Until the 1840s, the indigenous people of Côte d’Ivoire were protected from European colonialism by the inhospitable coastline. In this relative isolation, kingdoms such as the Krou, Senoufo, Lubi, Malinké and Akan flourished. When the French began a big push towards colonial exploitation, they met fierce resistance, but eventually took control, trading for ivory, and establishing coffee and cocoa plantations, which are still the backbone of the economy.
Born in 1905, Félix Houphouët-Boigny became the country’s father of independence. A labour leader who turned his trade union into a pro-Independence political party, he was elected to the French parliament and eventually became the first African to be a minister in a European government. When independence came in 1960, he was the obvious choice for president.
Houphouët-Boigny’s policies, maintaining close economic ties with France and relying on agriculture, were wildly successful. Côte d’Ivoire was the world’s largest producer of cocoa and the economy maintained 10% annual growth rate for 20 years. But it couldn’t last. World recession, drought, collapsing prices on agricultural products and over-logging all contributed to Côte d’Ivoire’s economic troubles. President Houphouët-Boigny initiated hardship measures, which sparked civil unrest. The 1990 elections were open to other parties for the first time, but Houphouët-Boigny won easily. He died in 1993 after 33 years as the country’s president.
His hand-picked successor, Henri Konan-Bédié, responded to the nation’s problems by scapegoating immigrants (mostly those living in the north, from neighbouring Burkina Faso) who had been the backbone of the agricultural economy during the good years.
In December 1999, Côte d’Ivoire suffered its first coup. President Bédié was overthrown by forces loyal to General Robert Guéi, who promised free elections but in fact intensified Bédié’s xenophobic policies of Ivoirité. While the country reeled from military rebellions and civil unrest, Guéi had the supreme court declare popular Muslim candidate Alasanne Ouattara ineligible to run for president because his mother was from Burkina Faso (even though he had papers proving otherwise). Despite this, Laurant Gbagbo won the October 2000 presidential election. Guéi declared himself the official winner, but was chased from power by massive popular uprisings. The following two years of Gbagbo’s presidency were marked by attempted coups and tensions.
On 19 September 2002, troops from the north gained control of much of the country. Initially the government agreed to a ceasefire with the rebels, who had the full backing of the mostly Muslim northern populace. But this truce was short-lived, and fighting over the prime cocoa-growing areas resumed. France sent in troops to maintain the ceasefire boundaries, and Liberian militias took advantage of the crisis to seize parts of the western-border region, and began full-scale looting and pillaging.
In January 2003, President Gbagbo and leaders of the New Forces, as the rebels are now called, signed accords creating a ‘government of national unity’, with representatives of the rebels taking up places in a new cabinet. Curfews were lifted and French troops cleaned up the lawless western border, but the harmony was intermittent and neither side lived up to most of this or further peace agreements.
By 2004 the country was less stable and more violent. UN peacekeepers arrived in March, but on 4 November Gbagbo broke the ceasefire and bombed rebel strongholds, including Bouaké. Two days later, jets struck a French military base killing nine French peacekeepers. The French destroyed the Ivorian air force in retaliation, and then all hell broke loose. Government soldiers clashed with peacekeepers, while state-run TV and radio whipped citizens into a frenzy, imploring them to take revenge against French soldiers and citizens. Most French citizens fled, and dozens of Ivorians died in the clashes. The government called off the mayhem after a few days, but for many, the anti-French sentiment behind it lingers. Both sides settled back into the routine of peace deals brokered and broken, and violence still breaks out sporadically.
Elections called for October 2005 were cancelled, and Gbagbo declared he would remain president despite his constitutional mandate expiring. In December 2005, African mediators declared Charles Konan Banny an interim prime minister, and charged the respected economist with organising elections by October 2006, which also failed to happen. The government has made few serious efforts at compromise, and the rebels, having enriched themselves through extortion and black-market trade, have lost their moral authority. Côte d’Ivoire remains trapped in an untenable status quo.