Although the country’s humid climate hinders the preservation of biological remains, archaeological finds suggest that humans may have inhabited areas that became Côte d’Ivoire as early as the Neolithic period, from 15,000 BCE onwards. The first recorded history, however, comes from Berber merchants from North Africa who plied trans-Saharan trade routes as far south as the edge of the country’s rain forests. Following the Arab conquest, this also determined the range of Islamic influence, which helps explain why the Muslim population is concentrated in the north to this day. In the pre-colonial era, the area consisted of a large number of isolated settlements, some of which grew in size and power to become indigenous kingdoms.

Road to Independence

French and Portuguese traders began to explore West Africa in the 15th century, attracted by the promise of pepper, gold and ivory, the latter of which would give the country its name. The ivory trade had died out by the 18th century due to the decline in the elephant population. The slave trade had already begun to take place in the 16th century, however, although the dearth of natural ports on the Ivorian coastline initially discouraged Europeans from establishing permanent trading settlements. While France had established such settlements elsewhere in West Africa much earlier, it was not until the mid19th century that it did so in what became Côte d’ Ivoire. Treaties signed with local rulers in the 1840s saw the territories of Assini and Grand Bassam become French protectorates, the eponymous city of the latter eventually becoming the capital. The French extended their influence along the coast and into the interior through the following decades, before Côte d’Ivoire formally became a colony in 1893. Strong local resistance ensured that it was not considered to be fully under French control, however, until 1918.

The colony became an autonomous republic within the French Union at the end of the Second World War, and later achieved full independence on August 7, 1960. Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a former cocoa farmer who had risen to become a cabinet minister in two French governments, became the first president of newly independent Côte d’Ivoire and would rule until his death in 1993. For most of his reign, Houphouët-Boigny served at the head of a one-party state, until social unrest forced him to accede to demands for the legalisation of opposition political parties and contested democracy. He had previously withstood attempted coup attempts in 1963 and 1973. The president was able to garner 81% of the vote in the first contested presidential election in October 1990. His opponent in that election, Laurent Gbagbo, appealed the result to the Supreme Court, in what would be the first in a series of contested election results. Upon his death in 1993, Houphouët-Boigny was succeeded by Henri Konan Bédié (HKB), a politician of the same political party. The manner of this power transfer, as well as a 1998 constitutional reform that granted enhanced powers to the president, led to rising social tensions through the decade until HKB was ousted in a military coup in December 1999.

Civil War

Robert Guéï, a former member of Houphouët-Boigny’s government, was installed as leader. Having promised to hold free and fair elections in October 2000, he reneged on his previous commitment not to run as a candidate himself. Despite having been widely considered to have attempted to manipulate the election result, he was ultimately defeated by Gbagbo. Violent clashes continued in the aftermath, however, culminating in another failed coup attempt in September 2002 during which Guéï was killed. This marked the start of the First Ivorian Civil War, and saw France, and later the UN, beef up its military presence in the country to try to maintain peace. The war nonetheless saw the country divided between the rebel-held Muslim North and the government-held Christian south. President Gbagbo signed a peace treaty with rebel leaders in January 2003, but it fell apart in November 2004 as the rebels refused to disarm when government forces initiated a bombing campaign to target their northern strongholds in violation of the peace treaty. A new peace deal was brokered in April 2005, but fell apart shortly thereafter amid further violent recriminations. Another attempt at peace was made in March 2007, with Gbagbo remaining as president in the subsequent transitional government, but with Guillaume Soro, one of the rebel leaders, acting as prime minister. Although presidential and legislative elections were due to take place within 10 months, a series of delays meant that they were ultimately postponed until October 2010. When Alassane Ouattara emerged victorious in the presidential election, the incumbent, Gbagbo, refused to recognise the result and had himself sworn in as president for another term despite significant international support for his opponent. These actions saw sanctions imposed on the country, and the violence escalated in February 2011 when rebel forces advanced south. With the help of UN and French forces, they managed to capture Gbagbo on April 11. Ouattara was sworn in as president on May 6, 2011. Having been credited with restoring peace and prosperity, President Ouattara was re-elected in October 2015 for a second five-year term with an 84% share of the vote. International observers attested to the elections having been free and fair. Following his arrest, Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, where his trial began in January 2016 alongside that of Charles Blé Goudé, who was part of Gbagbo’s administration. Gbagbo was one of the first heads of state to be tried by the ICC, following the conviction in 2012 of the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor.


