Cote D’Ivoire

January 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

It will not have escaped the keen reader’s notice that even by the very riotous norms global politics, the situation in the Ivory Coast is somewhat chaotic at the moment. Once the dust has settled I’ll write a proper profile, at the moment it is simply too much of a moving target (moving targets kick up dust, I am not mixing my metaphors). So instead here is a brief recap of what is going on followed by the demographic, history and geography bits and a bit on who’se had the best coverage so far. The rest I’m skipping as it would be out of date before it was written.

Update: So, if you remember there was a disputed election. I previewed it here and World Elections wrote more about the ethnic aspect here, I also added some stuff on the Drogba campaign here. The first round was fascinating, and provided a surprise second place for Ouattara over Bédié, as I covered here. Then, as I mentioned here, the second round was held, and all hell broke loose. Most people feel Ouattara narrowly beat Gbagbo; Gbagbo begs to differ and won’t leave. This may start a civil war, and neighbouring nations may even invade to enforce the election result. There are in effect two presidents: Ouattara is recognised by the north, Soro’s forces, the international community and the banks; Gbagbo is recognised by the south and the army and the mechanisms of state. World elections has more here and here, the latter including some very useful maps.


IvoryWho lives there?: This is a rather contentious point. There are about 20 million people who are split into a number of religious (there is about a 30-30-30 split between Muslim, Christian, and Animist groups, the former largely in the north) and ethnic groups (of whom the largest super groups are the Akan in the east, the Krou in the  southwest, the Mande in the northwest, and the Sénoufo or Lobi in the north).

This describes the 70 or so percent of the population who, without question, are Ivorian. The remaining 30% of inhabitants mostly come from countries to the north: mostly Burkina Faso but from all over the region. Some have been settled for many years, some a recent immigrants, and many are seasonal workers who only cross the border during harvest time.

The question of which of these people should be considered Ivorian is the critical one in Ivorian politics. The issue is that the Ivory Coast contains an ethnolinguistic and religious continuum which alters subtly from south to north and continues altering into Burkina Faso – to the point where most northerners have more in common with Burkinabé (Burkina Fasoans) than with southerners.

Not only is the border a fairly arbitrary and ethnographicly irrelevant point but it also doesn’t really exist in the physical world. It is deeply porous and in many places infrastructurally non existent to the point where many border workers (especially the more itinerant ones) cross the border daily, often unwittingly.

So here is the issue: southerners believe northerners to be immigrants unfairly taking advantage of the state and not proper Ivorians, northerners feel unfairly signalled out by this and denied access to the state by false claims of lack of citizenship. This was the root cause both of the civil war and the recent electoral problems. The UN spent $400 million on what they hoped would be a comprehensive answer to the question of who was and who wasn’t Ivorian. Yet even this wasn’t enough for Gbagbo who retroactively declared that a few more thousand northern votes shouldn’t be counted for “not being Ivorian” and so reversed the election result.

Here’s a more detailed ethnolinguistic map:

Ethnic subdivisions

How did we get here?: The area was host to Ghanaian, Akan, and various Muslim empires before being gradually snapped up by the French. It was one of the earliest areas of French influence. They had a mission, from which they started to work the slave trade, in 1637. In 1843 they signed the first of many treaties of protection with local tribes – a situation which slowly developed into colonisation, full conquest only being achieved in 1915.

The area was the centre of the French slave trade and relations with the natives were bloody and unpleasant. However indigenous political movements led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny were key in the decision by French African states to back the Free French Government of de Gaulle over the Vichy Government of Petain during World War two. In gratitude the post-war French government implemented various reforms which inevitably led to independence in 1960.

Houphouët-Boigny became the first president and ruled until his death in ’93. His reputation was mixed: he was genuinely popular and his repetitive re-elections were more rigged than they really needed to be. His ruling style was described by some as “brutal” and others as “paternal”. The Cote D’Ivoire started Boigny’s rule as one of the richest countries in Africa and consolidated its early lead well, growing its economy by 10% a year for the first 20 years. But after 1980 things started to deteriorate.

