Making a comeback: As peace returns the country is ready to regain its place in the world


The world’s largest producer of cocoa, Côte d’Ivoire is an ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse West African nation with a rich culture. Once one of Africa’s leading economic powerhouses, the country was afflicted by civil war for much of the past 10 years, including extended unrest following elections in late 2010. However, peace has largely prevailed since April 2011, and while there have been intermittent episodes of violence in the far west, the country is now looking to reclaim its former glory.

GEOGRAPHY: Côte d’Ivoire is 322,463 sq km in size, of which 4460 sq km is inland water. It shares borders of a combined length of 3110 km with Liberia and Guinea to the west, Mali and Burkina Faso to the north, and Ghana to the east, as well as a 515-km-long Atlantic coastline that forms the country’s southern edge.

Although the city of Abidjan in the south-east of the country on the Atlantic coast is both the economic capital and home to many government institutions, as well as the largest city, with more than 5m inhabitants, the official capital is Yamoussoukro. The capital is the birthplace of former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who built the city up from a village. Estimates of the population in the capital vary and it is thought to be a little over 200,000. Other major cities include Bouaké, located in the centre of the country with around 640,000 residents, and Daloa, which is situated to the west of Abidjan, with around 240,000 inhabitants, according to 2009 estimates.

The country’s natural environment is split, divided roughly in two between a northern region made up largely of drier savannah and a heavily forested south. A part of the west and north-west is mountainous – the area is an extension of the Guinea Highlands – and contains the country’s highest mountain, Mount Nimba, the peak of which stands at 1752 metres above sea level. The rest of the country is largely flat or moderately hilly. Four major rivers traverse the country from north to south, namely the Bandama, the Cavally, the Komoé and the Sassandra. The largest body of water is Lake Kossou, a man-made lake created by the damming of the Bandama in the centre of Côte d’Ivoire.

Climactically the country is roughly divided in two between the tropical south and a semi-arid north. The monthly average temperature in the country’s main city Abidjan varies only slightly throughout the year, between 24° and 28° C. Rainfall varies between highs of 10 days a month in June and lows of once a month in January and February.

NATIONAL GOVERNMENT: Côte d’Ivoire operates a presidential political system, under which the president is the head of state and holds extensive executive power. He or she appoints a prime minister, who in turn selects the Cabinet. The president is also head of the armed forces and initiates most legislation, though parliament can also do so. The head of state is entitled to appoint the seven members of the country’s constitutional court, which evaluates the constitutionality of legislation and the eligibility of electoral candidates. The president is directly elected via popular vote for a five-year term; in the event that no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round of voting, a run-off second round between the two candidates with the most votes takes place. A single 225-member chamber known as the National Assembly acts as the legislature. The assembly is also elected every five years, with the most recent parliamentary elections taking place in December 2011.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: The country has 19 regions, which are in turn divided into a total of 90 departments and then 196 communes. Regions and departments are administrated by a centrally appointed prefect, while communes elect mayors. Abidjan is divided into 10 districts, each of which also elects a mayor.

POPULATION: The population of Côte d’Ivoire, which is growing at a rate of 2% annually, is estimated to be around 21m as of early 2013. As with most West African countries, the population is young. Nearly 38.9% of Ivoirians are under 15 years old, while just 7.6% are over 55, illustrating the relative youth of the population.

The southern coastal region is the most heavily populated part of the country, with northern areas more sparsely inhabited. The population is diverse, consisting of numerous ethnic groups, many of which also have significant presences in other countries in the region. The largest group is the Akan, a West African ethnic group that also makes up a sizeable proportion of the population in neighbouring Ghana, for example, and which accounts for approximately 42% of Ivoirians. Sub-groups within the Akan include the Baoulé, which is generally thought to be the largest such sub-group in the country. Other major ethnic groups include the Krous and Mandes, typically found in the west of the country; the Sénoufos, in the northwest; and the Dioula Malinkés in the north-east.

