What Next for Ivory Coast?

The genesis of authoritarianism

In 1956, France implemented a series of institutional reforms that effectively allowed its African colonies to opt for integration with France instead of pursuing autonomous existence as independent states. Just two years later, France, under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, offered the colonies, under the auspices of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic, free association as autonomous republics within the Communauté française (French Community). Guinea was the only territory in France’s so-called Afrique noire to vote “Non” to de Gaulle’s proposal. Ivory Coast voted “Oui” as its elites saw Guinea’s total rejection of de Gaulle’s offer as not very pragmatic. Of course, within the new community, France would retain senior status and the former colonies would come in as junior partners.

Nevertheless, leaders of the Francophone African colonies soon realized that they could opt for independence and still retain close and productive ties with France. Thus, following the lead of the former UN Trust Territory of Cameroons under French administration, which gained independence on January 1, 1960, Ivory Coast withdrew from the French Community and on August 7, 1960, declared its independence. However, it was not until October 31, 1960 that the National Assembly adopted a constitutional draft.

The new constitution, like those of virtually all former French colonies in Africa, was remarkably similar to the 1958 Constitution of the French Fifth Republic. The new Ivorian constitution rejected parliamentarianism and created institutions that had a remarkable resemblance to those of France. Most important is the fact that the new constitution established a Guallist system of government with an imperial presidency that lacked effective checks on the power of the executive. Although the constitution created a Supreme Court, the latter had no power of judicial review, executive control and domination of the court was assured mainly because the President of the Republic was also the appointing authority of the head of the Supreme Court. In essence, the constitution subordinated the judiciary system to the imperial president, the same person who was supposed to guarantee the court’s independence. The imperial presidency, with extremely “vague affirmative statements of rights,” as well as strong and repressive institutions, produced, in Ivory Coast, as was the case in other Francophone African countries, an authoritarian system of governance (Alexander 1963).

The state as the president’s personal property

To appreciate as to why Ivory Coast has descended into such an orgy of violence over who should become president, it is important to understand the role played by the president in the country’s political economy. There is no better way to gain such an understanding than to take a look at the one person who shaped that institution into what it is today: Félix Houphouët-Boigny, first president of Ivory Coast. Like his counterparts in other Francophone African countries, he believed that certain specificities of his country such as extreme ethnic diversity, high levels of poverty and material deprivation, a young and illiterate population eager to benefit from the fruits of independence, and a society stunted by many years of colonialism, could not afford to be governed by a limiting constitution. In addition, he believed that only the country’s elite, which had been educated and trained in France, possessed the “skill and understanding necessary to move the society forward.” Ivory Coast, at independence, was essentially a stagnant society, ravaged by many years of French colonial exploitation, challenged by the existence of several ethnic groups, each with its own language, customs and culture, and even legal systems. The impetus for national integration, as well as “[t]he force and direction of change,” Houphouët-Boigny believed, had to emanate from the government, where most of the French-educated elite resided (Alexander 1963).

Thus, at independence, Houphouët-Boigny rejected a limiting constitution, which could have minimized effective exercise of many of the oppressive tendencies that later characterized his many years in office. He rejected federalism, which deprives the central government of its tyrannous strength and allows for a more effective management of ethnic diversity and the separation of powers, which serves to fragment the central government power in particular and significantly minimizes state tyranny. Like other Francophone presidents, Houphouët-Boigny created a sophisticated political craftsmanship that allowed him to have total control over all structures of governance. His government relied exclusively on the state structures, which he had inherited from the French and perhaps, more importantly, he retained a significant number of French bureaucratic and commercial technocrats. Houphouët-Boigny believed in unbridled capitalism, but his was not the type of resource allocation system that enhanced the ability of Ivorians to engage in wealth creation. Houphouët-Boigny established and maintained a patronage system that allowed him to monopolize all political spaces within the country. The system came to represent the most important and perhaps the only avenue for self-enrichment in the country (Jackson and Rosberg, 1982).

