Cote d’Ivoire: The Lost Decade

In early 2011, international attention shifted away from Cote d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast) as an electoral crisis drew to an end. The decade-long rule of Laurent Gbagbo came to a close, despite his best efforts to cling to power. With muddled United Nations backing and French military might, the rightful winner of the November 2010 presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, finally took office in May 2011. For many, this event was the presumed bookend of a lost decade for the West African state.

In the first few decades of its independence, Cote d’Ivoire exhibited relatively strong economic performance. From 1960 until the first part of the 1980s, the country witnessed export-led growth, mainly due to its strong farm and agro-processing sectors. Production of cocoa and other crops provided employment for Ivorians and other West Africans. During this period of relative economic success, Ivory Coast experienced political stability under the benevolent authoritarian rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the country’s first post-independence president.  Unlike other African leaders of his generation, Houphouet-Boigny pursued a basically even-handed and inclusive approach to politics. Despite his authoritarian character, Ivory Coast’s first president genuinely sought to accommodate ethnic, religious, and regional differences in the country.

By the end of Houphouet-Boigny’s rule – brought about by his death in 1993 – the country’s international terms of trade had shifted dramatically against it. In particular, the world cocoa price began a steady fall in the mid-1980s. And, as often happens in authoritarian regimes, the country was not sufficiently prepared for the death of a long-ruling dictator. Whereas the dictator was fairly competent and even-handed, his successors proved less capable and more divisive. A 1999 coup, a disputed presidential election in 2000, and an army mutiny in 2002 are only a few of the key markers that led into Cote d’Ivoire’s “lost decade.”

The September 2002 army mutiny – led by soldiers from the neglected North – did not achieve its full objectives. The mutiny did, however, lead to the de facto division of the country into two halves. In this case, the insurgents were not seeking secession for their marginalized region. Rather, they were seeking fuller participation and representation in a government they perceived as being dominated by southerners and Christians.

In the period since his presidential inauguration in May 2011, Alassane Ouattara has overseen some gains. Some foreigners and international investment have returned to the country. The troublesome Mr. Gbagbo now sits in The Hague awaiting trial. And world prices are more favorable for the country’s main export, cocoa.

Earlier this week, though, the International Crisis Group warned of new risks for Cote d’Ivoire. Ethno-regional reconciliation has not advanced enough in the past 14 months. Indeed, numerous recent attacks on police buildings, military barracks, and other sites indicate mounting tensions along partisan (and ethno-regional) lines. Pro-government newspapers even accused Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, of organizing the anti-government attacks. A state that slipped from stability (1960-1993) to critical weakness (1999-present) is not yet on a definitive pathway back to stability.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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