Some Background on the Ivorian Crisis

Côte d'Ivoire, Divided

When Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo dissolved that country’s government and electoral commission on February 12, he created the latest roadblock in the long and difficult road to elections. The outcome was predictable. The elections, already postponed six times to March 2010, now are even father off. Even more disturbing was the dissolution of the Electoral Commission, the very entity charged with organizing the elections.

When the voter rolls were published in early February, almost a million Ivorians found their names were not on the list. The Electoral Commission then tried to add some 400,000 disputed names back to the rolls and then Gbagbo exercised his powers. The overt reason behind the dissolution is Gbagbo’s contention that the disputed names are foreigners who should not be allowed to vote in the Côte d’Ivoire.

Xenophobia has become a powerful force in the Côte d’Ivoire. Foreigners, and this time we are not talking about colonizers, are blamed for any and all of the misfortunes experienced by the country. This xenophobia has its roots in the cocoa economy of the country. Let me explain.

Cocoa came to the  Côte d’Ivoire only slowly. Ivorians, then under French colonial rule, preferred rubber sales as a more profitable and less labor intensive way to earn cash to the pay colonial taxes.  Although some Ivorians saw cocoa farms in neighboring Ghana and understood their potential, cocoa made only slow inroads. In 1911, when Ghana exported 40,000 tons, Ivorian exports amounted to only 15 tons a long ways from the 1.1 million tons the country exported last year.

Enter the French. They pursued the tried and true strategy of forced cultivation, mandating that every village in the cocoa belt produce a given quantity of cocoa. Many Ivorians were not inclined to adopt yet another French mandate. From an economic point of view, risking scarce resources on a new and unproven crop seemed unwarranted, especially since many Ivorians hoped that the downturn of the rubber economy was a temporary phenomenon. Furthermore, no proper trading mechanism had been established. As late as 1913, the prices offered for cocoa were below even those of rubber.

In response, French administrators used the police and courts to force compliance with their mandates. Indigenous leaders who refused to grow cocoa were beaten and/or imprisoned. The use of force quickly showed results. By 1914, the number of trees planted in one district reached 100,000. Three years later, over 300,000 trees had been added. The CI was on its way to join the rank of cocoa producers.

Felix Houphouët-Boigny

Fast forward to independence in 1960. The party that led the country to independence, the Parti Democratique de Côte d’Ivoire, had its origins in the first African cocoa planters association, the Syndicat Africain Agricole. It’s leader, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, was a cocoa planter himself and he ruled the country until his death in 1993.

Felix Houphouët-Boigny and the PDCI bet on rapid development of the agricultural sector as the ticket to economic development. And the most important sector to develop was the cocoa sector. However, rather than pushing intensive production, the government supported the extensification of cocoa, in other words, it simply brought more forest land into cocoa cultivation–between 1967-77, yield only grew by 1.6% but cocoa exports rose by 10% annually.

To address the resulting labor shortage, Houphouët-Boigny opened the doors to Malian and Burkinabe farmers. The principle employed was simple: the land belongs to those who bring it into production. That policy undermined the power of local chiefs to distribute land. Foreigners obtained land through purchase after having earned cash by laboring on Ivorian cocoa farms. The entry conditions for cocoa are rather low, clear forest land, plant seedlings, tend them carefully and start harvesting after three years. Little capital was required and foreigners settled among Ivorians.

Fast forward again to the late 1980s and the early 1990s. The bottom had fallen out of the international cocoa market. Prices were as low as they had ever been and President Houphouët-Boigny had bankrupted the country by paying farmers prices that were above the world market. The whole sad story of IMF/World Bank intervention kicks in and the poster child of the World Bank falls into disarray. After liberalization, the entire state cocoa sector became little more than an organized crime syndicate, the extent of which was well documented by Carol Off in her book “Bitter Chocolate.”

Henri Konan-Bedié

As any politician facing a crisis is wont to do, Houphouët-Boigny’s successor, Henri-Conan Bedié, chose to blame the foreigners. He invented the concept of Ivoirité to single out foreigners as the source of all troubles. In 1999, General Guéï, a long time ally of Houphouët-Boigny staged a coup. But his attempt to rig the 2000 presidential elections was so obvious that he was forced out of the country. Of the remaining two candidates, Alassane Ouattara, a former government official, was disqualified from running for office because he supposedly had Burkinabe parents. That left Laurent Gbagbo as the sole candidate who promptly steered his country into the 2003 civil war.

President Gbagbo

Today, the argument over who is and who isn’t a foreigner continues. The pro-government forces present themselves as the guardians of Ivoirité while the rebels in the north, and many Ivorians resent having their nationality questioned.

The country is in turmoil, opposition protests challenge the president, the government kills protesters. The region calls for a quick resolution of the disputes and the U.S. expressed disappointment.

But neither side has much of an incentive to change the stalemate. The president remains in power as long as there are no elections and the rebels in the north get to collect their taxes. Don’t look for elections anytime soon.


For background on the Côte d’Ivoire, check these sources:

  • Robert M. Hecht, “The Ivory Coast Economic ‘Miracle’: What Benefits for Peasant Farmers?,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 21, no. 1 (March 1983)
  • Dwayne Woods, “The Tragedy of the Cocoa Pod: Rent-Seeking, Land and Ethnic Conflict in Ivory Coast,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 41, no. 4 (December 2003)
  • Dwayne Woods, “Predatory Elites, Rents and Cocoa: A Comparative Analysis of Ghana and Ivory Coast,” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 42, no. 2 (2003)
Share: Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookEmail this to someonePrint this page

3 Replies to “Some Background on the Ivorian Crisis”

  1. I feel sorry for those who read such garbage you call article. You should go to Ivory Coast and seek the truth. One info for you. The reason for the election being postponed was because there was an agreement for the rebels to disarm completely before the country went to polls. You are not worth wasting time on. Get a grip. This is sign jealousy. Talking about the countrys economy as ….

  2. Hmm, not sure why my article is a sign of jealousy. Jealous of what? The fact remains that Bedié and Gbagbo have been playing the ethnicity card and have managed to create a division in the country that will take a generation to repair. The comment above only affirms that statement.

Comments are closed.