There are also large immigrant populations from neighbouring countries – an issue that has raised political tensions in the past – in particular from Burkina Faso. As in many West African countries there is also an active and long-standing Lebanese community, in addition to a sizeable French expatriate population.

RELIGION: Côte d’Ivoire is also very religiously diverse. Figures for the religious composition of the population vary widely. By some counts, the Muslim community is the largest religious grouping in the country at just over a third of the population, followed by Christians with a slightly lower proportion and finally, a sizable collection of indigenous religious groups. However, different sources give significantly different figures, which in some cases paint the reverse picture, or in other cases suggest that local religions account for a majority of the population. This may be partly explained by the fact that religious beliefs in the country are often marked by a large degree of syncretism, with indigenous religious traditions retaining influence amongst some Muslim and Christian groups, making clear-cut religious distinctions difficult to draw. Traditional religions include varieties of animism and nature worship as well as the veneration of ancestors.

Muslims tend to predominate in the north, while Christians are more concentrated in the south, though there is a mix of religions throughout the country. Most Ivoirian Muslims follow the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. The Christian population is mostly Roman Catholic, but other denominations, including various evangelical groups, also exist in large numbers.

LANGUAGE: The official language is French. In addition, more than 60 languages and dialects are spoken in the country, most of which belong to several NigerCongo language families. Some of the most widely spoken local tongues include Agni, Baoulé and Dan, which each claim close to or more than 1m speakers. Dioula, a local language from the north-east, is also widely spoken given its traditional use among traders.

CULTURE & HERITAGE: As is the case throughout much of West Africa, traditional storytellers and musicians known as griots are an important feature of the cultural landscape and play an influential social and political role by acting as advisers through their unique position that allows them to tell leaders what their people think of them. Traditional musical instruments include the balafon, which is similar to a xylophone, and the stringed kora, which produces a sound that is similar to a harp. Popular contemporary music includes reggae and hip-hop.

Masks, mostly made from wood, are amongst the most prominent forms of traditional art, and the country produces a wide variety of types, with features differing by ethnic group. For many communities masks have important religious and spiritual connotations, sometimes representing deities, and wearing them is generally restricted to individuals of high status or people who are specially trained to do so. The production of wooden statuettes and sculptures is also common across the country. Other arts and handicrafts include painted fabrics, such as those produced by Senufo artisans which inspired famous Western artists like Picasso, and various forms of pottery.

Local cuisine varies widely, but is frequently spicy. Specialities include the national dish fufu or futu (a starchy dough, often served alongside chicken, fish or meat), and, in the south, various fish dishes. Popular local drinks include the ginger-based niamakou; bissap, made from hibiscus; palm wine; and beer, of which Flag is the most common brand.

NATURAL RESOURCES: The country has benefitted from a wide range of commodities that have helped underwrite its growth. Agriculture is a key economic sector, accounting for 27.7% of GDP in 2012 (see Agriculture chapter). The country’s most important crop is cocoa beans, of which Côte d’Ivoire is the largest producer in the world; it produced around twice as much as its nearest rivals Indonesia and Ghana in 2011/12, when output totalled 1.49m tonnes. The next largest crops by value of production were yams ($1.07bn), cashew nuts ($396m) and plantains ($322m).

Côte d’Ivoire is a small net exporter of crude oil. Proven oil reserves stand at around 100m barrels, the 64th largest in the world, and oil production stood at an average of just over 38,000 barrels of oil per day in 2012, ranking the country the 65th-largest producer in the world. Natural gas production amounted to 53bn cu feet in 2011, making it the 60th-largest producer in the world. The country has natural gas reserves of about 1trn cu feet, which puts it at 67th worldwide.

