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Cote d'Ivoire, History

Henri Konan Bedie, Laurent Gbagbo, PDCI, rightful winner, Felix Houphouet-Boigny

Ancestors of most of the present population of Cote d’Ivoire seem to have moved into the area relatively late (18th to 19th century), mostly from the northeast and east. The Kru, however, came from the west across the Cavally River. Portuguese explorers reached the coast in the 15th century and began trading in slaves and ivory. Strong tribal kingdoms flourished in the northeastern and eastern parts of the country. Europeans did not penetrate inland until the 1830s, when the French signed treaties with coastal rulers. As part of the French expansion in West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire was made a colony in 1893. The French were bitterly resisted, however, and frequent revolts occurred. In 1904 Cote d’Ivoire became a constituent territory of the Federation of French West Africa. Faced with dissidence, the French resorted increasingly to direct rule, undermining traditional rulers.

In 1919 the northern part of the colony was detached to form part of the new colony of Upper Volta, which was dissolved in 1932, only to be reconstituted in 1948. In 1944 Felix Houphouet-Boigny, a Baule chief, farmer, and doctor, founded a union of African farmers. From this organization emerged the first major African political party, the interterritorial African Democratic Rally, and its constituent section, the PDCI, both led by Houphouet-Boigny. The party was opposed by the French administration, and the tension flared into violence in 1949. In 1950 Houphouet-Boigny reversed his policy and began to cooperate with the French. On December 4, 1958, Cote d’Ivoire was proclaimed a republic within the French Community. After national elections in 1959, Houphouet-Boigny became premier and was elected president in November 1960, following the achievement of full independence on August 7 of that year.

Cote d’Ivoire enjoyed political stability and great economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s, despite occasional challenges to the generally conservative, business-oriented outlook of Houphouet-Boigny by students and members of the armed forces. An alleged conspiracy by army officers to stage a coup was thwarted in 1973; an attempt on the president’s life was made in 1980; and student unrest in early 1982 caused a temporary closing of the University of Abidjan. During the late 1980s the aging president sponsored grandiose building projects, especially in Yamoussoukro, while the national economy slumped. In October 1990 Houphouet-Boigny won his seventh five-year term as president, in Cote d’Ivoire’s first multiparty election, defeating Laurent Gbagbo of the FPI.

Houphouet-Boigny died in office in 1993 and was replaced as president by the head of the National Assembly, Henri Konan Bedie. In 1994 Bedie oversaw the adoption of new electoral laws requiring candidates for public office to be of direct Ivorian descent, meaning that the candidate and both of his or her parents had to have been born in Cote d’Ivoire. This law was widely seen as a maneuver to prevent Bedie’s principal rival, Muslim northerner Alassane Ouattara of the newly formed RDR, from running against him in the 1995 presidential elections. The maneuver underscored a growing national schism between the mostly Christian south and the largely Muslim north. Bedie, a Christian, increasingly exploited anti-Muslim sentiment in the south for political advantage, often referring to northerners as “foreigners.” Objecting to the new electoral restrictions, opposition parties boycotted the October 1995 elections, and Bedie was reelected. In the December 1995 legislative elections Bedie’s PDCI won more than 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly despite the end of the opposition’s boycott.

Bedie’s suppression of political opposition, as well as charges of corruption in his government, led to growing unrest. In December 1999 his government was overthrown in a bloodless military coup, the first coup in the nation’s history. General Robert Guei, a former military chief, assumed the presidency following the coup. A new constitution, adopted by public referendum in July 2000, retained the electoral restrictions regarding Ivorian descent. Ouattara and all other Islamic candidates were found not to have been of direct Ivorian descent and were barred from running in the October 2000 presidential elections against Guei, a Christian from the south. The PDCI and the RDR boycotted the election, and Islamic leaders urged the nation’s Muslims not to vote. International electoral monitoring groups questioned the vote’s legitimacy and refused to send observers. However, the election proceeded in October. After early voting results showed Guei trailing FPI candidate Gbagbo, Guei dissolved the official election commission and declared himself the winner. A popular uprising swept Guei from power, and Gbagbo declared himself the rightful winner.

In the days after the election, at least 200 people died in clashes between security forces loyal to Guei, Christian supporters of Gbagbo, and Muslim supporters of Ouattara who demanded new elections. The RDR said more than 150 of its supporters were killed, and the party called for an international inquiry. Following the violence, Gbagbo and Ouattara pledged to work toward national unity. Gbagbo assembled a new cabinet made up of FPI and PDCI members.

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