How is Côte d'Ivoire handling its transition to a democracy?


Modern Côte d’Ivoire lies in a region that has seen waves of migration and conflict over the centuries as well as great trade and prosperity, with many empires rising and falling along the way. The first archaeological discoveries date back to the Neolithic. The Ahouakro Archaeological Park in northern Tiassalé, which is on the UNESCO Tentative List, has rock art and tools from that epoch. After that, little is known until the arrival of the great West African trading empires of Ghana (7th-13th century) and Mali (13th-16th century). The latter was originally based on the Malinke people of Kangaba, in the Upper Niger River area, with these traders also bringing Islam to the region around the 12th century. The collapse of their empire sent waves of people south towards the West African coast, displacing or assimilating many of the original inhabitants.

Out of these movements multiple new kingdoms arose. In the northern savannah region, the Dyula – that is, the descendants of the original Malian traders – established the Kong Empire (1710-1898), which was then overthrown by the Mandé leader, Samory Touré. Bouna was another northern kingdom, based on the settlement now in the north-east of the country, which, like Kong, became a centre for Islamic learning as well as trade.

In the south, meanwhile, the Asanti Empire’s expansion out of Ghana from the 17th century onwards drove many Akan people into what is now Côte d’Ivoire’s southern forests. These people established a series of their own states, such as the Abron kingdom of Gyaman, and the Anyi kingdoms of Indénié and Sanwi. A further Asanti incursion in 1750 also established the Baul, or Baoulé, kingdom in north-central Côte d’Ivoire.

European Arrival

The first Europeans to impact the region were the Portuguese, arriving on the coast in the 15th century. The offshore sandbar, high surf and dense forests of the coastal plain, however, discouraged much exploration or settlement. These natural barriers also protected the region from the worst of the slave trade, which focused on neighbouring areas. The ivory trade – from which Côte d’Ivoire gains its name – flourished in the 17th century, but had largely come to an end by the 18th century, as a result of local elephants being hunted to near extinction.

French Christian missionaries reached the area in the 16th century, but there was not a significant French presence until the 19th century, when a series of forts and trading posts were established via treaties with local leaders. The defeat of France in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War, however, led to a withdrawal of French garrisons from the region. French merchants were assigned control of local forts and trading posts instead. One of these, Grand-Bassam, which is close to present day Abidjan, became the busiest, and later became the colonial capital when the French returned in earnest in 1886, as European colonial rivalries led to the Scramble for Africa. French military expeditions into the interior were then launched, with Côte d’Ivoire becoming a French colony in 1893. In 1904 the country became part of the Federation of French West Africa, with what is now Burkina Faso attached to Côte d’ Ivoire until 1933. The country’s current borders were not established until 1947. Côte d’Ivoire remained part of the federation until 1958, when it voted in a referendum to become part of the new French Community. Independence from France was then achieved largely peacefully on August 7, 1960.

Early Independence

The first decades of Côte d’Ivoire’s modern history were largely dominated by one man, Felix Houphouët-Boigny. Emerging in the 1940s as the leader of the African Farmers Union, he helped found the African Democratic Rally (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain, ADR) in 1946, a pan-West African party that led to the development of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire, PDCI). He had also been a Cabinet minister in two post-war French governments, after being elected to the French National Assembly as part of French imperial reforms. Houphouët-Boigny was elected Côte d’Ivoire’s first president following the country’s independence in 1960, and he maintained that position until his death in 1993.

Liberal Market

During more than three decades of rule, President Houphouët-Boigny pursued a more liberal, free-market economic strategy than many of his contemporaries, that was open to foreign investment, cooperated closely with France and established a number of exporting, cash-crop agricultural industries, such as cocoa beans, palm oil, coffee and pineapples. When he died, of the African countries south of the Sahara that were non-oil exporters at the time, Côte d’Ivoire was second only to South Africa in terms of per capita income.

President Houphouët-Boigny also moved the capital to Yamoussoukro, his birthplace and traditional seat of the chieftaincy of the Baoulé ethnic group, of which he was a member. For most of his rule opposition parties were banned, and there were two reported coup attempts, in 1963 and 1973. The first presidential election in which opposition candidates were allowed was in 1990, when Houphouët-Boigny took on and defeated Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI). Following Houphouët-Boigny’s death, a period of instability and conflict ensued. The former president of the country’s National Assembly, Henri Konan Bédié, succeeded Houphouët-Boigny and then changed the rules on elections in a manner that opposition parties rejected. While Bédié won presidential elections in 1995, he was deposed in a military coup in 1999, led by General Robert Gueï. Presidential elections were held again in 2000, with Gueï losing to a resurgent Laurent Gbagbo. Violent clashes followed, as Gueï rejected the result, but mass demonstrations soon placed Gbagbo in office.

The 2000 elections were a watershed moment in the country’s recent history. Under rules introduced by Gueï, candidates had to have both parents born within Côte d’Ivoire, a measure that ruled out many recent immigrants and their descendants. In September 2002 many troops from the north mutinied, citing these rules and their rights and representation in government as key drivers of their revolt. Gueï was killed in the first hours of the rebellion.

The civil war rapidly established a division between a rebel-held north and a government-held south. French troops, along with forces from the UN and ECOWAS, intervened to establish a buffer zone between the two areas. A number of ceasefires were negotiated and broken until 2007, when a power-sharing agreement was finally negotiated. Under this arrangement, Gbagbo remained president – with his term being extended – while Guillaume Soro became the prime minister.

In 2010 presidential elections were finally held again, with Gbagbo facing off against Alassane Dramane Ouattara and Bédié. The first round of voting eliminated the latter candidate, but the second round ended in controversy, with both candidates claiming victory and swearing themselves in as president. The UN backed Ouattara’s claim to have won, as did the African Union and ECOWAS, with a major international campaign of sanctions imposed on the Gbagbo government. The impact of this turbulence was severe on the economy, with migration from Côte d’Ivoire increasing over this period.