After his death he was succeeded by his favoured lieutenant Henri Konan Bédié. Bédié differed from Boigny in that he strongly stressed Ivorité – ideas of ethnicly based Ivorian nationality that excluded the north. On this basis he repeatedly excluded the northern leader Alassane Ouattara from elections for being in his view a Burkinabé. Bédié won the first few elections against a divided opposition but became increasingly unpopular and was deposed in a coup in 1999. This paved the way for new elections that were held in stages between 2000 and 2002. With Bédié disgraced and Ouattara still banned this became a two horse race between the coup leader Robert Guéï, and Laurent Gbagbo: the long serving leader of the opposition (ie anti Houphouët-Boigny and therefore anti-Bédié). Gbagbo won overall but, as this map shows, the seeds for ethnic division were sown:

2002 Parliamentary elections. FPI=Gbagbo's party, PDCI=Bédié's party, RDR=Ouattara's party, UDPCI=Guéï's party, PIT=a left wing party

On September 19th 2002 there was an incident. It’s still not entirely clear what happened but it appears Guéï tried to launch a coup against Gbagbo and at some point he was killed and the putative coup transformed into the north vs south ethnic war it had always threatened to be. Gbagbo ruled the south, and the north fell into the hands of a rebel by the name of Guillaume Soro and his “New Force”. The war was brutal (which explains why Bédié and Ouattara are now allies – Bédié’s aggression towards northerners in word was as nothing to Gbagbo’s aggression towards northerners in deed).

The war lasted for six years and when peace was declared the main terms were these:

  1. Fresh elections to be held in which Ouattara would be allowed to participate. In the end these were delayed for nearly two years and were only held at the fifth attempt.
  2. In the meantime Gbagbo to be President, Soro to be Prime Minister. This was a smart move by Gbagbo as, as PM Soro would be ineligible to run for president. There was a suggestion that there was a Granta style pact whereby Soro wouldn’t overtly campaign for Ouattara and would be given a free run when Gbagbo stands down. However, if ever there was such a deal it has now been abandoned and Soro has resigned as PM in support of Ouattara over the disputed election.
  3. The question of who is Ivorian to be referred to the UN.

And then…

What does it look like?: The country is a large and virtually entirely flat plateau dominated by a series of giant lagoons. The land is covered in a patchwork of forest and savannah, in general more forest in the south and more savannah in the north but still a good mix of both in both areas. Here’s a mosque:


How do I keep up-to-date? Follow @cotedivoirevote on twitter. As well as being a great resource in its own right, they will post up links to all the best articles on the developing situation. In general Al Jazeera have, typically, been the best and most comprehensive source whilst the Guardian, BBC, and Economist have been intermittently excellent but often slow on the uptake and patchy in their coverage. The South African Daily Maverick also deserves a mention.


§ 4 Responses to Cote D’Ivoire

  • Penelope says:

    I really liked your ethnolinguistic map. But to reinforce your point on who should be considered Ivorian, could you add a map of what Cote d’Ivoire was before 1904? I can’t find any so far.

    Thanks for this.


  • Thanks.

    It is kind of tricky because whilst the Cote d’Ivoire was the Cote d’Ivoire before 1904 (I believe from 1886) it did not have its northern border confirmed until 1947 because France (who owned both) wished to administer more of the interior from the coast.

    Then from 1904 to 1958 the Cote d’Ivoire was made part of the Federation of French West Africa (AOF) further blurring national identity.

    Cote d'Ivoire 1936

    This map from 1936. Note how much of modern Mali and Burkina Faso was considered part of CIV back then.

    But as for 1886-1904 or earlier CIV I can’t find much. I understand the borders changed a fair few times but as it was all French anyway a lot of the maps from the time don’t show the borders (and as I mentioned the interior wasn’t brought under control until 1915).

    However I suggest you browse the fascinating and beautiful website which would seem to suggest the division between French Sudan and the Cote d’Ivoire was ill defined at best. It was probably something along the lines of those shown on the 1936 map.

  • gekko says:

    This article manages pretty well in outlining what’s at stake in Ivory Coast. If you can explain a complicated matter in a way it becomes understandable for all, without doing harm to reality, then you’re on the right track. Good job!

  • Someone emailed me asking to share this link about human rights abuses in the Ivory Coast. I am happy to but anyone who clicks on it be warned: it contains some absolutely horrific photos. Not for the squeamish. Also it’s in French so not for the non-Francophonic either.

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