Cote d’Ivoire Deep Dive Part II: Françafrique, liberal state capitalism and socio-ethnic tensions
February 15, 2024
Abderrahmane Chaoui

Welcome back to this four-part Deep Dive into Cote d’Ivoire. In Part I, we considered Cote d’Ivoire’s history pre-colonisation and how French administration changed the country’s fabric and laid the seeds for its future into the latter half of the 20th century.

In Part II, we focus on understanding Cote d’Ivoire’s post-independence period. Cote d’Ivoire’s journey occurred in the broad context of French colonial rule in Africa, with the economies and social fabrics of its former colonies indelibly shaped by the French experience.

We can observe two distinct trajectories:

  • Countries that joined the socialist movement and adopted an anti-imperialist philosophy focused on developing their human stack (infrastructure, education, health…)
  • Countries that adopted a liberal development based on opening to Western markets, foreign investments and private sector development.

These represent very good case studies to analyse the consequences of liberalism/neoliberalism and Keynesianism. But let us focus on Mr Houphouët-Boigny to understand better the trajectory taken by Cote d’Ivoire and its consequences on the country today.

Dia Houphouët-Boigny’s long and lingering relationship with French-controlled Cote d’Ivoire

As the nephew to the chief of a small Baoulé tribe near Yamoussoukro, Young Dia Houphouët-Boigny had the privilege of attending colonial administration schooling, attending the Bingerville superior school, where he converted to Christianity and adopting Félix as a surname to the West Africa medicine school in Dakar where he became a physician.

His background would eventually allow him to become a leading political force under French rule as the leader of his Baoulé tribe and one of the most important farmers in the country. He founded the Agricultural Union in 1944, joined the French Assembly in 1945 and finally became a French Administrator in Cote d’Ivoire during the 1950s. Eventually, the end of the Second World War and the wind of decolonisation that followed allowed Felix Houphouët-Boigny to become the first president of the independent Republic of Cote d’Ivoire.

Even so, the country’s independence is written in half-truths. Félix Houphouet-Boigny’s personal experience and his past as a political leader within the colonial power structure, added to the fact that he never hid his “regrets” at leaving “the great French family”, are evidence of his desire to maintain close ties with former colonial power. During his first decade as president, Cote d’Ivoire intensified its commercial relations with France. Many French executives were invited to take up key positions in the country’s public administration. The number of French nationals in the country even tripled in 10 years, growing from 10,000 to 30,000 executive expatriates.

Nationally, Felix Houphouët-Boigny ensured a certain form of unification and feeling of belonging to the same nation in a country of 60+ tribes of various origins, languages, cultures and beliefs who lived independently from one another for centuries.

From an economic perspective, the country quickly designed highly liberal state capitalism, encouraging the inflow of foreign capital and establishing foreign companies. Felix Houphouët-Boigny’s first two decades of rule were marked by sustained economic growth, the benefits of which seem to have been largely retained by private companies operating in the country and proved difficult to translate into an improvement of human development indicators, giving birth to the concept of “Françafrique”. Françafrique characterises the neo-colonial nature of the relationship that France maintained with its former colonies, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This State capitalism is translated in the newly designed legal framework by the implantation of foreign corporations, the engagement of the State in economic activities with strong public investments in various sectors and the multiplication of public-private partnerships. Despite an impressive average growth rate of 8%, inequality has continued to grow, giving rise to a two-tier society with an urban/rural divide and, therefore, an ethnic divide, given the country’s historical background.

This is what Samir Amin characterised in 1967 as “growth without development”. Côte d’Ivoire seems to be a textbook case of the failure of the “Washington Consensus”. In a fledgling country subject to the power plays of the international marketplace, where the law is written and applied according to private interests, privatisation without competition and liberalisation without diversification, growth without equity is not enough to fulfil the promises announced with the “Ivorian Miracle”.

The Ivorian economy, which is heavily dependent on coffee and cocoa stock prices, is, by definition, subject to global economic fluctuations of prices and demand, especially in industrialised countries, the primary markets for Ivorian agricultural outputs. The global recession in the 1980s marked the end of the Ivorian miracle and revealed the country’s structural issues. A lack of economic diversification and large-scale corruption have since emptied the State’s coffers, creating a long cycle of debt contraction and economic reforms that further liberalised the country’s economy and fragilised its social fabric.

Cote d’Ivoire after Houphouët-Boigny

Felix Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, leaving the field open to his two successors, who, through short-sighted calculation and political gamesmanship, inflamed already existing tensions between Ivorians (from the north in particular), foreigners (living mainly in the country’s rich south), and local ethnic groups at a time when the country’s economy was starting to take off again.

In 1999, a military coup overthrew President Bedié and placed Laurent Gbagbo in power. One year later, the country exploded in a tragic decade-long civil war between rebel militias from the north and different groups from the south that would see several attempted coups and too many exactions on local populations. This bloody decade of political instability came to an end in 2011 when the UN and French military forces intervened in favour of Alassane Ouattara. By 2020, Alassane Ouattara was claiming his third mandate in a row in spite of restrictions imposed by the constitution.

This concludes Part II of our four-part Deep Dive into the Cote d’Ivoire ecosystem. Part III will focus on the early beginnings of the Ivorian tech ecosystem and the roleplayers who shaped it into what it is today.

Abderrahmane Chaoui is an African ecosystem researcher, consultant, and writer.

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