Another civil conflict then broke out in 2011, with the northern forces – which are now known as the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire – emerging victorious, capturing and arresting Gbagbo in April that year. Ouattara was subsequently sworn in as president. Meanwhile, Gbagbo was prosecuted at the International Criminal Court (ICC), but was eventually acquitted in 2019. An appeal of this decision was ongoing as of April 2020.

Fresh presidential elections were held in 2015, with Ouattara emerging as the landslide winner. The following year, he issued a new constitution, eliminating the controversial candidacy eligibility rule over parenthood, which was passed in a referendum boycotted by opposition parties. Since then, confidence has been returning, with the economy accelerating and the last of the UN peacekeeping troops withdrawing in 2017. The next presidential elections are due on October 31, 2020.

New Constitution

The 2016 constitution maintains the country as a presidential, democratic republic, adding the post of vice-president to the executive branch and moving the legislative branch from a unicameral to a bicameral system, with the addition of an upper chamber, the Senate.

The head of state, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the head of the executive is the president, elected by universal adult suffrage for a maximum of two consecutive, five-year terms. Candidates must have Ivorian nationality, with at least one of their parents being Ivorian by birth.

The president appoints a vice-president running mate, with the vice-president succeeding the president in the event of his death or incapacity in office. The president may also submit bills to the legislature, or to a national referendum. He or she also appoints the head of government, the prime minister – currently Amadou Gon Coulibaly – and in consultation with them, the Cabinet. As of September 2019 this had 49 members, including seven secretaries of state, the vice-president and the president. The president also has wide powers of appointment in the civil service and the military.

In the legislative branch the lower house – the National Assembly – has 255 members, each elected for a five-year term, although the current deputies will serve only four years, from 2016 to the 2020 elections. A first-past-the-post, constituency-based system is used for 169 deputies, who are elected from single-member constituencies. A plurality-at-large electoral system is used in the 36 other, multi-member constituencies. In those, a winner-takes-all system exists, whereby voters cast ballots for a closed list, with the list gaining the most votes taking all the seats in the constituency. These vary from two to six deputies.

The last elections, held in December 2016, saw a resounding win for the coalition of parties supporting President Ouattara. This grouping is known as the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (Rassemblement des Houphouëtists pour la Démocratie et la Paix, RHDP), which won 167 seats and 50.26% of the total vote. Constituent parties of the RHDP included Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans, and the PDCI-RDA, led by Bédié, along with several smaller parties. Three other parties won seats in the National Assembly: the FPI, which was founded by Gbagbo and is now led by Pascal Affi N’Guessan, winning three seats and 5.83% of the votes; the Union for Democracy and Peace in Côte d’Ivoire, led by Toikeuse Mabri, which won six seats and 2.99% of the vote; and the Union for Côte d’ Ivoire, led by Me Soro Brahima, which won three seats and 1.03% of the votes. In addition, 76 independent candidates were elected, with 38.5% of the vote going to these, illustrating the strength of local allegiances in many Ivorian constituencies.

The National Assembly elects a speaker, known as the president, who is currently Amadou Soumahoro, and has the power to introduce legislation of its own, but typically debates and deliberates legislative proposals from the government. This is done in conjunction with the Senate. Both houses have a series of committees that deliberate on proposed bills. Joint committees may be called by the president in the event of the two houses being unable to produce an identical draft.

The Senate consists of 99 members, two-thirds of whom are elected for five-year terms by indirect universal suffrage, with the other third appointed by the president. In the indirect elections only municipal and regional councillors and deputies of an electoral college cast votes. The most recent ballot, in March 2018, was boycotted by the opposition and saw the RHDP win 50 out of the 66 elected seats.


The country’s judicial system is based on French civil law and customary law, with the Supreme Court being the highest body. One section of the Supreme Court deals with constitutional matters, including the eligibility of candidates in elections. The upper court is the High Court of Justice, which can judge members of government for alleged offences committed while in office. The lower courts include courts of appeals, courts of first instance, courts of assizes and justice of the peace courts. In rural areas in particular, traditional law also holds sway, with grand mediators adjudicating when customary laws cannot settle disputes.

Local Government

Côte d’Ivoire is divided into 31 regions and two autonomous districts, separated into 197 municipalities. In the autonomous districts of Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, municipalities are divided into arrondisements. In other areas villages are the basic unit of administration. The Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Decentralisation and Local Development is the national body responsible for the financing and operation of local authorities. October 2018 saw the last local elections, with the RHDP again emerging triumphant, taking 92 municipalities, while independents won 56 and the PDCI-RDA – having left the coalition with the RHDP in August 2018 – won the remainder. Gbagbo’s supporters boycotted the ballot.


With October 2020 seeing new national elections, the year will be one of political turbulence. President Ouattara declared in March 2020 that he would not stand for a third term, in concordance with the constitution. Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly was the frontrunner to succeed him as the RHDP presidential candidate as of April 2020. For the opposition, Bédié and Gbagbo are both contenders, particularly after the PDCI-RDA’s split from the coalition government and the latter’s ICC acquittal. However, with an appeal against the Gbagbo ruling ongoing, the ICC still had to decide the terms of his parole, keeping his candidacy uncertain. Guillaume Soro is also standing, after resigning in 2019 and setting up a new party, Rally for Côte d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile, the economy is growing strongly, with hopes and expectations high that politics will remain on a democratic discourse, without returning to the violence of the past. Many will be watching to see how Côte d’Ivoire’s leaders move forward in securing future prosperity and peace, while also finding a way to address and overcome past dispute and division.

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The Report: Cote d'Ivoire 2020

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