Born in 1942 to a Muslim family of the Dioula people in Dimbokro, situated between Yamoussoukro and Abidjan, Ouattara pursued his primary education in Côte d’Ivoire, secondary education in Burkina Faso and university education in the US. Having begun his professional career as an economist at the IMF, he moved to work at the Central Bank of West African States (Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, BCEAO), headquartered in Abidjan, in 1973 having graduated with a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania the previous year. He would go on to serve in a number of different roles, up to and including deputy governor, before returning to the IMF as director of the African department in 1984. He returned to the BCEAO as governor between 1987 and 1993, at which point he was made honorary governor. Amid an economic crisis, then-President Houphouë tBoigny appointed Ouattara to chair a special commission on economic recovery in April 1990. In November 1990, he assumed the newly-created office of prime minister, gradually taking on more de facto responsibilities as the health of the president deteriorated.

Though some had hoped that Ouattara would circumvent the constitution to lead a unity government upon Houphouët-Boigny’s death in December 1993, HKB had himself sworn in as president on the same day, in line with the constitutional mandate that the president of the National Assembly would assume the presidency of the republic in the event that the head of state died in office. Ouattara resigned shortly thereafter as prime minister, and served as deputy managing director of the IMF from 1994 to 1999. He had considered running for the presidency in 1995, an election which the opposition ultimately boycotted, but was barred from doing so because of two constitutional stipulations: that a candidate must have resided in the country for a continuous period of five years and that both their parents must be of Ivorian nationality, the latter of which was contested due to questions around the nationality of one of his parents. For similar reasons, as well as the fact that he himself had held nationality of Burkina Faso for a period of time, in contravention of yet another constitutional stipulation, Ouattara was also barred from running for the presidency in 2000. Subsequent constitutional changes meant that he was cleared to run for the presidency in 2005, though he had by then left the country amid threats. When the election finally took place in late 2010, he would triumph over the incumbent, Gbagbo, with 54.1% of the vote.

Political Parties

Between 1959 and 1990 the only permitted political party was that of President Houphouët-Boigny, the Democratic Party of Côte d’ Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire, PDCI), itself an outgrowth of the African Democratic Rally, which had existed since 1946 to advocate for the decolonisation of Francophone Africa. Some two dozen political parties have formed since they were first legalised in 1990, including the Ivorian Popular Front, which was long headed by Gbagbo, the Ivorian Workers’ Party (Le Parti Ivoirien des Travailleurs, PIT), the Ivorian Socialist Party, and the Ivorian Human Rights League. In 1994 a number of defectors from the ruling PDCI, including the current President Ouattara, formed the Rally of the Republicans (Rassemblement des Républicains, RDR) party. Together with the smaller Union for Democracy and Peace in Côte d’Ivoire (UDPCI) and two smaller parties (Movement of the Forces of the Future, and Union for Côte d’Ivoire), the RDR and PDCI have since 2005 constituted the Houphouëtists Rally for Democracy and Peace (RHDP), a hegemonic ruling coalition. The PIT became the sixth constituent party of the RHDP to contest the 2016 legislative elections. In July 2018 the RDR and UDPCI, together with dissenting elements from the other coalition members, established themselves as a self-standing political party in its own right. Given that the PDCI, still led by former president HKB, chose not to join the new “unified party”, despite defections of a number of its ministers to the new outfit, this represents a fracture in the governing coalition. Prior to the 2016 constitution, the country had a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, with 255 members elected from single-seat constituencies for five-year terms coterminous with the presidency. Typically, the assembly votes on legislation introduced at the initiative of the president, though it can also initiate legislation itself. The most recent legislative election took place in December 2016, with the RHDP losing 40 seats, but still securing 167, nearly enough to secure a two-thirds majority. Under the new constitution, each of the 33 regions or autonomous districts is represented by two senators elected by the elected office-holders in those areas, as well as a further senator appointed by the president, amounting to a new 99-member upper chamber. Another important change heralded by the 2016 constitution was the reduction from a two-thirds majority to an absolute majority needed within the National Assembly to overturn a presidential veto.

Next Elections

With the regional and municipal elections out of the way since October 2018, the focus of the political cycle has turned in earnest to the presidential election, which takes place on October 31, 2020. In line with the new constitution, passed by a landslide majority in a 2016 referendum, citizens will for the first time elect a president and vice-president on the same ticket. The new constitution also scrapped presidential age limits, therefore clearing the incumbent to run for a third term; however, President Ouattara announced in early 2017 that he would not be a candidate in 2020.

Policy & Reform Agenda

The twin focus of public policy during the two presidential terms of Ouattara have been, on the one hand, peace and reconciliation after the civil war and, on the other hand, fostering rapid economic growth to facilitate post-war reconstruction and sustained improvements in living standards. While challenges remain in ensuring security across the national territory and achieving the government’s stated ambition of middle-income status by 2020, the president’s efforts in this regard have largely been considered an unqualified success given the starting point. In an address to the National Assembly as early as 2013, this was being hailed by Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director, as a “second Ivorian miracle”. The IMF highlighted in its June 2018 Article IV consultation that reform priorities include improving the business climate so that the private sector can play an increasingly central role in driving economic growth.