Republic of Côte d’Ivoire

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Republic of Côte d’Ivoire

Type of Government

Côte d’Ivoire is a republic whose executive branch is led by a president popularly elected to a five-year term. The president serves as both head of state and chief executive. The legislative branch consists of a National Assembly, whose 225 members are also elected to terms of five years. Côte d’Ivoire’s judicial system is modeled on the French system, but also contains fragments of traditional law. The highest levels of the nation’s judicial system are the Supreme Court, the High Court of Justice, and the State Security Court. The Supreme Court is divided into four chambers—constitutional, judiciary, administrative, and auditing.


Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast, rests on the southern coast of Africa’s western bulge, sandwiched between Ghana to the east and Liberia to the west. Other neighboring countries include Guinea to the northwest, and Burkina Faso and Mali to the north. Roughly rectangular in shape, Côte d’Ivoire covers about the same area as the state of New Mexico.

The early history of the area now occupied by Côte d’Ivoire is murky. While civilizations have clearly thrived there for many centuries, most of the peoples currently living there are relatively recent arrivals. French missionaries first arrived in what is now Côte d’Ivoire in the mid-seventeenth century, initially landing at the coastal town of Assinie. In 1843 Admiral Louis-Edouard Bouet-Willaumez set up French outposts at Assinie and Grand Bassam, and signed treaties with the local kings of those regions.

After withdrawing to coastal areas briefly after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French expanded further into the region toward the end of the nineteenth century. Given the name Côte d’Ivoire, the area became an official French colony in 1893 with well-defined borders with the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Liberia. The northern borders would not become clear for another half-century.

In 1904 France consolidated its holdings in the region into the Federation of French West Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire became one of the federation’s component territories. Between World War I and World War II, Côte d’Ivoire became a fairly large-scale producer of such tropical products as cocoa, coffee, and mahogany. A long-smoldering independence movement gained steam during the 1940s, when a group of plantation owners led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905–1993) formed the African Agricultural Union (Syndicat Agricole Africain; SAA), which began pressuring French colonial authorities about the conditions under which they were forced to operate.

Following World War II, Côte d’Ivoire was given the status of an overseas territory of France, with representation in the French parliament and an elected territorial assembly. Houphouët-Boigny morphed the SAA into a full-blown political party called the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire; PDCI), which was aligned with the African Democratic Rally (Rassemblement Democratique Africain; RDA), a regional nationalist organization operating across French colonial West Africa. Côte d’Ivoire became an autonomous state within the newly established French Community in 1958. Two years later, the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire declared itself fully independent of France, with Houphouët-Boigny as the nation’s first president. A new constitution was adopted in October 1960.

Government Structure

The 1960 constitution called for creation of a unicameral National Assembly, which the PDCI has dominated throughout the nation’s history. In fact, between 1960 and 1990 it was the only party allowed by law. The constitution located most political power in the hands of the president, with a legislature acting more or less as a rubber stamp for the president’s policies. The constitution contained provisions for judicial review of actions by the executive branch, but since the president controlled judicial appointments, this review authority was rarely exercised. Two plots to overthrow Houphouët-Boigny’s government failed in 1963, and in the aftermath of those attempts the president consolidated his control over the PDCI and seized most of the nation’s key ministerial posts.

Côte d’Ivoire underwent a period of democratic reform in 1990, following several months of agitation and labor unrest. For the first time in decades, opposition parties were legal. In elections that fall, Houphouët-Boigny was reelected by an overwhelming majority of voters. The PDCI still dominated the National Assembly, winning 161 of 175 seats, with the Ivoirian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien; FPI) picking up nine seats. The position of prime minister was also created that year. The National Assembly was expanded to 225 seats with the adoption of a new constitution in 2000. Since 2002, Côte d’Ivoire has been torn apart by an uprising that has essentially split the Muslim north from the government-controlled south, with additional forces vying for power from the west as well. International efforts since then have focused on reunifying the nation under a new power-sharing agreement that would include all parties involved in the scuffle.

Political Parties and Factions

The PDCI was founded in 1946 by Houphouët-Boigny, who represented Côte d’Ivoire in the French National Assembly from 1946 to 1959 before leading the nation’s drive toward independence. Houphouët-Boigny became Côte d’Ivoire’s first president in 1960 and served until his death in 1993, by which time he had become Africa’s longest-serving head of state. Forty years of PDCI domination came to an end with the 1999 coup led by Gen. Robert Guei.

The FPI was founded in 1982 by Laurent Gbagbo (1945–), a history professor then in exile in France. Initially an illegal party, the FPI gained legal status in 1990, and quickly became the leading opposition party in Côte d’Ivoire. When elections were called for in 2000 following the military coup the previous year, Gbagbo was the obvious choice to be the FPI’s presidential candidate, and he won the election. The FPI’s base of power resides in the nation’s trade union movement.

