Country profile: Côte D'Ivoire
At certain times of the day in Cocody, Abidjan’s smart and leafy quarter of foreign embassies and chic eateries, Westerners – most of them French – outnumber Ivorians. The eateries serve French food, the billboards advertise French fashions and French TV blares out from opulent homes. Visiting Côte d’Ivoire today, it’s tempting to feel that, despite the upheavals of the past 50 years, the country has come full circle to the moment of its independence from France in 1960. The current president, Alassane Ouattara, is arguably emulating Côte d’Ivoire’s first ruler, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, by being France’s – and by extension the West’s – ‘man in Africa’.
In the 1960s, Houphouët sold off Côte d’Ivoire’s lucrative cocoa industry (then as now accounting for a third of the world’s yield) to foreign corporations who were allowed to retain 90 per cent of their profits. The same two US companies – ADM and Cargill – still dominate Ivorian cocoa today and Ouattara has been busy awarding vast construction tenders to French firms such as Bouyges. As with the Houphouët era, the result has been ‘growth without development’: the business elite are getting richer from new hotels, highways and other amenities, while the living standards of the poor have barely risen.
Although Ouattara is widely praised for ending a decade of horrific civil war, marginalized regional and ethnic groups continue to hold grievances about the legitimacy of his regime and the imperialistic behaviour of the French during the conflict. The first civil war broke out in 2002 against the backdrop of rapid economic decline that had begun with the collapse in global cocoa and coffee prices in the late 1970s. Elected president in 2000, the nationalist Laurent Gbagbo scapegoated immigrants who, during the Houphouët boom years, had moved from the north of the country (as well as from neighbouring nations such as Mali and Burkina Faso) to work in the plantations of the south. But Gbagbo’s real crime – in the eyes of the West at least – was to challenge French economic exploitation of Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo cancelled a major contract with SAUR, a French gas supplier that refused to pay taxes to the Ivorian exchequer, and handed the construction of a new bridge in Abidjan to the Chinese, who agreed to do the job for a quarter of the price demanded by the French.
Nyani Quarmyne/Panos Pictures
France’s military assault on Côte d’Ivoire in 2004 used the same ‘humanitarian’ rhetoric as the UK and US had in their invasion of Iraq the previous year. And, as with the ‘coalition of the willing’, France’s true motives were strategic and economic. Its particular brand of ‘regime change’ resulted in the annihilation of the Ivorian Air Force and the shooting of between 20 and 57 unarmed protesters in Abidjan.
The 2010 elections contested by Gbagbo and Ouattara were blemished by fraud, intimidation and violence that led to the deaths of 3,000. Both candidates were implicated in the killing, but the French intervened on behalf of Ouattara, helped depose Gbagbo and sent him off to The Hague on war-crimes charges. His trial begins next year. To many Ivorians, victor’s justice has prevailed against a man who, while no angel himself, at least tried for a little more autonomy for his people.
While the Ivorian economy is growing at an almost Houphouët-era rate, 42 per cent of the population live below the national poverty line and Gbagbo loyalists in the east and southwest of the country continue to threaten the peace process. François, a young Ivorian first-time voter I met in Cocody, hopes that the election in October this year will ‘not cause these contradictions to explode’.
|Leader||President Alassane Ouattara.|
|Economy||Gross national income (GNI) per capita $1,450 (Ghana $1,770, France $35,530). In the 1960s and 1970s, Côte d’Ivoire’s impressive cocoa and coffee exports earned it the soubriquet ‘the miracle of Africa’. While agriculture remains vital to the economy, there have been attempts to diversify into crude oil, chemicals, tourism and textiles.|
|Monetary unit||African (CFA) franc.|
|Main exports||Cocoa, oil products, rubber and coffee.|
|People||20.3 million. People per square kilometre 60.2 (France 289). Population growth rate 1990-2013 2.2%.|
|Health||Infant mortality 71 per 1,000 live births (Ghana 52, France 4). 80% have access to clean drinking water and 71% to adequate sanitation. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 19 (France 1 in 4,300). HIV prevalence rate 2.7%.|
|Environment||The far north of the country is dry and dusty due to its proximity to the Sahara Desert, while the northwest is cool, green and mountainous. Côte d’Ivoire has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world. CO2 emissions per capita per year 0.3 tonnes (France 5.6 tonnes).|
|Culture||Four large ethnic groups – Akan, Ku, Mande and Voltaic – are subdivided into approximately 80 smaller groups.|
|Religion||63% practise traditional African religions, 25% are Muslim and 12% Christian.|
|Language||French (official). 70 vernacular African languages are also spoken, the most popular being Baoulé (2-3 million speakers), Anyin, the Mande family and Senari (all 1 million speakers apiece).|
|Human Development Index||0.452, 171st of 187 countries (Ghana 0.573, France 0.884).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||The richest 20% owns 44% of the wealth and there are stark inequalities between rural and urban workers. Physical assets are almost entirely concentrated in wealthier urban areas.|
|Literacy||41% – only nine countries have a lower adult-literacy rate. Primary-school attendanceand enrolment is a little better, at 62%.|
|Life expectancy||51 years (Ghana 61, France 81). This is the world’s sixth-lowest average life expectancy.|
|Freedom||Press freedom and civil liberties have improved since the civil war, although arbitrary arrests and the torture of detainees persist.|
|Position of women||After the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, conditions for Ivorian women have definitely improved in peacetime.|
|Sexual minorities||Côte d’Ivoire has no laws against homosexuality. There is fairly widespread discrimination and hostility against LGBT Ivorians, but not at the levels reported in other West African states such as Cameroon and Nigeria.|
|New Internationalist assessment||The upcoming election is effectively a two-horse race, as two of the three main parties have endorsed Ouattara while Gbagbo has just been approved as a candidate, despite his current detention at the International Criminal Court. There are concerns that wartime tensions could reignite if there is any ambiguity about the election results. Government corruption remains a serious problem and Côte d’Ivoire is placed 44th out of 52 African states with regard to its judicial system, human rights record and national security.|
This article is from
the May 2015 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism