Election season: The country prepares to select its next president

Possessing a rich cultural diversity, Côte d’Ivoire is located on the coast of West Africa. As the world’s largest producer of cocoa, a regional electricity exporter and a developed financial centre, the country’s prosperity in the post-independence era allowed it to establish itself as an influential commercial and diplomatic player. Civil unrest disrupted its development over the past decade, most recently following the last round of presidential elections in 2010, but following a resolution to the crisis in 2011 the country has seen a rebound in economic activity, with a flood of new public and private capital flowing in (see Economy chapter). While there is plenty of scope for improvement, Côte d’Ivoire is well on the way to reestablishing itself as a major growth market.


Côte d’Ivoire’s borders span 3110 km, with Burkina Faso and Mali to the north, Guinea and Liberia to the west, and Ghana to the east, while its southern coastline abuts 515 km of the Atlantic Ocean along the Gulf of Guinea.

Comprised of 322,463 sq km of land, approximately 4460 sq km of the country is inland waterways. Côte d’Ivoire’s official capital is Yamoussoukro, where the nation’s first post-independence president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was born. Once a small village, estimates of Yamoussoukro’s population differ, though figures largely congregate around slightly over 200,000 inhabitants. Located to the south-east on the coast, the country’s economic capital, Abidjan, is considerably larger and more populous than Yamoussoukro and is the biggest city in Côte d’Ivoire, with a population of over 5m people. With 640,000 residents, the central city of Bouaké constitutes another major urban centre, as well as the western city of Daloa, with around 240,000 residents.

Côte d’Ivoire is home to a wealth of biodiversity, though geography varies between the north, which is characterised by a drier savannah climate, and the south, which is rich in forests. This geographic divide accounts for the variance in climate between the northern and the southern regions, a semi-arid zone and a tropical zone, respectively. Average monthly temperatures in Abidjan fluctuate between 24° C and 28° C during the year, while rainfall varies between lows of once per month in January and February and highs of 10 days per month in June.

Much of the country is flat or hilly, although portions of the north-western and western regions are covered by mountains – an extension of the Guinea Highlands. There stands the country’s tallest mountain, Mount Nimba, which stretches as high as 1752 metres above sea level. Côte d’Ivoire has four principal rivers that run from north to south, called the Cavally, the Sassandra, the Bandama and the Komoé. The construction of a dam to block the Bandama River in central Côte d’Ivoire created the country’s largest body of water, Lake Kossou.


As of July 2013, Côte d’Ivoire had approximately 22.4m inhabitants, with a population growth rate of 2-3% per annum. Similar to many of its neighbours, the majority of Ivorians are young, with around 38.9% of the population under 14 years old, while only 4.4% of citizens are over 55. Within this, the male population holds a slight majority over the female population in all age categories except for Ivorians 65 years of age and older.

Most Ivorians inhabit the southern part of the country, while the northern regions are relatively under populated. With some 69 ethnic groups, the Ivorian population boasts rich diversity. The Akan is the largest ethnic group and comprises 42.1% of the Ivorian population. Within the Akan, a number of sub-groups exist, including the Baoulé, who are considered the largest sub-group in Côte d’Ivoire. The Mandes and the Krous constitute two other major ethnic identities who generally live in western Côte d’Ivoire, while the Dioula Malinkés and the Sénoufos inhabit the north-east and the north-west, respectively. Côte d’Ivoire is also home to sizeable immigrant populations from its neighbours as well as having a notable French and Lebanese presence. As is the case in many West African countries, informal activity comprises a large proportion of Côte d’Ivoire’s labour force. It is estimated that of the 10m employed Ivorians, only 600,000 work in the recognised private sector, while 164,000 individuals work in the civil service and the security forces. The remaining workers are believed to work either in the agriculture sector or in other informal sector activities.


The country also is home to a wide variety of religious communities, though statistics for followers of each religion differ significantly. According to some estimates, Muslims account for the largest religious group, representing over 30% of the population, followed by a slightly smaller percentage of Christians, with various local religious groupings accounting for the remainder of the population. However, other sources cite Christians as the majority, while still others state that indigenous religious groups are the principal religion bloc.

These discrepancies can be partly understood by the widespread practice of syncretism, where many Christian and Muslim groups have preserved local religious practices that include variations of nature worship, the veneration of ancestors and animism.

