After its independence from France in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast), became the model of stability in Africa and featured a major African economy. It still is the world’s leading cocoa producer, exporting nearly twice as much as Ghana, the number two cocoa producer. Before relatively recent United Nations sanctions, Côte d’Ivoire was an exporter of diamonds. Since the death of its legendary leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, this Africa exemplar has been in decline. However, the recent announcement of progress on new elections provides hope that there could be a turnaround in a nation plagued by civil war, ethnic strife and nearly constant violence.
After Houphouët-Boigny’s death Henri Bédié, then the National Assembly President, succeeded him after a brief power struggle with then-Prime Minister Alassane Outtara. In the 1995 elections, Bédié’s government changed the electoral law so that Ouattara was banned from competing, and his party boycotted the elections, which were then won by Bédié. Due to allegations of corruption and political repression, Bédié was eventually overthrown in 1999 by retired General Robert Guéï, who as himself overthrown in a popular uprising the following year. He was succeeded by Laurent Gbagbo who won the 2000 election, and remains President.
Throughout the succession of coups and manipulated elections since 1993, there has been one constant: Bédié, Guéï and Gbagbo all played the ethnic and religious cards to prevent Outtara from even attempting to win the presidency through elections. The result of their efforts has also been the cleavage of the country, and since 2002, a civil war that has split the country between the north controlled by rebels and the south controlled by the government. A border area between the two regions is patrolled by French and other international peacekeeping forces.
Despite continued efforts to restore the peace and form governments of national unity, violence, assassination attempts and attempted coups persist. Meanwhile, there have been several postponements of presidential elections since Gbagbo’s mandate was initially extended in 2005. Now the UN envoy to Côte d’Ivoire, Y.J. Choi, has said that voter registration for the planned November 2009 presidential election is going well. According to registration figures, more than six million voters – about 70% of the eligible voters – have been registered.
Côte d’Ivoire remains a major U.S. trading partner. Despite the civil war and almost constant violence, Côte d’Ivoire is number eight among Africa trading partners with the U.S. The country’s continued economic influence has been a major factor in the patience the international community has shown for the conduct of elections over the last four years, but patience must finally run out. There does not appear to be further forbearance for election postponements in this West African nation, and if Côte d’Ivoire is to return to its former station as a bulwark of stability in Africa, this election must be held on time and in proper accord.