Ivory Coast: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s sprawling economic center, is looking more and more like the capital of a failed state – in other words, dirty, dilapidated and sometimes dangerous. Its once-shining skyscrapers are scabrous, garbage heaps line its potholed boulevards, and throngs of young men spend their days in idleness. Yet only a few years ago it was a peaceful, pleasant and prosperous symbol of how Africa could be. What a difference a decade makes. Since the late 1990s, the country, long described as “the Paris of West Africa” has experienced a coup d’etat, an army mutiny, a civil war resulting in national partition, grim ethnic violence, and two postponed national elections. Today, it is a land divided between the government-controlled south and the rebel north, and bogged down in a political quagmire

The current president, Laurent Gbagbo, was elected in 2000 to a five-year term following a popular uprising that led to the fall of an unpopular military junta. Under the Ivoirian constitution, new presidential and legislative elections should have been held in 2005, but these have been postponed twice and are now scheduled to be conducted no later than this October. However, very few people, Ivoirians or foreigners, believe this deadline will be respected.

The primary issue blocking movement on elections is that of nationality: who is an Ivoirian and thus eligible to vote? This is the unintended legacy of the country’s post-colonial paternal President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who for decades welcomed guest workers from throughout West Africa and beyond to help build the country’s booming economy. Nationals of Burkina Faso and Mali worked the cocoa plantations and swept the streets, while French and Lebanese dominated commerce and business. However, Houphouet’s inclusive philosophy of pan-Africanism has been replaced by the xenophobic exclusivity of “Ivoirité,” interpreted by both hard-core nationalists and opportunists as “Ivory Coast for the Ivoirians”. The reality is that the country remains home to many people whose origins lie in other countries, even though many were born in the Ivory Coast and know no other land. Many of the immigrants are Muslims who feel an affinity with Ivory Coast’s northern ethnic groups, and are thus perceived as a threat by the southern Christian elites who have traditionally held the reins of national power. Re-defining nationality is a tricky business which can upset the political status quo, one of the major reasons it has not yet been undertaken with any degree of seriousness.

Some of the ugly consequences of this political stagnation are the disintegration of the rule of law, an upsurge in corruption, a sharp decline in investment, and a loss of faith in government at all levels. For most ordinary Ivoirians, this too often translates into joblessness and hopelessness – tragic in a country where there was once a small but robust middle class and where even the poor had middle-class aspirations. Yet, despite its many problems, Ivory Coast still has significant economic strengths: cocoa and coffee remain major export crops, there is oil and natural gas, the oceans abound with fish, the land is fertile and productive, and its people are cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial. However, as has been sadly proven in Zimbabwe, large stocks of economic and human capital can be quickly exhausted. Certainly, President Gbagbo is no Robert Mugabe, but Ivory Coast’s political inertia could ultimately result in many of the same deleterious long-term effects that Zimbabwe has experienced under its heavy handed autocracy.

There are limits to what the United States and the rest of the international community can do to break the deadlock. As relations with France have soured, the Ivoirian government has gone out of its way to seek favor with the White House, presenting strengthened bilateral ties as an opportunity for Washington to trump Paris in its own backyard. To that end, Abidjan has dispatched numerous envoys to work Capitol Hill, hired prominent lobbying firms, and taken part in National Prayer Breakfasts. However, this effort has not paid real dividends. U.S. assistance remains puny, and politically the Ivoirian crisis attracts little high-level attention from the State Department. For its part, France, which has historically has walked point for the international community in the Ivory Coast, is fatigued by its former colony, irked at the cost of maintaining its military presence, and confused by the degeneration of its historical relationship. China, a powerful trading player in the region with at least some potential to influence events, has shown no desire to match its economic clout with political muscle. The current limited economic sanctions imposed by the UN on arms purchases and diamond sales have had negligible impact, and the political will which might have been used to apply more serious pressure is tied up in other more strategic parts of the world. What hope there is lies primarily in talks between the Ivoirians themselves. In a potentially major development, President Gbagbo has agreed to meet with rebel leader Guillaume Soro this month in Burkina Faso. Although the traditional Ivoirian political classes will hate the notion, a political breakthrough largely depends on these two men, and presents an opportunity to make progress on the crucial questions of nationality, territorial unity, and elections. If there is a constructive role for the United States and the UN, it is simply to lend diplomatic support to this dialogue, and financial support to its outcomes.

It’s worth remembering that Ivory Coast’s flirtation with failure is not just a danger to its own people, but also to the entire sub-region. Neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, their economies in ruins, remain fragile and traumatized after their long, bloody civil wars. Likewise Guinea has been in economic free-fall for decades and recently its cities have been wracked by demonstrations and strikes in which scores of young demonstrators have been shot dead by the armed forces. This hardscrabble neighborhood does not need another weak, divided state. Indeed, Africa as a whole does not need any more failures. What it needs is a return to the Ivory Coast that once was and could be again, a tolerant, dynamic and peaceful country to serve as a beacon of hope for the entire continent.
Chris Hennemeyer is the Africa Regional Director for IFES (the International Foundation for Elections Systems) based in Washington, D.C. He first went to Africa as a child in 1961, and since then has spent more than 20 years on the continent, primarily working in the humanitarian and democracy and governance fields.

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Christian Hennemeyer