TRANSPORT: Following a decade of instability and under-investment, the country’s transport infrastructure is in serious need of expansion and modernisation. Mindful of this, the government has earmarked 25.5% of the 2012-15 National Development Plan’s budget to the sector, equal to CFA2.82trn (€4.2bn). The road network is in particular need of an overhaul, while roadblocks and bribes remain a major problem. According to the fourth-quarter 2012 “22nd Road Governance Report” put out by the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest-Africaine, UEMOA), Côte d’Ivoire had 1.6 controls per 100 km of roads, resulting in 7 minutes of delays and $5.57 in bribes (see Transport chapter).

EMPLOYMENT: The majority of the labour force is employed in the informal sector: out of an estimated 10m workers, just 600,000 work in the formal private sector, alongside 164,000 civil servants and the security forces. A further 4m-5m are estimated to work in agriculture or in the broader informal sector. While there are no agreed-upon statistics on unemployment, it is considered to be widespread and remains a major issue, leading to instability and affecting politics.

POLITICAL HISTORY: Having emerged from a decade of intermittent conflict that saw the country nearly divided in two, 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 rising prosperity and the construction of some of the best infrastructure in the region. However, progress towards national reconciliation, which will be crucial for the achievement of long-term stability, remains laboured given the significant support commanded by the former administration.

France established a “protectorate” over much of what is now Côte d’Ivoire in 1842 and formally declared it to be a French colony in 1893. The country was granted independence in 1960, and Félix Houphouë tBoigny, a doctor and former minister in the French government who had risen to prominence as the head of an agricultural labour union, became president.

He remained in the post until his death in 1993, making him one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. 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 all opposition parties in 1990 and held presidential elections, which he won.

Houphouët-Boigny was succeeded as president on his death by the president of the National Assembly and senior PDCI figure Henri Konan Bédié. However, against a backdrop of economic struggles caused by falling global cocoa prices, Bédié was overthrown by a military coup in 1999, marking the end of the country’s long period of post-independence political stability. 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) and Guéï put an end to the electoral process and declared himself the winner.

This sparked an uprising by supporters of the main remaining opposition candidate Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivoirian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI), forcing Guéï to flee, following which Gbagbo, who claimed to have won the election, was installed as president. A new round of violence followed soon after when supporters of candidates that had been banned from participating in the elections, led by Outtarra’s Rally of Republicans (Rassemblement des Républicains, RDR), called for a new ballot, which Gbagbo rejected.

TURBULENCE: The Ivoirian civil war began in September 2002, when troops mounted a coup to try to overthrow then-president Gbagbo. The rebels, who called themselves the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d'Ivoire, MPCI) and whose armed forces later became known as the Forces Nouvelles, or the “new forces”, failed to seize power in the capital, but managed to take control of much of the country’s north, effectively dividing it in two.

A peace deal was reached in early 2003 to end the months of fighting, and was backed by the arrival of peacekeeping forces from ECOWAS states, in addition to French troops. A power-sharing government, in which MPCI leader Guillaume Soro took a ministerial post, was formed. Relations broke down in 2004, but another agreement in 2007 saw Soro installed as prime minister, effectively ending the war, though the reunification of the country proceeded more slowly.

ELECTION CRISIS: While the conflict had come to an end, tensions over issues such as the disarmament of the rebels, disputes over nationality and the holding of the delayed presidential elections, due to have taken place in 2005, persisted. In 2008 the two sides agreed to hold presidential elections later that year, although negotiations on voter eligibility delayed the ballot, which was finally held in October 2010.

Gbagbo won a plurality of the vote in the first round but not an absolute majority, leading to a run-off second round between Outtarra and Gbagbo, held on November 28, 2010. Following the vote, the country’s electoral commission said Outtarra won the second round with 54.1% of the vote, on a turnout of 81.1%, a result that was endorsed by the UN and the international community. However, the country’s constitutional courts accepted the claims of electoral fraud in northern areas from Gbagbo’s supporters and, having declared large numbers of votes from such regions invalid, announced Gbagbo as the winner. This triggered a tense stand-off. More than 3000 people died in the subsequent unrest and around 1m people were displaced by fighting in the capital alone.

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 Houphouët-Boigny, was installed as president a month later. Although occasional bouts of unrest still occur, with peace having more or less returned, the UN peacekeeping force is due to be cut in size, and in July 2013 the international body voted in favour of reducing troops to 7137 from the current limit of 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, Aïchatou Mindaoudou, in an effort to get the process of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration into civil society under way, as progress has been limited.

POST-CONFLICT POLITICAL SCENE: The main political parties currently active in Côte d’Ivoire are Outtarra’s grouping the RDR, the PDCI and the FPI, which is affiliated with Gbagbo, but is currently abstaining from all electoral politics. The RDR is an economically liberal party, while the FPI has traditionally leaned towards democratic socialism. The PDCI is closer to the RDR on economic matters, though on the issue of land reform, for example, it has opposed the RDR’s moves to relax restrictions on foreigners owning rural land. There are loose correlations between parties and particular ethnic, religious and regional groups, but such linkages are not hard and fast.

2011 ELECTIONS: In 2011 the country held parliamentary elections. The RDR won 122 out of the 225 seats, providing it with an absolute majority. In second place was the PDCI, which won 76 seats, giving the governing coalition near total dominance of the legislature. Turnout for the election was low at 36.6%, likely in part explained by the fact that the FPI boycotted the vote.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: Coalition governments can be a tricky thing to maintain in any country and Côte d’Ivoire is no different. Differences in opinion between the two parties led to the government’s dissolution in November 2012, ostensibly due to a disagreement over a change to the current law on marriage. However, the two parties quickly overcame their differences and the coalition was reformed soon afterwards, with PDCI’s Daniel Kablan Duncan, who had previously served as prime minister for six years in the 1990s, appointed as prime minister. Duncan is also responsible for finance and economy within the Cabinet.

In April 2013 the country’s parliament further bolstered the power of the executive branch, authorising the president to rule by decree on economic and social issues for the rest of 2013. The same month, Côte d’Ivoire held its first local elections in more than 10 years. The polls passed off largely peacefully, though there were some localised protests over results.

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION: Sustaining reconciliation will be crucial to the future of Côte d’Ivoire, particularly given the significant support the previously opposed parties and groupings may still command. To help further this, the government has established a reconciliation body, known as the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, it is challenging work: the committee generally relies on grants from other organisations and donor bodies, and has seen only moderate progress in terms of getting its projects off the ground. Representatives of the coalition government and the FPI held several meetings in early 2013 and the government postponed local elections in order to allow for the FPI’s potential participation. However, progress has been sparing, and the FPI decided to boycott the elections when they were held in April 2013. Since June 2012 there have been sporadic episodes of violence against government targets, in particular in the far west of the country, although these have been largely contained.

NATIONALITY DEBATE: Some of the thornier issues currently under discussion in Côte d’Ivoire include land reform and the definition of nationality. Debates over the issue of nationality go back to at least the 1990s, when the government promoted a concept known as Ivoirité, which is nominally aimed at keeping non-Ivoirians out of political leadership positions by insisting that candidates’ parents should both be Ivoirian nationals and that they should have been born in the country. The push for this stems both out of economic concerns over jobs, as well as religious and regional disputes. The current government is promoting a more inclusive idea of nationality and since 2011 has given citizenship documents to at least 140,000 residents who previously lacked them.

On August 23, 2013 parliament formally adopted a law on nationality that reforms the rules for granting citizenship. In effect, this law automatically gives citizenship to an entire class of people who have lived in the country for years. On the same day a reform on rural land ownership was also passed.

OUTLOOK: The outlook for the future of Côte d’Ivoire will depend in large part on how much progress is made in achieving national reconciliation following the country’s recent conflicts. The conduct and the outcome of the next presidential elections, scheduled to take place in 2015, will also be important. The extent to which elections proceed peacefully and whether or not supporters of the former government renew their participation in the political process will be crucial indicators regarding the country’s political future.

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