Houphouët-Boigny engaged in a form of ethnic balancing in appointing people to his cabinet—all ethnic groups were represented in the government but not those who were independent thinkers. Rather he appointed those who were prepared to serve devotedly without questioning their ruler. The state, under Houphouët-Boigny, evolved into an “administrative-technical agency devoid of structures of representation or participation” and degenerated simply into a structure for the private capital accumulation activities of the president and his benefactors—the government is the personal property of the president, devoid of politics; it is only he who represents the people, and it is only he who can be critical of government policies.

Looking ahead in Ivory Coast

In 2010, presidential elections, which had been postponed several times since 2005, were finally held. The main contestants were incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and former Prime Minister, Alassane Ouattara. The Ivorian Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) declared that Outtara had captured 54.1 percent of the votes in the run-off, while President Gbagbo had received only 45.9 percent. While the IEC and the international community recognized Outtara as the winner and hence, the country’s new president, the Constitutional Council disagreed and sided with the incumbent president, declaring him the winner. It is unlikely that Gbagbo would survive the pressure to surrender the presidency, especially given the fact that most of his military and political supporters have abandoned him, the international community has recognized Ouattara as the country’s legitimate president, and forces loyal to Ouattara have captured all but only a few neighborhoods of Abidjan. The question, of course, is: What is next for Ivory Coast? 

Ivory Coast is in a worse state of fragility now than was the case before the elections. The situation could deteriorate to state failure unless there are well coordinated interventions to prevent the diffusion of force to fragmented groups which could result in serious consequences on human right abuses. While the United Nations and France have played a crucial role in what-is-all-but assured ouster of Gbagbo, their role in peacekeeping and nation building could be complicated as they are not considered as neutral actors by Gbagbo supporters. It is now time that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) stepped up to the plate and played their rightful role. Broad peacekeeping strategies, including disarming of the errant soldiers and militia groups, should be the first priority towards the rebuilding of the state and preventing a humanitarian crisis.

Even as Quattara takes over leadership, governing the state will be complicated by the fierce divisions that have been solidified by the conflict over the last few months, more so because both sides have been involved in imparting atrocities. The new government must seek to negotiate a political settlement that will encourage the divided populace to come together. It is therefore important that even the losing side be granted a role in the governance of the country. The principle of inclusiveness must be adhered to in order to start the healing process.

In the longer run, the solution to the current problems lies in engaging the people in an inclusive constitutional-making process. Like virtually all African countries, the main source of Ivory Coast’s present problems, is the failure of the decolonization project to transform the critical domains (bureaucratic, cultural and economic) and make them more suitable and relevant to post-independence governance and resource allocation. Had the decolonization process fully engaged all of the country’s relevant stakeholder groups, the country’s various ethnic groups could have had the opportunity to determine the type of relationship they wanted to have with their neighbors; resolve property rights issues associated with or related to their lands which had been forcefully alienated to French mercantile companies during the colonial period; deal with important issues, such as citizenship and what the latter means for participation in economic and political markets; and generally secure laws and institutions, which would have provided tools for peaceful resolution of conflict and enhanced the peaceful coexistence of groups.

Instead, the decolonization process in Ivory Coast, like that in other African countries, was dominated and controlled by the colonial government and French entrepreneurs and commercial leaders resident in the colony together with a small group of urban-based indigenous elites, led by Houphouët-Boigny, all of whom had been educated in France, had resided and worked in France, and adopted French customs and values. These elites, totally imbued with foreign values, adopted a top-down, elite-driven, non-participatory approach to constitution making, effectively disenfranchising Ivorians and preventing them from determining their own institutional arrangements. Houphouët-Boigny and his government failed to engage the Ivorian people in democratic constitution making. Instead, they adopted a “thinly disguised” copy of the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic, effectively imposing on Ivorians a set of foreign laws and institutions, which while they have enhanced the ability of the president and his benefactors to amass enormous personal fortunes, they have failed to reflect Ivorian specificities and hence, have not been able to deal effectively with the multifarious governance and resource allocation issues that have forced the country into a series of bloody confrontations.
The Ivorian imperial presidency is very tempting—it provides the holder with the power to preside over an enormous cache of resources. Should Ouattara take over government and continue with business as usual, the violent ethnic mobilization that has characterized the country’s political economy during the last several years will continue. What then should the new president do in order to bring peace to the country?