The Rally of Republicans (Rassemblement des Republicains, RDR) was formally created in 1994 by a breakaway group from the ruling PDCI, and has been a major party ever since. RDR is the best known as the party of Alassane Ouattara (1942–), the former prime minister forced out after losing the power struggle over who would succeed Houphouët-Boigny. RDR is strongest in the Muslim northern part of Côte d’Ivoire. RDR has frequently boycotted national elections since the mid-1990s to protest restrictions placed on the party by the PDCI.

Major Events

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Côte d’Ivoire experienced several outbreaks of political unrest. In 1969 widespread rioting resulted in the arrests of about 1,500 unemployed youths, and the following year there were uprisings in several cities. A failed coup followed in 1973, after which seven army officers were sentenced to death and many others given stiff prison sentences. Many of these individuals were pardoned or had their sentences reduced a few years later, as Houphouët-Boigny sought to bolster his popularity nationwide. He and his PDCI party retained their firm hold on the government throughout the rest of the 1970s and the 1980s. Côte d’Ivoire enjoyed a period of strong economic growth, emerging as one of wealthiest nations in black Africa.

Following the reforms of 1990, discontent among the populace continued to grow. A number of opposition leaders were jailed after mass demonstrations broke out in 1992. After Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, a close ally, Assembly Speaker Henri Konan Bédié (1934–), became acting president, as per the constitution. A rivalry emerged between Bédié and Prime Minister Ouattara. In 1994, a faction of the PDCI broke away to form the RDR, planning to run Ouattara as its presidential candidate in 1995. Bédié countered by passing a law requiring that all future presidential candidates not only be Ivoirian by birth, but also have been born to Ivoirian-born parents. They must also have lived in the country for at least ten years, and for five years continuously immediately prior to the election. This new law effectively disqualified Ouattara from the upcoming presidential election. Most opposition parties, including the RDR and the FPI, boycotted the 1995 elections, resulting in lopsided wins for Bédié and the PDCI.

Bédié’s policies revolved around a concept called Ivoirité, which was essentially an attempt to favor “true” ethnic Ivoirians. Naturally, such policies alienated Côte d’Ivoire’s large immigrant and Muslim populations; corruption within his administration alienated many others. This growing discontent eventually culminated in the overthrow of Bédié in 1999 by Gen. Guei, his former minister for employment. While Guei’s seizure of power had broad support among many portions of the population, including the support of both the FPI and Ouattara, he was not able to sustain that support. A surge of backing for Gbagbo carried him to victory over Guei in the 2000 presidential election. Legislative elections that year resulted in a fairly evenly divided Assembly, with the FPI taking 96 seats and the PDCI 94, and the other 35 seats divided among minor parties and independent candidates.

Major fighting erupted in Côte d’Ivoire in the fall of 2002, as a military coup, in which Guei was probably involved, blossomed into a broader uprising by rebels in the Muslim north against Gbagbo’s southern-heavy government. Guei was killed during the fighting. The coup failed, but the country was effectively broken in half, with the northern section under the control of the rebel group, which called itself the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire; MPCI). In November 2002, a new front in the war emerged in the western part of the country with the rise of two more rebel groups. These rebel factions, along with the MPCI, collectively became known as the New Forces.

Peacekeeping troops from France and a handful of African nations intervened, and a cease-fire was declared in early 2003. A French-brokered agreement called the Linas-Marcoussis Accord was reached in late January 2003, calling for a new reconciliation government, with Gbagbo in charge, that included representatives of the New Forces. United Nations peacekeepers remained on hand to help stabilize the fragile situation. Violence continued to flare up over the next two years, including the bombing of a French military installation that killed nine French soldiers and an American civilian.

The fall 2005 elections were postponed amid the turmoil, and the peace process outlined by the Linas-Marcoussis Accord was extended for another year. A new prime minister, Charles Konan Banny, was appointed by African mediators and given broad powers to implement reunification measures. Negotiations and maneuvering toward reunification continued through 2006. After weeks of private negotiations led by Gbagbo, New Forces leader Guillaume Soro, and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré (1950–), a new reunification plan, called the Ougadougou Accord, was put into place in March 2007. It called for elections within ten months, and the gradual return of government officials to the northern part of the country as of the middle of 2007. Soro became prime minister in April.

Twenty-First Century

Côte d’Ivoire was on track for an economic recovery prior to the rebellion of 2002. Since then, the country’s economy has been locked into a stagnant state, as efforts to stabilize the government and reunite warring factions have overshadowed any efforts to bolster the economy and address the staggering poverty under which many Ivoirians live. Côte d’Ivoire’s future will hinge on its success or failure in reunifying the nation in a way that meets the very different political and economic needs of the country’s various regions and ethnic populations.

Clark, John F., and Gardinier, David E. Political Reform in Francophone Africa. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Rapley, John. Ivoirien Capitalism: African Entrepreneurs in Cote d’Ivoire. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner Publishers, 1993.