Although religions are dispersed throughout the country, Christians more commonly inhabit the south, while Muslims are often the majority in the north. Christian populations mainly adhere to Roman Catholicism, though other denominations, like evangelical groups, also maintain a significant presence. Less diversity exists amongst Muslim populations in Côte d’Ivoire, where the predominant religious sect is the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. Islam is also the chosen religion for the majority of migrant workers in the country, with an estimated 70% of migrant workers as Muslims, while 20% are Christian.


The national language is French, which serves to linguistically unite a country where over 60 languages and dialects are spoken. Most of the country’s local languages come from a number of Niger-Congo language families, and indigenous tongues include Dan, Agni, and Baoulé, each of which are spoken by around 1m people. Another prominent local language is Dioula, which emanates from the north-east and was used among traders.

Heritage & Culture

Many West African countries are renowned for their traditional musicians and storytellers, and Côte d’Ivoire is no exception. Known as griots, indigenous musicians and storytellers represent a key component of the Ivorian cultural landscape and possess significant political and social influence at the local level. This influence is derived from their unique ability to speak freely to leaders about the opinions of their people. Traditional music utilises many different instruments that include drums and the balafon, which is comparable to a xylophone. Modern musical favourites include reggae and local styles of dance music, such as zouglou.

Another predominant feature of Ivorian culture and heritage is the crafting of sculptures and wooden statuettes. Masks are considered another popular form of indigenous art, and for many ethnic groups, masks represent important religious and spiritual practices and beliefs, and often represent deities. Usually made from wood, features vary according to ethnic group, though their symbolism is similar across communities, where individuals of high status or people who are specially trained are largely the only members of society that are able to wear masks. Other widely practiced forms of art include pottery and painted fabrics, such as those that are fabricated by Senufo artisans, a tradition that inspired international artists, like Picasso.

Though Ivorian food changes significantly depending on the local ethnic group, it is often characterised as spicy. Popular local dishes include various fish dishes, particularly in the south, and the national speciality known as fufu or futu, which is a starchy dough that is often presented with fish, chicken or meat. Prominent local drinks include bissap, which is made from hibiscus; palm wine; niamakou, prepared with ginger, pepper and other spices; and beer, with Flag considered the most popular trademark.

Natural Resources

Natural commodities have been instrumental in promoting Ivorian growth, with agriculture, contributing 27.7% to GDP in 2012 and providing employment to a significant portion of the national labour force (see Agriculture chapter).

Cocoa beans are the country’s principal source of foreign reserves and Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of this agricultural good. In 2013/14, cocoa bean output amounted to 1.75m tonnes, which represented nearly double the production of its closest rivals, Ghana and Indonesia. During the same year, yams were the second-most-important product, with output valued at $1.07bn; followed by cashews, valued at $396m; and plantains, at $322m.

Côte d’Ivoire also possesses oil reserves and gas resources. With known oil reserves estimated at approximately 100m barrels, the country has the 64th-largest oil resources in the world (see Energy chapter). In 2013, oil production averaged slightly over 40,000 barrels per day, establishing Côte d’Ivoire as the 65th-largest oil producer worldwide. Natural gas reserves were estimated to be around 1trn cu ft, making it the 67th-largest reserves globally. In 2013 natural gas production was 53bn cu feet, making the country the world’s 59th-largest producer.

Transport Infrastructure

Although Côte d’Ivoire’s transport infrastructure is one of the most extensive in the region, years of conflict and a lack of investment have seriously eroded transport capabilities, necessitating significant capital for upgrades and expansion projects (see Transport chapter). In light of this, the country’s 2012-15 National Development Plan has highlighted transport as a priority, having allotted CFA2.82trn (€4.2bn), or 25.5% of the budget, to modernisation efforts.

In particular, the state of the nation’s road infrastructure is in poor condition due to fighting during years of unrest, leading to delays and congestions. However, efforts to expand railways and re-pave roads, including through public-private projects, should see the country’s infrastructure network improve significantly in the years to come.

Having emerged from a decade of intermittent conflict that saw the country nearly divided, Côte d’Ivoire is now reunited and witnessing an economic resurgence. Hopes are high that the nation will regain the stability and economic growth that characterised its first decades following independence, which saw the construction of some of the best infrastructure in the region. Signs so far are promising, such as the recent construction of the Henri Konan Bédié Bridge in Abidjan, which promises to significantly reduce congestion in the city.