What the post-Gbagbo Ivory Coast will need are governance structures that will enhance the peaceful resolution of conflict; promote indigenous entrepreneurship and wealth creation; and ensure peaceful coexistence of all the country’s diverse population groups. Such laws and institutions can only be secured through a democratic (i.e., bottom-up, people-driven, participatory and inclusive) constitution-making process. This approach to constitution making will make certain that the laws so compacted will be relevant to all Ivorians and reflect their values, interest, customs and cultures; benefits to gainers will be maximized and costs to losers will be minimized; the resulting constitution will be seen by all of the country’s diverse population groups as a legitimate tool for governance, significantly improving governance and minimizing the costs of compliance; the people will accept the constitution and claim it as their own, effectively enhancing governance in the post-constitutional society; governance will be viewed by the majority of citizens as democratic and based on their values; and critical issues such as citizenship, which have created problems for governance during the last several decades, will be examined thoroughly and settled.

Upon taking office, President Ouattara must create an environment within the country that promotes and enhances dialogue, open debate, accommodation and the political-give-and-take that is necessary for participatory and inclusive constitution making. This approach to constitution making, unlike that adopted at independence, will situate the reform process within popular forces and away from the control and domination of opportunistic elites; it will bring critical issues that are relevant to the well-being of Ivorians to the center of the debate—hence, vexing issues of language (what role will traditional languages play in education, especially at the local level), nationality, identity and citizenship, gender, property rights especially of land, and resource allocation, will take center stage in constitutional deliberations.

In addition to producing laws and institutions, which are locally-focused and hence reflect the people’s values, the participatory and inclusive process may also provide other salutary benefits to Ivorians. First, the process can provide a therapeutic effect on civil society, enhancing the ability of the latter to grow and become a respectful participant in governance. Second, in participating in the process of compacting the nation’s constitution, civil society organizations will gain new confidence and a new sense of empowerment—these organizations are expected to become important checks on the new democratic government. Third, the inclusive and participatory constitution making process will revive the spirit of open debate that had been squashed by colonialism and completely extinguished by Houphouët-Boigny’s autocratic rule. Fourth, the public would be able to engage in a cathartic denunciation of the ancien régime, which had imprisoned, exploited and marginalized them. Fifth, ethnic groups, which would be able to participate fully and effectively in the process, will be able to air their differences in public without resorting to destructive mobilization. Finally, democratic constitution making may be the first real effort to engage all the Ivorian peoples in a national debate on governance and the choice of an economic system. Inclusive and participatory constitution making represents an effective way for Ivorians to come together and undertake a total reconstruction of their critical domains and make them more suitable to their needs, as well as prepare their country for peace and prosperity.

References and further reading

Alexander, A. S., Jr., “The Ivory Coast Constitution: An Accelerator, not a Break,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1963), p. 297.

J. F. Clark, J. F. “The National Conference as an Instrument of Democratization in Francophone Africa,” Journal of Third World Studies, Vol. 11 (1994), pp. 304-335.

Hadloff, R. E. (ed.), Côte d’Ivoire: A Country Study (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991), pp. xv, xxvii.

Jackson, R. H. and C. G. Rosberg, Personal Rule in Black Africa: Prince, Autocrat, Prophet, Tyrant (Berkely: University of California, 1982), p. 145.

Kimenyi, M. S. and Mbaku, J. M. (eds), Institutions and Collective Choice in Developing Countries (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).

Mbaku, J. M., Corruption in Africa: Causes, Consequences, and Cleanups (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007), p. 54.

Mbaku, J. M. and J. O. Inhovbere (eds.), The Transition to Democratic Governance in Africa: The Continuing Struggle (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

Victor T. LeVine, “The Fall and Rise of Constitutionalism in West Africa,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1997): 183-184.