For over three decades, the Republic of the Ivory Coast survived and occasionally thrived under the control of President Félix Houphouét-Boigny. Though, nominally an elected ruler, Houphouét-Boigny was closer to a military dictator; opposition parties were illegal for six of the seven elections he won. Still, his leadership was reasonably popular and reasonably even-handed-by the standards of Third-World autocrats, anyway.
Houphouét-Boigny died in 1993, presenting the Ivory Coast with its first crisis of succession since it achieved its independence in 1960. Though the National Assembly leader took Houphouét-Boigny’s place as President according to the deceased ruler’s wishes, the next election was slated for 1995; and for the first time, elections might be held without one obvious preordained winner.
The issue of who could vote became critically important, as the Ivory Coast’s stable conditions and reliable economy had attracted a sizable population of immigrants. A quarter of the country’s population consisted of foreigners and their descendants, though some had dwelt in the Ivory Coast for generations. Most were from neighboring west African countries, but in time leading up to the election the new President emphasized the concept of ivoirité, or “ivory-ness,” emphasizing the shared heritage of Ivory Coast natives-and subtly encouraging discrimination against outsiders.
Hostility between immigrants and natives increased, with sporadic riots and military suppression; in 2002, full-scale war broke out in a failed coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo. The next few years saw a multi-faction struggle between ethnic nationalist troops and the Forces Nouvelles, representing disenfranchised immigrants (particularly the rural northern populace). Thousands of Europeans left the country as anti-foreigner sentiment increased.
Since then, peacekeeping forces from the United Nations and France have arrived to mitigate the conflict and establish a buffer zone between the loyalist south and the rebel north. At present, the conflict seems to be winding down; a 2004 declaration of peace was largely ignored, but a new agreement signed in 2007 has had a greater effect. Violence has slowed to a trickle of isolated incidents, and new elections are scheduled for the near future. Assuming nothing upsets the delicate balance, the Ivory Coast could once again be one of the most stable and prosperous countries on the continent.