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Ivory Coast-Chapter 1 - Historical Setting





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Ivory Coast Index

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Nineteenth Century mud brick mosque in the Sudanic style

SINCE THE 1950s, CÔTE D'IVOIRE has been one of the few sub-Saharan African countries to enjoy political stability and a relatively sound economy. Much of the credit for Côte d'Ivoire's success goes to Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the country's most prominent politician since 1944, who methodically shaped personal and institutional controls and carefully cultivated and maintained close ties with Western industrialized countries.

Côte d'Ivoire remained relatively isolated for much of its early history. Islam, which penetrated most other regions of West Africa before the sixteenth century, made only minor inroads into Côte d'Ivoire's forest belt. The country's rugged coastline and lack of suitable harbors discouraged European exploration until the mid-nineteenth century. Before that time, the only French contact with Côte d'Ivoire occurred in 1637, when missionaries landed at Assini, on the southern Ivoirian coast. This remote region was neither politically nor economically significant and therefore held little attraction for settlement or exploitation by European powers.

In the 1880s, France pursued a more vigorous colonial policy. Driven by the growing forces of European imperial competition for foreign influence, as well as the promise of wealth to be found in a West African empire, French explorers, missionaries, trading companies, and soldiers gradually extended the area under French domination. They achieved control over the population, sometimes through deceit and coercion, by signing treaties with local rulers, who agreed to come under French protection in return for economic favors and protection from neighboring enemies. After Côte d'Ivoire officially became a French colony in 1893, France engaged in a socalled pacification campaign clearly intended to subjugate the indigenous population and to establish French sovereignty. Before World War I, the many instances of violent and protracted resistance to the French, especially among the Baoulé, were the longest wars fought between Europeans and Africans in West Africa. In many instances, these were contained only when Ivoirians in positions of power recognized the tremendous economic advantages accorded them by France.

By the 1940s, sources of strong opposition to the French colonial administration had emerged. At that time, France was neither able nor willing to crush opposition as in the past. Moreover, the opposition, which focused on the administration's institutionalization of forced labor and its discrimination in favor of French planters, intended--at least initially--simply to change colonial policy rather than to achieve independence. Because all Ivoirians were affected by at least one of these discriminatory practices, many were hostile to the administration. Ivoirian planters, in particular, suffered from French discriminatory policies. In 1943, for example, they were forbidden to recruit their own labor and were sometimes removed from their own plantations to work for European enterprises. This group thus stood to benefit greatly from the abolition of colonial labor recruitment policies and had strong reasons to struggle against certain aspects of French colonialism. They were behind the formation of an anticolonialist movement that in 1944 resulted in the birth of the African Agricultural Union and later of the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire.

In other ways, French colonial rule had significant consequences for the modern history of Côte d'Ivoire. The French colonial system introduced modern technology and economic development. It also reinforced the position of relatively privileged groups like the Ivoirian planters, when discriminatory practices were abolished after World War II. As a result of economic and social changes in France after World War II, French investments in the West African colonies grew at the same time as Paris thrust greater responsibilities and powers on its African colonies. There emerged in Côte d'Ivoire a group whose economic interests were closely linked to those of France and whose continuing close relations with France ensured the stability of French economic interests in Côte d'Ivoire. Thus, when Côte d'Ivoire became independent in 1960, France was able to maintain a secure economic grip on the country and continued to influence Ivoirian political decisions, much as it did before independence.

The most significant features of modern Ivoirian history have been the development of the one-party state, which Houphouët-Boigny established to assure his own autocratic rule, and economic growth. When Côte d'Ivoire gained independence in 1960 under the leadership of Houphouët-Boigny, the new president immediately assumed strong powers as head of state, head of government, and leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire. Houphouët-Boigny's political strength derived from the country's economic prosperity. Until the late 1970s, Côte d'Ivoire experienced enormous economic growth, based largely on agricultural exports. The benefits of economic prosperity were not equally distributed, however. Benefiting most was a bourgeoisie made up of wealthy politicians, who were often also business people and owners of prosperous coffee and cocoa plantations. But the president successfully prevented significant pockets of resistance to his rule from forming through a combination of co-optation and mild repression. So successful was he that most of those whose rights were abused nonetheless recognized that they were materially better off than their neighbors. The greatest source of Houphouët-Boigny's popular appeal was, and continued to be in mid-1988, the strength of his charismatic personality.

Data as of November 1988











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