The Independence Movement
The two world wars helped foment demands for Ivorian independence, especially amongst the compradors. During World War I, the colony was forced to adopt austerity measures and recruit indigenes to fight the Germans. Around 150,000 Ivorian men were eventually killed in the trenches – a huge sacrifice, many Ivorians thought, on behalf of a nation that denied them basic rights and freedoms in return. Between the wars, cash crop farming expanded greatly, causing rivalry between the European farmers in Ivory Coast and their native counterparts. The Ivorians resented the fact that the Europeans were allowed to use free labour, got higher prices for their yields and had access to wider foreign markets. When France was overrun by Germany in June 1940, Ivory Coast experienced a 70% drop in exports of its key commodities – coffee, cocoa, wood and palm oil. A recession struck and living standards plummeted. Worse still, French West Africa pledged loyalty to the fascist Vichy regime and Nazi racial ideology began to filter into the colony. Treatment of the bonded labourers worsened and their workloads increased as farmers were pressured to amplify production for the war effort.
As the war dragged on, Ivorian students and intellectuals started to form Communist Study Groups to critique the racism and class exploitation they believed were at the heart of European colonialism, whether French or German. In 1944, a clique of influential Ivorian farmers led by a young Baoulé canton chief, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905–93)formed the African Agricultural Union (Syndicat agricole africain or SAA), quickly attracting 20,000 members, both landowners and labourers. Although effectively a trade union, it is debatable how radical the SAA really was, given that it was established with the permission of the colonial authorities and driven by the interests of Ivorian farm owners rather than Ivorian farm workers. The SAA’s main objective – to end the deeply unpopular corveé system – was driven more by the belief that this gave white farmers an unfair competitive advantage than by any great desire to improve the lot of the Ivorian working-class. At any rate, Houphouët convinced the liberal governor of the time, André Latille, of the need for such reform and la corveé was banned. Reactionary elements amongst the white settlers attempted to have Houphouët prosecuted for treason, but the then Inspector Minister for the Colonies, also a liberal, dismissed the charges.
Recognising that the SAA was part of an inevitable movement for self-determination that was sweeping across the colonised world, France organised the Brazzaville Conference in January 1944 to discuss political reforms within its African territories. Motions were passed to give Ivory Coast and other colonies, more autonomy, a new penal code and elections to send indigenous MPs to the French parliament. Immediately announcing his decision to stand in the inaugural ballot Houphouët knew he could rely on the support of his Baoulé heartland in the south and centre, but realised he would also need to secure the northeastern Bobo Dialasso zone (now in Burkina Faso). Having previously supported him, the French saw Houphouët as too much of a wild card and backed an alternative candidate native to Bobo Dialasso. The SAA canvassed hard in the region and Houphouët managed to obtain a narrow majority in the first round of elections followed by an absolute majority in the second round in November 1945. In recognition of the magnitude of this political achievement, he added ‘Boigny’ to his name, meaning ‘unstoppable force’ in Baoulé. Upon entering parliament, he became the leader of two newly-formed political movements: the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire or PDCI) and the African Democratic Assembly (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain or RDA), a coalition of communists, socialists and liberals across French West Africa united by the desire for more sovereignty if not true independence from France. This was too radical a development for the French, who sacked PDCI and RDA members from government positions and threw them in prison. Houphouët was protected from this purge by his parliamentary immunity. Large-scale demonstrations followed, culminating in the French police shooting a number of protestors dead in late 1949.
A struggle within the PDCI began between moderates like Houphouët, who wanted, as the West Africa scholar Mike McGovern puts it, a ‘semi-autonomous association’ with France, and the left, who wished for full independence with no strings attached. Not for the only time in his career did Houphouët use pragmatism as a defence. Ejecting the French completely from Ivory Coast would be economic and political suicide, he reasoned, because wherever a new administration might stand ideologically, it would lack the skills and resources to properly run the country. Leftists viewed this argument as a fig-leaf for Houphouët’s true motive: to use French participation in Ivorian affairs to shore up the power of his own ascendant class while doing nothing to improve the lot of the poorest.