Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire, used to be affectionately known as Petit Paris. The evocation of the French city of lights would be particularly dramatic if you arrived at night and travelled towards the skyline dominated by tall buildings, past glittering advertisements for major brands such as Coca-Cola, Canon and Kodak. The sheer abundance of the vegetation in the city would soon make it clear that you were in a tropical metropolis, however, especially on the borders of the lush lagoon around which Abidjan revolves.
Abidjan is still the liveliest and most cosmopolitan city in francophone West Africa and something of an economic powerhouse for the region. But it is no longer the political capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Since 1983 that privilege has gone to the provincial city of Yamoussoukro, which also boasts the magnificent folly of a Catholic cathedral that not only dwarfs Abidjan’s Saint-Paul but was unashamedly modelled on St Peter’s in Rome and remains the largest church in the world – in a country where only one in eight people is Christian. This was the pet project of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, born in the (then) tiny village of Yamoussoukro, who led Côte d’Ivoire to its independence from France in 1960 and then ruled the country with a rod of iron until his death in 1993.
Borje Tobiasson / Panos Pictures
Houphouët-Boigny’s successor, Henry Konan Bédié, was toppled in a military coup by General Robert Guei in 1999, ushering in a period of sustained political uncertainty from which the country is still trying to recover. Extensive violence dogged the presidential elections of October 2000 and the parliamentary elections in January 2001. In both elections Alassane Ouattara, leader of the Rally of Republicans (RDR), one of the country’s three major political parties, was disqualified to run following a dispute over his nationality. In Ouattara’s absence the presidential election was fought between General Guei and Laurent Gbagbo, leader of the main leftist opposition, the Popular Ivorian Front (FPI). Although Guei declared himself winner, Gbagbo led widespread protests against what was seen as a rigged result and eventually emerged as the legitimate President.
Fall-out from this troubled period continues in the shape of a demand by Ouattara’s RDR (backed by human-rights organizations) that the authorities thoroughly investigate the killing of more than 300 of its activists, 57 of whom are said to have been buried in a mass grave in the north Abidjan district of Yopougon. President Gbagbo belatedly ordered that the justice department launch a new investigation in April 2002.
Notwithstanding this, some semblance of normality has returned and attempts by Gbagbo’s Government to put the country’s house in order have met with international approval, not least in the shape of a three-year credit of $366 million from the International Monetary Fund for anti-poverty programmes.
Action against poverty is desperately needed. Côte d’Ivoire’s economy was founded on plantations of cash crops for export, most of which depended on cheap migrant labour from neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali. But the wealth this produced has consistently failed to be invested in services such as health and education that would benefit ordinary people. While the country’s national income is significantly higher than its neighbours, its infant-mortality and life-expectancy rates are no better than those of its francophone neighbours and much worse than those of Ghana.
Leader: President Laurent Gbagbo.
Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $660 (Ghana $350, France $23,670).
Monetary unit: African (CFA) franc.
Main exports: cocoa, oil products, wood and coffee.
Main imports: pharmaceutical products, transport equipment, fish.
Côte d’Ivoire has traditionally had the strongest economy in francophone West Africa, a status built on its cocoa, coffee and rubber plantations. Latterly there has been an attempt to exploit offshore oil and gas and to diversify into chemicals, tourism and textiles.
People: 16.0 million. People per square kilometre 50 (France 107).
Health: Infant mortality 102 per 1,000 live births (Ghana 58, France 4). 81% have access to improved drinking water and 52% to adequate sanitation.
Environment: The north of the country is characterized by savanna and the south by lush rainforests. Côte d’Ivoire has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world.
Culture: There are four major ethnic groups: Kru, Akan, Mande and Voltaic. These are subdivided into around 80 smaller groups.
Religion: Two-thirds of the population practise traditional African religions, 23% are Muslim and 12% Christian.
Language: French is the official language but there are as many languages as ethnic groups. Diula is common in the north, Baule in the centre and west, and Bete in the southeast.
Sources: World Guide 2001/2002;
State of the World’s Children 2002.
Last profiled December 1986
Political parties by and large are free to operate as they like. Gbagbo's ruling FPI party has joined forces with the former ruling party to campaign against the RDR in forthcoming municipal elections. The Government has its faults but is struggling against a significant legacy of corrupt practices from the Houphouët-Boigny/Bédié era and has at least achieved a measure of democratic stability.