of their political connections, many held directorships in locally based corporations or were minority shareholders in multinational corporations. Characteristically, the businesses in which members of the elite invested required relatively small investments in comparison with anticipated returns. That situation was especially common in real estate, where investors typically sought a full return on investment within three years. Another industry favored by the elite was transportation. Finally, some members of the elite invested in agriculture, exporting bananas and pineapples, the prices of which, unlike the prices of coffee and cocoa, were not regulated by the government.

Significantly, the elite was not a true entrepreneurial class; that is, its members did not save and invest capital. Rather, they created a favorable environment for schemes initiated by foreigners and subsequently mediated (for a fee) between bureaucracy, business, and politicians. Instead of investing, the elite consumed. Its members sent their offspring to France for at least part of their education. They became accustomed to imported food, clothing, and high-technology consumer goods. Perhaps most important, the elite nurtured--and in turn sought--legitimacy in an ethos that openly elevated materialism to the level of political and moral ideology. According to one observer, the elite became, in effect, a class that could not afford to lose power.

To sustain its position of privilege, the elite formulated a political strategy based on limited participation and the politics of co-optation to vent the pressures linked to rapid change. Thus, with independence the government banned any opposition political parties or voices, incorporated nearly all unions into the party, and handpicked National Assembly candidates who then ran on a slate presented to voters who either cast a "yea" ballot or did not vote. Even after the government permitted contested elections for the assembly, the party, acting as surrogate for the government, passed on the acceptability of all candidates. Similarly, the indigenous private sector was unable to compete with the vast resources that the elite-dominated public sector could marshall and effectively was excluded from participating in economic transformation.

Appreciative of the importance of political stability, the government ostensibly compromised by permitting small changes for the sake of order. Nevertheless, none of the demands for change, which in the past may have included pay raises, better working conditions, scholarship aid, or improved relations between groups, required a substantial change in governing institutions or procedures, and they were generally co-opted by Houphouët-Boigny's expressions of concern and the appointment of a commission to study the problem. Finally, the government bought compliance from its more articulate and therefore more serious critics by offering them resources such as land, licenses, forestry rights, or positions in the party and government.

Counterpoised to the modern elite were the peasantry, students, middle- and lower-level civil servants, and a growing urban underclass. Because of explicit public policy decisions, few members of that group benefited directly from Côte d'Ivoire's vaunted economic growth. This group was no less politicized than the elite, but it lacked avenues of expression. Accordingly, this underclass responded to restrictions either by refusing to participate in the political process or by challenging public policy. Nonparticipation was generally a rural phenomenon, and in some areas less than 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 1985 elections, in which Houphouët-Boigny boasted of having received more than 99 percent of the vote. Challenges to public policy took the form of riots against unemployment, student protests, and demonstrations against high prices, shrinking subsidies, land confiscation, foreigners, and high taxes. The government customarily responded to conflict with force followed by a demand for loyalty to the ruling regime. Groups demonstrating their political support received benefits in the form of clinics, schools, investment in infrastructure, markets, and other public facilities. Conversely, those withholding support were simply denied any resources for economic development.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress