First of two parts.
In the 1990s, I frequently worked in Côte d’Ivoire, primarily in Abidjan, the third largest French speaking city in the world. Abidjan was known as the “Paris of Africa” and the “Manhattan of Africa.” The central business district was filled with tall buildings and luxury shops.
Hotel Ivoire even had an ice skating rink. The music was lively and the economy was known as the “African miracle.”
At least in the urban areas, the benefits of the economy seemed to go further down the social ladder than in many other countries. Underneath, however, there were signs of fraying after the passing of the first president, the independence leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
As the largest producer of cocoa, the economy was driven by the world’s seemingly insatiable demand for chocolate. There were strains between regions and groups of people and a desire for less economic dependence on France, the former colonial power.
Like most African countries, its ethnic groups are shared by adjoining countries. In colonial days, France also controlled countries to the north and borders meant little.
With its booming agriculture, many people both from the north of Côte d’Ivoire and farther north came south for work. The question of who was an Ivorian became central to some of the strife.
Côte d’Ivoire – also known as Ivory Coast – got its name from trade in elephant tusks.
Like most of West Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, the strongest areas were north of the forests, where horses could be used.
This was true not only of the great medieval empires but also the forces of Samory Toure, whose army resisted French colonialism from 1882 to 1898, when he was captured. Because of nature of the coastline the slave trade was minor.
Following the development of the coastal ports, the south benefited most from increased educational opportunities and commerce. The northern people, bolstered by immigration, moved south not only into the agricultural areas but also to cities.
The above is, however, overly simplistic, as coalitions between various groups within the countries come and go.
In December 1999, there was a coup and President Henri Bedie was replaced by Gen. Robert Guei, who was subsequently replaced by Laurent Gbagbo as president.
Debate then arose as to who was a true “Ivorian” and a northern revolt occurred in 2002. The French entered the fray and the country became divided with a ceasefire line. The United Nations pulled its civilian personnel out, the African Development Bank temporarily moved its headquarters and my visits to Cote d’Ivoire ended.
Elections were delayed until 2010 and after the voting the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner with 51 percent of the votes. But the Electoral Commission, backed by U.N. observers, said Alassane Ouattara, a northerner and a former prime minister, was the winner, with 54 percent of the votes.
Gbagbo refused to leave office and civil war broke out. Atrocities occurred on both sides.
I followed events through a good friend, a university professor. As the northern militias surged south, his parents were killed and their house burned. His sister became a refugee in Liberia. In such conflicts, personal and group grudges get mixed up with larger objectives.
As the Ouattara forces moved through Abidjan towards the Presidential Palace, we talked on Skype.
After his family ran out of food and the children grew hungry, he ventured out, only to have soldiers hijack his car. Eventually, with French and U.N. assistance, the palace fell and Gbago was turned over to the International Criminal Court and Côte d’Ivoire’s recovery began.
Brad Brown, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist, is a consultant on African coastal and marine projects and scientific capacity development. He is also first vice presiden of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org