Since the end of the civil war in 2011, Côte d’Ivoire has stepped forward into a new era of sustained peace and high economic growth. Linguistically, ethnically and religiously diverse, the former French colony is now aiming to regain its historic status as a peaceful and prosperous West African nation state.
Côte d’Ivoire is 322,463 sq km in size. It shares borders with Liberia and Guinea to the west, Mali and Burkina Faso to the north, and Ghana to the east, and boasts a 515-km-long of Atlantic coastline to the south. Although Yamoussoukro is the official capital, Abidjan, situated on the south-eastern coast, is the country’s largest city. While Abidjan has a population of almost 5m, Yamoussoukro – which is the birthplace of former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who built the city up from a village – has a population of 259,000. Other major cities include Bouaké, which lies in the centre of the country and has around 762,000 residents, and Daloa, which is situated to the west of Abidjan, with around 240,000 inhabitants.
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 1752 metres above sea level.
The rest of the landscape is largely flat or moderately hilly. Four major rivers traverse Côte d’Ivoire from north to south, namely the Bandama, the Cavally, the Komoé and the Sassandra. The largest body of water in the country is Lake Kossou, a man-made lake that was created in 1973 by the damming of the Bandama River in the centre of the country.
Climatically the territory can be roughly divided in two between the tropical south and a semi-arid north. The monthly average temperature in the main city, Abidjan, varies only slightly throughout the year, between 24°C and 28°C. Meanwhile, rainfall varies between highs of 10 days a month in June to lows of just once a month in January and February.
Famous for being the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans, Côte d’Ivoire is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, diamonds, manganese, iron ore, cobalt, bauxite, copper, gold, nickel, tantalum, silica sand, clay, coffee, palm oil and hydropower. Proven oil reserves stand at around 100m barrels, the 64th-largest in the world. Agriculture is a key sector, accounting for 64.8% of land usage, of which 9.1% is arable land, 14.2% permanent crops and 41.5% permanent pasture. Once home to the largest forest in West Africa, the country has suffered extreme deforestation. Nevertheless, forest still accounts for 32.7% of land.
Côte d’Ivoire has a population of 23.7m, of which 28.8% belong to the Akan, the largest single ethnic group, followed by the Gur (16.1%), Northern Mande (14.5%), Kru (8.5%) and Southern Mande (6.9%). Subgroups within the Akan include the Baoulé, which is generally thought to be the largest such subgroup in the country. There are also large immigrant populations from neighbouring countries, in particular from Burkina Faso. As in many West African countries there is also a long-standing Lebanese community, in addition to a sizeable French expatriate population. With 60% under the age of 25 and the total fertility rate at about 3.5 children per woman, the population is likely to continue growing in the foreseeable future.
Although French is the official language, there are more than 60 other native languages and dialects, of which Dioula is the most widely spoken. Christians account for 33.9% of the population and Muslims for 42.9%, while around 3.6% are thought to be animist. Muslims tend to predominate in the north and Christians are more concentrated in the south, though there is a mix of religions throughout the country. Most Ivorian Muslims follow the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, while the Christian population is mostly Roman Catholic, but other denominations, including various evangelical groups, also exist in large numbers.
Ample archaeological evidence attests to the presence of early humans in the lands that eventually became Côte d’Ivoire. In the precolonial period, important kingdoms flourished, arising out of towns that had developed around communities of Dyula traders who settled in the northern savannah. The rise of the powerful Ashanti Empire, located in what is now Ghana, in the late 17th century instigated a period of conflict and territorial change. In the 1730s the powerful Abron kingdom of Gyaman fell to the Ashanti, to whom it remained subject until 1875. Founded by Queen Abla Poku after she and her followers fled to the North-central region, the notable Baule kingdom was defined by a mixture of both Akan and local traditions.
Attracted by the slave and ivory trade – from which the country derives its name – Europeans initially confined their activities to coastal areas, signing treaties that allowed them to build forts and trading posts. As the push to colonise Africa gained traction in the 19th century, France declared Côte d’Ivoire a colony in 1893. Due to strong resistance mounted by certain local groups, the region was not considered fully under French control until 1918. In 1960 Houphouët-Boigny, a former cocoa farmer who had risen to become a Cabinet minister in two French governments, was elected president of the newly independent state.
Houphouët-Boigny ruled until his death in 1993, withstanding two coup attempts in 1963 and 1973. Friendly and profitable relations were maintained with France and the country’s neighbours due to Houphouët-Boigny’s ability to establish common ground with opponents. When Houphouët-Boigny won the country’s first multi-party elections in 1990, opposition candidate Laurent Gbagbo’s unsuccessful appeal in the supreme court became the first in a series of contested outcomes that would come to define the country’s halting transition to fully fledged democracy.
Following Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993, power was transferred to a member of the same political party, Henri Konan Bédié, in a move that led to rising tensions during the 1990s. The opposition boycotted the 1995 elections, and in December 1999 a military coup ousted the ruling party and installed General Robert Guéï, a former member of Houphouët-Boigny’s government, as leader. While Guéï promised to hold free and fair elections by October 2000, and not to run as a candidate himself, he subsequently broke his promise by running for president. Despite attempts by Guéï to manipulate the election result, Gbagbo won the election and was eventually installed as president.
During the fighting that followed a second failed coup attempt in September 2002, Guéï was killed. His death sparked the civil war that would divide the country into the rebel-held Muslim north and the government-held Christian south. A peace agreement was tentatively reached in January 2003. However, in the months of stalemate that followed the principle issues that fuelled the tensions behind the war – qualifications for holding office, land ownership and the basis of national identity – were never resolved. Fighting broke out once again in November 2004, when the government violated the peace treaty by bombing rebel positions in the north of the country.
In April 2005 a ceasefire agreement was reached, but fighting quickly resumed when the terms were not immediately implemented. Nevertheless, in 2007 both sides signed a power-sharing agreement. In the subsequent transitional government, Gbagbo remained president while rebel leader Guillaume Soro became prime minister, with presidential and legislative elections to be held within 10 months. After several delays the election was finally held on October 31, 2010. When Gbagbo refused to accept the victory of his main rival Alassane Ouattara, citing incidences of electoral fraud and voter intimidation, he was sworn in for another term as president, despite international support for Ouattara. As a consequence, sanctions were imposed against Côte d’Ivoire. In February 2011, violence escalated, and rebel forces were soon advancing south. On April 11, with the help of UN and French forces, Gbagbo was finally arrested by the rebel forces, thus officially ending the civil war. On May 6 Ouattara was sworn in as president. Four years later, with stability vastly improved and high growth rates secured, Ouattara won the 2015 presidential elections with 84% of the vote and the approval of international observers.
The relative stability of the post-civil war era has ushered in exceptionally high economic growth rates, averaging 9% in the 2012-16 period, putting Côte d’Ivoire amongst the 10 fastest growing economies in the world in 2016. This economic development has helped the country rebuild much of the infrastructure that was damaged during the civil war, with progress being made on key issues such as education and the fight against disease. In 2017 the World Bank highlighted education as a priority area, as the country seeks to turn its demographic dividend into an economic strength in the coming years.
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