A History of Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire

Decades ago, Côte d’Ivoire was known as a “beacon of stability” in West Africa and an “economic powerhouse” [1]. Its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was praised for these accomplishments [2, 3]. Years later, his legacy is less certain. His key decisions and the reactions to them by his contemporaries who led the country after his death prefigured Côte d’Ivoire’s current problems.

After independence, Houphouët turned Côte d’Ivoire into an agricultural dynamo through cocoa and coffee production. Early observers recognized the risk of tying Côte d’Ivoire’s economy so closely to fluctuations in world market prices for agricultural products [4, 5, 6, 7]. And when the value of cocoa and coffee fell in the late 1970s and 80s [8; 9, p. 39], so did the national economy [10]. Then in 1994, the value of the country’s currency, the franc CFA—the currency of France’s former West African colonies—was devalued. The country never recovered.

Following on the heels of the economic crisis was a political one. In 1991, the structural adjustment policies of Houphouët-Boigny’s prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, triggered violent demonstrations led by Laurent Gbagbo, a historian at the time and the country’s leading opposition politician. Ouattara had him arrested in 1992 [11, pp. 38-39] for his role in the demonstrations.

Further problems emerged in 1993 stemming from procedures intended to assure a constitutional succession after Houphouët-Boigny’s death. The constitution named as Houphouët’s successor the president of the National Assembly, Henri Konan Bédié, but only after the Supreme Court was to observe a “vacancy in power.” At the time, the high court had several vacancies of its own left unfilled. Prime Minister Ouattara exploited the resulting delay in succession to retain executive powers that he had assumed during Houphouët’s long illness. The stalemate ended when Bédié declared himself president in what amounted to a constitutional coup d’état. Ouattara resigned, and Bédié initiated the infamous policy of ivoirité: Côte d'Ivoire was for Ivoirians alone, and the citizenship of Jula-speaking Muslims and other northern-descended persons like Ouattara was suspect [11, pp. 39-45]. In a country where Jula and Senufo-speaking migrants from northern Côte d’Ivoire and immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea contributed the vast share of Côte d’Ivoire’s agricultural and infrastructural labor [12], ivoirité proved a catastrophic strategy for marginalizing Bédié’s primary political rival.

In 1999, disgruntled soldiers overthrew Bédié, installing General Robert Guéï as president. Guéï had been military chief of staff for both Houphouët and Bédié, but his regime was short-lived. He suspended presidential elections in 2000 when Laurent Gbagbo, the only opposition candidate allowed to run, began to win. Guéï declared himself president, but Gbagbo’s supporters took to the streets, overthrew Guéï, and made Gbagbo president. At the same time, Gbagbo’s partisans also committed what would be the first in a series of politically motivated, ethnically tinged massacres over the next dozen years: the murder of over fifty Muslim, Jula men behind a prison in Abidjan [13, 14]. The event recalled the much larger massacre in 1970 of between 4,000 and 6,000 Bété-speakers in the village of Guébié after local resident Kragbé Gnagbé insisted on forming his own political party [15]. It was Houphouët, not Gbagbo, who perpetrated Côte d’Ivoire’s first political bloodbath.

Gbagbo’s reign proved as precarious as Guéï’s, albeit longer and more violent. Gbagbo intensified the policy of ivoirité [15, 16, 17], provoked a rebellion that split the country in two from 2002 to 2007 [18] (Figure 1), and presided over a paroxysm of politically motivated rapes and killings following Ouattara’s victory in presidential elections in 2010; Ouattara’s forces also committed atrocities [19]. Eventually, Ouattara’s supporters captured and arrested Laurent and Simone Gbabgo on April 11, 2011 with French help. Gbagbo now awaits a hearing at the International Criminal Court to determine whether or not he should be tried for crimes against humanity [20].

Fifty-two years after independence, Côte d’Ivoire has come full circle. Its archetypal opposition figure and past president, Laurent Gbagbo, is now its most notorious criminal suspect. Its once jilted prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, is a conquering president called to account for blood on his soldiers’ hands. Twenty years after Gbagbo’s first imprisonment under Ouattara, Côte d’Ivoire finds the two rivals once more in analogous positions. The country has inexorably changed, but its future remains as uncertain as it was under Houphouët-Boigny. What does that future hold? The authors of this collection ask and try to answer this question by examining both past and present in ways they hope will lead to useful answers.

Figure 1. An Ivoirian soldier stands against the backdrop of the skyline of the Plateau district of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/AP [21].

Figure 2. Map of the buffer zone (zone de confiance) administered by United Nations peacekeeping forces as it appeared in 2004. The zone separated rebel forces and government troops from each other during the Ivoirian rebellion from 2002 to 2007. The map is a modified version of a 2001 map by the Centre de Cartographie et de Télédétection of Côte d’Ivoire, with a modification in yellow to indicate the buffer zone by Urmilla Deshpande. The position of the zone is taken from a map titled, “Côte d’Ivoire: Carte des positions militaires en novembre 2004,” which appeared on the website of Radio France Internationale on November 7, 2004.

References

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