Map Courtesy CIA World Factbook
Côte d'Ivoire (often called Ivory Coast in English) is a country in West Africa. It borders Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana to the west, north, and east, and borders the Gulf of Guinea to its south. One of the most prosperous of the tropical West African states, its economic development has been undermined by political turmoil spawned by official corruption and refusal to adopt needed reforms.
Not much is known about Côte d'Ivoire prior to the arrival of European ships in the 1460s. The major ethnic groups came relatively recently from neighbouring areas: the Kru people migrated from Liberia around 1600; the Senoufo and Lobi moved southward from Burkina Faso and Mali. It wasn't until the 18th and 19th centuries that the Akan people, including the Baoulé, migrated from Ghana into the eastern area of the country and the Malinké migrated from Guinea into the northwest.
Compared to neighbouring Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire suffered little from the slave trade. European slaving and merchant ships preferred other areas along the coast with better harbours. France took an interest in the 1840s, enticing local chiefs to grant French commercial traders a monopoly along the coast. Thereafter, the French built naval bases to keep out non-French traders and began a systematic conquest of the interior. They accomplished this only after a long war in the 1890s against Mandinka forces, mostly from Gambia. Guerilla warfare by the Baoulé and other eastern groups continued until 1917.
The French had one overriding goal: to stimulate the production of exports. Coffee, cocoa and palm oil crops were soon planted along the coast. Côte d'Ivoire stood out as the only West African country with a sizeable population of 'settlers'; elsewhere in West and Central Africa, the French and English were largely bureaucrats. As a result, a third of the cocoa, coffee and banana plantations were in the hands of French citizens and a hated forced-labour system became the backbone of the economy.
The son of a Baoulé chief, Félix Houphouët-Boigny was to become Côte d'Ivoire's father of independence. In 1944 he formed the country's first agricultural trade union for African cocoa farmers like himself. Annoyed that colonial policy favoured French plantation owners, they united to recruit migrant workers for their own farms. Houphouët-Boigny soon rose to prominence and within a year was elected to the French Parliament in Paris. A year later the French abolished forced labour. As Houphouët-Boigny grew fonder of money and power, and became more ingratiated with the French, he gradually dropped the more radical stance of his youth. France reciprocated by making him the first African to become a minister in a European government.
At the time of Côte d'Ivoire's independence in 1960, the country was easily French West Africa's most prosperous, contributing over 40% of the region's total exports. When Houphouët-Boigny became the country's first president, his government gave farmers good prices to further stimulate production. Coffee production increased significantly, catapulting Côte d'Ivoire into third place in total output behind Brazil and Colombia. Cocoa did the same; by 1979 the country was the world's leading producer. It also became Africa's leading exporter of pineapples and palm oil. Behind the scenes, it was French technicians who had masterminded the programme, which was often referred to as the 'Ivoirian miracle'. In the rest of Africa, Europeans were driven out following independence; in Côte d'Ivoire, they poured in. The French community grew from 10,000 to 50,000, most of them teachers and advisers. For 20 years, the economy maintained an annual growth rate of nearly 10% - the highest of Africa's non-oil exporting countries.
In 1990, hundreds of civil servants went on strike, joined by students protesting institutional corruption. The unrest forced the government to support multiparty democracy. Houphouët-Boigny became increasingly feeble and died in 1993. His hand-picked successor was Henri Konan Bédié.
In October 1995, Bédié overwhelmingly won re-election against a fragmented and disorganised opposition. He tightened his hold over political life, sending several hundred opposition supporters to jail. In contrast, the economic outlook improved, at least superficially, with decreasing inflation and an attempt to remove foreign debt.
An election was held in October 2000 in which Laurent Gbagbo vied with Robert Guéi for the presidency, but it was neither peaceful nor democratic. The lead up to the elections was marked by military and civil unrest. Guéi's attempt to fix the election led to a public uprising, resulting in around 180 deaths and his swift replacement by the elections' likely winner, Gbagbo. Alassane Ouattara, was disqualified by the country's Supreme Court, which based his ineligibility on his Burkinabé nationality. The disqualification sparked violent protests in which his supporters, mainly from the country's Muslim north, battled riot police in the capital, Yamoussoukro.
On September 19, 2002, troops mutinied and gained control of the north of the country. In Abidjan, the gendarmerie was seized by the rebels and former president Guéi was murdered with fifteen persons in his home. Alassane Ouattara took refuge in the French embassy. What exactly happened on the night of September 19 is confused; some report the events as a military coup attempt, but other sources report that opponents were executed by pro-Gbagbo death squads and that the rebellion was an unplanned reaction.
An early ceasefire with the rebels, who had the full backing of the northern populace (mostly of Burkinabé origins), proved short-lived and fighting over the prime cocoa-growing areas resumed. France sent in troops to maintain the cease-fire boundaries, and militias, including warlords and fighters from Liberia and Sierra Leone, took advantage of the crisis to seize parts of the west.
In January 2003, President Gbagbo and rebel leaders signed accords creating a 'government of national unity'. Curfews were lifted and French troops cleaned up the lawless western border of the country. But the central problems remained, and neither side achieved its goals.
Since then, the unity government has proven extremely unstable. In March 2004, 120 people were killed in an opposition rally. A later report concluded the killings were pre-planned. Though UN peacekeepers were deployed, relations between Gbagbo and the opposition continued to deteriorate.