Ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse, Côte d’Ivoire is a West African nation with a rich culture. Once one of the continent’s leading economic powerhouses, the country was afflicted by civil war for much of the past 10 years. However, peace has largely prevailed since April 2011, and the nation is now looking to reclaim its former glory.
Côte d’Ivoire is 322,463 sq km in size. It shares borders totalling 3110 km with Liberia and Guinea to the west, Mali and Burkina Faso to the north, and Ghana to the east, and boasts a 515-km-long Atlantic coastline that forms the country’s southern edge. Abidjan, in the south-east on the Atlantic coast, is both the economic capital and home to many government institutions, as well as the largest city, with more than 5m inhabitants. However, the official capital is Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of former President Félix Houphouë tBoigny, who built the city up from a village. The capital’s population is estimated to be a little over 200,000. Other major cities include Bouaké, in the centre of the country, with around 640,000 residents, and Daloa, which is situated to the west of Abidjan, with around 240,000 inhabitants.
The country’s natural environment is split, divided roughly in two between a northern region made up largely of drier savannah and a heavily forested south. A part of the west and north-west is mountainous – the area is an extension of the Guinea Highlands – and contains Côte d’Ivoire’s highest mountain, Mount Nimba, the peak of which stands 1752 metres above sea level.
The rest of the country is either largely flat or moderately hilly. Four major rivers traverse Côte d’Ivoire from north to south, namely the Bandama, the Cavally, the Komoé and the Sassandra. The largest body of water in the country is Lake Kossou, a man-made lake that was created by the damming of the Bandama River in the centre of Côte d’Ivoire.
Climatically the country is roughly divided in two between the tropical south and a semi-arid north. The monthly average temperature in the main city, Abidjan, varies only slightly throughout the year, between 24°C and 28°C. Rainfall varies between highs of 10 days a month in June and lows of once a month in January and February.
Côte d’Ivoire’s population, which is growing at a rate of 2% annually, was estimated at 22.7m as of early 2014. As with most West African countries, the population is young; 38.9% of Ivorians are under 15 years old, while just 7.6% are over 55 (see Economy chapter). The southern coastal region is the most heavily populated part of the country, with northern areas more sparsely inhabited.
The population is diverse, consisting of numerous ethnic groups, many of which also have significant presences in other countries in the region. The largest is the Akan, a West African group that also makes up a sizeable proportion of the population in Ghana, and accounts for 42% of Ivorians. Subgroups within the Akan include the Baoulé, which is generally thought to be the largest such subgroup in the country. Other major ethnic groups include the Krous and the Mandes, typically found in the west; the Sénoufos, in the north-west; and the Dioula Malinkés in the north-east. There are also large immigrant populations from neighbouring countries – an issue that has raised political tensions in the past – in particular from Burkina Faso. As in many West African countries there is also a long-standing Lebanese community, in addition to a sizeable French expatriate population.
Côte d’Ivoire is also very religiously diverse. Figures for the religious composition of the population vary widely. By some counts, the Muslim community is the largest religious grouping in the country at just over one-third of the population, followed by Christians with a slightly lower proportion, along with a sizeable collection of indigenous religious groups. However, different sources give very different figures, which in some cases suggest that local religions account for a majority of the population. This may be partly explained by the fact that religious beliefs in the country are often marked by a large degree of syncretism, with indigenous religious traditions retaining influence among some Muslim and Christian groups, making clear religious distinctions difficult to draw. Traditional religions include varieties of animism and nature worship, as well as the veneration of ancestors. Muslims tend to predominate in the north and Christians are more concentrated in the south, though there is a mix of religions throughout the country. Most Ivorian Muslims follow the Maliki school of Sunni Islam. The Christian population is mostly Roman Catholic, but other denominations, including various evangelical groups, also exist in large numbers.
Côte d’Ivoire’s official language is French. More than 60 other languages and dialects are spoken, most of which belong to several NigerCongo language families. Major local languages include Agni, Baoulé and Dan, which each claim close to or more than 1m speakers. Dioula, a local language from the north-east, is also widely spoken given its traditional use among traders.
Culture & Heritage
As is the case in much of West Africa, traditional storytellers and musicians, or griots, are an important feature of the cultural landscape, and play an influential social and political role by acting as advisers through their unique position, which allows them to tell leaders what their people think of them. Traditional musical instruments include the balafon, which is similar to a xylophone, and the stringed kora, which produces a sound that is similar to that of a harp.
Masks, mostly made from wood, are among the most prominent forms of traditional art, and Côte d’Ivoire produces a variety of types, with features differing by ethnic group. For many communities masks have important religious and spiritual connotations, sometimes representing deities, and wearing them is generally restricted to individuals of high status or people who are specially trained to do so. The production of wooden statuettes and sculptures is also common. Other arts and handicrafts include painted fabrics, such as those produced by Senufo artisans which inspired famous Western artists like Picasso, and various forms of pottery.
Local cuisine varies widely, but is frequently spicy. Specialities include the national dish fufu or futu (a starchy dough, often served alongside chicken, fish or meat), and, in the south, various fish dishes. Popular local drinks include the ginger-based niamakou; bissap, made from hibiscus; palm wine; and beer, with Flag being the most common brand.
The country benefits from a wide range of commodities that have helped underwrite its growth. Agriculture is a key economic sector (see Agriculture chapter). The most important crop is cocoa beans, of which Côte d’Ivoire is the largest producer globally. The country is also a minor net exporter of crude oil (see Energy chapter). Proven oil reserves stand at around 100m barrels, the 64th-largest in the world.
The country has been inhabited for centuries, and held dominance over West Africa between the 12th and 17th centuries, before the onset of colonialist rule. In the 15th century the opportunities offered by slaves, gold and pepper began to attract attention from European traders, and as such, European colonists. Recognising the competition for access to such goods, France named Côte d’Ivoire a protectorate in 1889 and a colony in 1893. Colonial rule ended in 1960 when the population declared independence from France, part of the tide of anti-colonialism that swept the region. An Ivorian minister under the French government, Houphouët-Boigny, became its first president, a position in which he served until his death in 1993. Houphouët-Boigny dominated his country’s political sphere, though he benefitted from the advantage of a one-party system for much of his tenure.
However, when Côte d’Ivoire did authorise a multi-party system Houphouët-Boigny defeated his first opponent, Laurent Gbagbo. Following his death, Houphouët-Boigny was succeeded by Henri Konan Bédié, who served as president until 1999 when a military coup – the motivations for which may have been spurred by economic stagnation due to a decline in cocoa prices, on which the country is significantly reliant – ousted him from power.
Junta leader General Robert Guéï called elections in 2000, but these were marked by numerous problems, such as the disqualification of several candidates (including current President Alassane Dramane Ouattara), and Guéï curtailed the electoral process and declared himself the winner. This sparked an uprising by supporters of the main remaining opposition candidate, Gbagbo of the Ivorian Popular Front, forcing Guéï to flee, following which Gbagbo, who claimed to have won the election, was installed as president.
The Ivorian civil war began in September 2002, when troops mounted a coup to try to overthrow Gbagbo. The rebels, who called themselves the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire, MPCI) and whose armed forces later became known as the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces), failed to seize power in the capital, but managed to take control of much of the north, effectively dividing the country in two.
A peace deal was reached in early 2003 to end the fighting, and was backed by the arrival of peacekeeping forces from ECOWAS states, in addition to French troops. Relations broke down in 2004, but another agreement in 2007 saw MPCI leader Guillaume Soro installed as prime minister, effectively ending the war, though the reunification of the country proceeded more slowly.
While the conflict had come to an end, tensions over issues such as the disarmament of the rebels, disputes over nationality and the delayed presidential elections, due to have taken place in 2005, persisted. In 2008 the two sides agreed to hold presidential elections later that year, although negotiations on voter eligibility delayed the ballot, which was finally held in October 2010.
Gbagbo won a plurality of the vote in the first round but not an absolute majority, leading to a run-off second round between Ouattarra and Gbagbo. The electoral commission said Ouattara won the second round with 54.1% of the vote, on a turnout of 81.1%, a result that was endorsed by the UN and the international community.
However, the country’s constitutional courts accepted the claims of electoral fraud in northern areas from Gbagbo’s supporters and, having declared large numbers of votes from such regions invalid, announced Gbagbo as the winner. This triggered a tense stand-off. More than 3000 people died in the subsequent unrest and around 1m people were displaced by fighting in the capital alone. The stand-off ended in April 2011 and Ouattara, a former economist at the IMF who also served as prime minister in the early 1990s under Houphouët-Boigny, was installed as president a month later. Although occasional bouts of unrest still occur, a number of polls have been held since, including municipal elections in 2013 and presidential elections in 2015 – which Ouattara won with over 80% of the vote – both of which proceeded smoothly (see analysis).
The most recent parliamentary elections took place peacefully in December 2016. The presidential coalition, known as the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace – which is composed of the Rally of the Republicans, the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire and some smaller parties – won more than half of the seats in the National Assembly.
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