Since achieving independence in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire has managed to maintain broadly friendly relations with its neighbours, its French former colonial ruler, and within a continental and multilateral context.
Ruling as Côte d’Ivoire’s first president from 1960 to 1993, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had previously served as a minister in the French government, was the driving force in foreign relations. In particular, he prioritised a close relationship with France, consistently the most significant source of donor funds and an important economic partner. The French maintained a military presence in Abidjan, and the colonial legacy is very much apparent; French remains the official language and the country is a member of the West African CFA franc zone, whose currency is pegged to the euro.
Political instability and questions around political legitimacy during the civil war, following the coup d’état of 1999 and the disputed elections of 2000, after which France became the first country to recognise the election of President Laurent Gbagbo, caused tension in this important bilateral relationship. In an effort to preserve the fragile peace and maintain a ceasefire line, France increased its military presence in the country to a peak of approximately 4000 troops by 2003. Although this peacekeeping force was supplemented by significant participation from countries in the region, the French nonetheless accounted for more than half of the total. France began to wind down its military presence from 2009 onwards, but kept a significant number of troops in place through the 2010 elections and the political instability which followed. President Alassane Ouattara visited President Emmanuel Macron of France for a third time in April 2018, following two visits the previous year, while the latter visited Côte d’Ivoire in November 2017, when he was invited to lay the first stone of the Abidjan metro, which is being constructed by two French firms, Alstom and Bouygues.
Over time, China has become an increasingly important diplomatic and economic partner to Côte d’Ivoire, financing hundreds of official development projects in the country since the 1980s. Much of this development assistance has taken the form of infrastructure investment, and was ramped up significantly both during and after the civil war period. One of the largest such projects was the $934m investment to fund the majority of the expansion of the Port of Abidjan, which is expected to double capacity when it becomes fully operational in 2020. Chinese infrastructure investment is expected to continue at a significant scale, with China State Construction Engineering having been awarded in May 2018 the contract for construction of the fourth bridge that traverses the lagoon in the commercial capital of Abidjan.
During President Ouattara’s visit to Beijing in August and September 2018, China and Côte d’Ivoire signed five new cooperation agreements related to the creation of cultural centres, technical cooperation, reinforcement of industrial capacity, concessional lending, and a memorandum of understanding on participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In total, 18 partnership agreements were announced during the visit, which coincided with the seventh China-Africa Summit, and the investment flowing from them is expected to reach $3.4bn. Given the huge sums of money involved and in light of the criticism that such investment in Africa has attracted in recent times, in November 2018 the Ivoirian government announced the establishment of a committee to monitor these bilateral investments, consisting of both Chinese and Ivoirian nationals.
Côte d’Ivoire has also long been a player in ECOWAS, which ties the country to 14 other nations in the region. The Customs union with Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso pre-dates independence by one year, having been established in 1959. Eight countries also share membership of the West African CFA franc zone, the central bank of which is headquartered in Abidjan.
Relations with Ghana have historically been characterised by low-level tensions, notably on a series of border disputes, including most recently with respect to the maritime border under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. A special chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea finally ruled in Ghana’s favour in September 2017.
In addition to rebuilding and extending domestic infrastructure networks since the end of the civil war, Côte d’Ivoire has also pursued, both bilaterally and through ECOWAS, the development of region-wide infrastructure. This has focused on three principal axes: transport, power and telecommunications. Conceived in the early 1970’s, the Trans-African Highway was to consist of a network of nine continent-wide highways, of which the West African Coast Route would link Dakar in Senegal with Lagos in Nigeria via Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. With financing falling into place in late 2018, including support from the EU and the African Development Bank, construction is expected to get under way in 2019 on the 1008-km Abidjan-Lagos leg. Also passing through Ghana, Togo and Benin, the Abidjan-Lagos highway will be one of the single biggest road projects in all of Africa and, when constructed, is expected to give further impetus to regional economic integration.
Countries in the region have also been pursuing integration of their domestic electricity markets, notably through more advanced infrastructure. Linking to the existing Ghana-Nigeria interconnector, the West African Power Transmission Corridor is a 2000-km, 1000-MW power cable that will traverse Côte d’ Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia. As of 2018 a 1304-km, 225-KV transmission line was under construction to link Man, in the West of Côte d’Ivoire, with Guinea, via Liberia and Sierra Leone. Such hard infrastructure is complemented by institutional soft infrastructure such as the West African Power Pool, a dedicated office of ECOWAS that brings together public and private power entities in the 15 countries of the region.
Huge strides have been made in recent years to develop and inter-link regional telecommunications infrastructure. Abidjan is one of the 14 landing points along the 14,530-km West Africa Cable System that links South Africa to the UK, and which has been in operation since 2012. ECOWAS continues to support the development of regional telecommunications connectivity, notably through strengthening links between Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring countries of the Mano River Union: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Côte d’Ivoire joined the UN the same year it achieved independence and has since come to participate in most of its specialised agencies. Within the UN, it is associated with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77. The country is an associate member of the EU, as well as a member of the European Investment Bank. Abidjan hosts permanent country offices of the World Bank and the IMF, in addition to the headquarters of the African Development Bank.
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