Government Structure

Côte d’Ivoire is governed by a presidential system in which the president is the head of state and possesses extensive executive powers. Under this system, the president is the leader of the armed forces and implements a majority of legislation, though parliament maintains the ability to enact policies. The president is also responsible for appointing a prime minister, who appoints the Cabinet, as well as the seven individuals who comprise the national Constitutional Court, which checks the validity of legislation and the eligibility of participants in elections. Elected by popular vote, each president serves a five-year term and if no candidate obtains a clear majority in the first round of elections, a second round of elections is held between the two candidates that received the most votes. The National Assembly serves as the legislature and has 225 members, who are also elected every five years. The last National Assembly was elected in parliamentary elections that took place in December 2011.

Administratively, Côte d’Ivoire is divided into 19 regions, with each region separated into 90 departments and 196 communes. While elected mayors administrate the latter, a centrally appointed prefect governs regions and departments. Due to its size, Abidjan is comprised of 10 districts, with each district headed by an elected mayor.

Political History

In 1842, the majority of the territory that comprises modern-day Côte d’Ivoire was deemed a protectorate of the French, and was subsequently established as a French colony in 1893. Côte d’Ivoire became an independent state in 1960, with Félix Houphouët-Boigny as its president. A doctor, agricultural trade unionist and former minister under the French government, Houphouët-Boigny served as the Ivorian president until his death in 1993 and was one of the longest-serving political leaders in Africa. For most of his time in power the country was ruled as a single-party state under his Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d'Ivoire, PDCI). However, following popular protests triggered by mounting economic problems throughout the 1980s, Houphouët-Boigny legalised opposition parties in 1990 and held presidential elections, which he won with 81.68% of the vote against Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivorian Popular Front party (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI).

Following Houphouët-Boigny’s death in December 1993, the presidency was assumed by Henri Konan Bédié, a senior member of the PDCI party and president of the National Assembly. However, Côte d’Ivoire’s economic troubles were increasingly aggravated by sharply declining world cocoa prices, stirring domestic tensions that culminated in Bédié’s overthrow in a military coup in 1999.

Junta leader General Robert Guéï called elections in 2000; however, these were marked by numerous problems, such as the disqualification of several prominent candidates – including current President Alassane Dramane Outtarra, who represented the Rally of Republicans (Rassemblement des Républicains, RDR – and Guéï put an end to the electoral process and declared himself the winner. An uprising by supporters of the main remaining opposition candidate, Laurent Gbagbo of the FPI, followed. It forced Guéï to flee and Gbagbo was installed as president.

Civil Strife

In September 2002, the Ivorian civil war began after a grouping of troops, called the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d'Ivoire, MPCI), attempted to overthrow then-President Gbagbo. The MPCI’s forces later became known as the Forces Nouvelles, or the “new forces”, though they failed to seize power in the capital. However, Forces Nouvelles managed to take control in the country’s north, dividing the nation in two. A peace was reached in early 2003 that ended months of fighting and was backed by the arrival of peacekeeping forces from ECOWAS states and France. A power-sharing government, in which MPCI leader Guillaume Soro took a ministerial post, was formed. Relations broke down in 2004, but an agreement in 2007 saw Soro become prime minister, ending the war and beginning reunification.

Electoral Disputes

Both sides ultimately agreed to hold presidential elections in 2008, but negotiations on voter eligibility led to the elections being postponed until October 2010. In the first round of elections, Gbagbo won a plurality of the vote, but did not succeed in obtaining an absolute majority, which led to the holding of a second round of elections between Gbagbo and Ouattara on November 28, 2010. According to the Ivorian electoral commission, Ouattara was announced to have won the ballot with 54.1% of the vote amidst voter turnout of 81.1%. Although the results were endorsed by both the UN and the international community, the country’s Constitutional Courts recognised that electoral fraud by Gbagbo’s supporters had taken place in the northern parts of the country. As a significant number of votes from the north had been declared invalid, the Constitutional Courts claimed that Gbagbo was the electoral victor, but this triggered intense political unrest and more than 3000 people died in the subsequent fighting, while around 1m people were displaced by violence in the capital.

