At certain times of the day in Cocody, Abidjan’s smart and leafy quarter of foreign embassies and chic eateries, Westerners – most of them French – outnumber Ivorians. The eateries serve French food, the billboards advertise French fashions and French TV blares out from opulent homes. Visiting Côte d’Ivoire today, it’s tempting to feel that, despite the upheavals of the past 50 years, the country has come full circle to the moment of its independence from France in 1960. The current president, Alassane Ouattara, is arguably emulating Côte d’Ivoire’s first ruler, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, by being France’s – and by extension the West’s – ‘man in Africa’.
In the 1960s, Houphouët sold off Côte d’Ivoire’s lucrative cocoa industry (then as now accounting for a third of the world’s yield) to foreign corporations who were allowed to retain 90 per cent of their profits. The same two US companies – ADM and Cargill – still dominate Ivorian cocoa today and Ouattara has been busy awarding vast construction tenders to French firms such as Bouyges. As with the Houphouët era, the result has been ‘growth without development’: the business elite are getting richer from new hotels, highways and other amenities, while the living standards of the poor have barely risen.
Although Ouattara is widely praised for ending a decade of horrific civil war, marginalized regional and ethnic groups continue to hold grievances about the legitimacy of his regime and the imperialistic behaviour of the French during the conflict. The first civil war broke out in 2002 against the backdrop of rapid economic decline that had begun with the collapse in global cocoa and coffee prices in the late 1970s. Elected president in 2000, the nationalist Laurent Gbagbo scapegoated immigrants who, during the Houphouët boom years, had moved from the north of the country (as well as from neighbouring nations such as Mali and Burkina Faso) to work in the plantations of the south. But Gbagbo’s real crime – in the eyes of the West at least – was to challenge French economic exploitation of Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo cancelled a major contract with SAUR, a French gas supplier that refused to pay taxes to the Ivorian exchequer, and handed the construction of a new bridge in Abidjan to the Chinese, who agreed to do the job for a quarter of the price demanded by the French.
France’s military assault on Côte d’Ivoire in 2004 used the same ‘humanitarian’ rhetoric as the UK and US had in their invasion of Iraq the previous year. And, as with the ‘coalition of the willing’, France’s true motives were strategic and economic. Its particular brand of ‘regime change’ resulted in the annihilation of the Ivorian Air Force and the shooting of between 20 and 57 unarmed protesters in Abidjan.
The 2010 elections contested by Gbagbo and Ouattara were blemished by fraud, intimidation and violence that led to the deaths of 3,000. Both candidates were implicated in the killing, but the French intervened on behalf of Ouattara, helped depose Gbagbo and sent him off to The Hague on war-crimes charges. His trial begins next year. To many Ivorians, victor’s justice has prevailed against a man who, while no angel himself, at least tried for a little more autonomy for his people.
While the Ivorian economy is growing at an almost Houphouët-era rate, 42 per cent of the population live below the national poverty line and Gbagbo loyalists in the east and southwest of the country continue to threaten the peace process. François, a young Ivorian first-time voter I met in Cocody, hopes that the election in October this year will ‘not cause these contradictions to explode’.