The standoff ended in April 2011 and Outtarra, a former economist at the IMF who also served as prime minister in the early 1990s under Houphouë tBoigny, was installed as president a month later. Although occasional bouts of unrest still occur, peace has more or less returned and in July 2013 the UN body voted in favour of reducing its peacekeeping force to 7137, from 10,400, with further reductions planned in coming years. In May 2013 a new head of the UN mission to Côte d’Ivoire was named, Aï chatou Mindaoudou, in an effort to get the process of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration into civil society under way, though progress is limited.

Post-Conflict Politics

While there is a loose correlation between particular parties and different social divisions, ties are not particularly strong and Côte d’Ivoire’s political parties represent a modest variety of viewpoints, although often share similar perspectives on a number of cross-cutting issues. Ouattara’s party, the RDR, is the current governing party and is considered economically liberal. The FPI, affiliated with Gbagbo, identifies more with democratic-socialist values, though it is not currently participating in elections. The third major party is the PDCI, which shares similar economic views to the RDR, but disagrees with the latter on issues such as land reform when the RDR sought to relax constraints on foreigners’ ability to own rural land.

Recent Elections

In 2011, the country’s return to political stability continued with the successful and relatively uneventful parliamentary elections. The RDR obtained an absolute majority, winning 122 seats out of 225, while the PDCI — which subsequently joined the RDR in a ruling coalition — won the second-largest number of positions at 76 seats. While the UN certified the results in the vast majority of the constituencies as free and fair, some 66 complaints over potential irregularities were filed, with 11 claims later investigated. Turnout was modest as well, at only 36.6% — although this was in large part due to the FPI’s boycott of the vote, reflecting the need for ongoing reconciliation efforts.

In April 2013, Ivorians went to the polls for the first municipal elections in over a decade, with over 700 candidates running for positions in 200 towns. A few protests were held due over disputed outcomes, but the elections were largely peaceful.

Recent Developments

Despite the FPI’s absence from politics, the government has experienced difficulties within the coalition. In November 2012, the cabinet was dissolved after the two parties were unable to agree to a proposed change in the current legislation on marriage. Extensive negotiations brokered a compromise, with a significant reshuffle of ministerial posts and the PDCI’s Daniel Kablan Duncan, a former prime minister in the 1990s, given the post of prime minister. Duncan was also provided the portfolio for financial and economic issues in the cabinet. The executive branch received an expansion in its power in April 2013 from the national parliament, enabling the president to rule by decree on social and economic issues that year.

Prospects For Reconciliation

Given the contentiousness and close results of the 2010 elections, the pending 2015 presidential elections have emphasised the importance for Côte d’Ivoire of ensuring a holistic process of national reconciliation. To further this goal, the government established the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in 2014 released a report detailing more than 86 separate cases of human rights abuses committed during the conflict, though currently only one case has been investigated. The commission’s progress has been hindered by limited funding, often from donor organisations, and programme implementation.

In early 2013, officials from the FPI and the coalition government were brought together several times to negotiate disputed issues, and the government delayed municipal elections to enable the FPI to participate in April 2013. Nevertheless, progress has been slow, particularly following the FPI boycott of the parliamentary elections and the temporary pullout of the party from the electoral commission in late 2014. Sporadic incidences of unrest have broken out, but the disturbances have been contained in the far western regions. The need to increase inclusiveness has become increasingly important for those candidates registered for the October 2015 election. According to local press reports, the FPI, led by Pascal Affi N’Guessan, is expected to contest the 2015 vote for president, with Ouattara, who was endorsed by the PDCI in 2014, representing the RDR.

National Identity

A key factor fuelling unrest was the debate over national identity. In the 1990s, the government upheld a definition for nationality called Ivoirité, defining “Ivorian” as someone whose parents were both nationals born in Côte d’Ivoire. Since 2011, the Ouattara government has supported a more expansive concept and 140,000 residents have been given citizenship. The new interpretation of nationality was formalised in August 2013 by parliament in a law that updated the regulations for granting citizenship, extending citizenship to inhabitants who had resided in the country for years.


Côte d’Ivoire’s future is contingent on the process of national reconciliation. Although important progress has been made, the possibility of unrest remains, prompting concerns over the presidential elections set for October 2015. The preservation of peace and economic recovery will depend on the outcome of the elections and the ability of the new government to continue the reconciliation agenda.

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