Côte d’Ivoire: A Country in Distress, An Opportunity to Act

June 2003

Women’s Division – General Board of Global Ministries
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Suite 530 – Washington, DC 20002
Tel. (202) 488-5660 * Fax (202) 488-5681


 For three decades following its independence from France in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, had one of Africa’s strongest economies and was politically a pillar of stability in a region plagued by wars.  “Once hailed as a model of stability, Ivory Coast is in danger of slipping into the kind of internal strife that has plagued so many African countries.”[1]  Côte d’Ivoire is a country full of ethnic and religious diversity.  It is also the world’s leading producer of cocoa.  Unfortunately, after a military coup in 1999, the country has been facing a tumbling economy and rising religious, ethnic and political tensions. 

 Cote d’Ivoire is located in Western Africa and borders the North Atlantic Ocean, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Mali.  It has a total population of about 16.3 million, 5 million of which are non-Ivorian Africans living in Côte d’Ivoire.  About one-third of the immigrants are from Burkina Faso; the rest are from Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Benin, Senegal, Liberia and Mauritania.  There are also 20,000 French and 100,000 Lebanese immigrants residing in the country.  20-30 percent of the total population is Christian; 35-40 percent is Muslim, living in mostly the northern half of the country; and 25-40 percent practice indigenous religions.  The majority of the migrant workers are Muslims, about 70 percent, and Christians, about 20 percent.[2]

 In addition to being the world’s largest producer of cocoa, Côte d’Ivoire is also among the world’s largest producers and exporters of coffee and palm oil.  Despite the government’s efforts to reduce the country’s dependency on producing agricultural goods, the economy is still largely dependent on it.  About 68 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s population is engaged in the agricultural sector.  “Gross national product per capita was $727 in 1996 but had fallen to below $660 by 2001,”due to decreases in the prices of agricultural goods and increases in population.[3]

 Côte d’Ivoire officially became a French colony in 1893 and gained its independence from France on August 7, 1960.  Felix Houphouet-Boigny, a Catholic, became Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, and ruled the country until his death in 1993.  In 1990, Houphouet-Boigny, leader of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), lifted the ban on opposition parties in elections and won Côte d’Ivoire’s first multi-party presidential election.[4]

 Henri Konan Bédié, who at the time was PDCI’s speaker of the National Assembly, became president in 1993 following the death of Felix Houphouet-Boigny.  During Bédié’s six-year rule as president, his government was accused of corruption and bad governance, which led the IMF, World Bank and European Union to suspend economic aid in 1998.  As opposition to Bédié grew, he sought to eliminate potential political opponents.  “Unlike Houphouet-Boigny, who encouraged immigration and included Muslims in government, Bédié fomented ethnic and religious mistrust through his own breed of nationalism which came to be known as ‘Ivorite’ or ‘Ivorian-ness.’”[5]  Bédié stirred up hatred against immigrants in order to undermine a potential political rival, Alssane Ouattra, a Muslim.  Ouattra had been prime minister under the first president and later became head of the Rally of Republicans Party (RDR), which is heavily supported by Muslims.  Bédié “reinforced his position…by adopting an electoral code that required both parents of presidential candidates to be Ivorian and also stipulating that the candidate himself must have lived in the country for the past five years.”[6] He stated that Ouattra was not a native Ivorian but from neighboring Burkina Faso, and thus was barred from running in the 1995 elections.  Ouattra was forced to withdraw his candidacy from the race and Bédié was reelected.[7]

 In 1999, there was a bloodless military coup led by General Robert Guei against Bédié’s corrupt government.  The Ivorians welcomed the coup because General Guei had pledged to clean up the corruption and rewrite the constitution.  He pledged to work with leaders from opposition parties, including the RDR and Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).[8]  By July 2000, Guei’s plans had changed and he started promoting ethnic and religious hatred in order to eliminate political rivals from the 2000 presidential elections.  A new constitution was drafted and ratified in the summer of 2000.  “It retained clauses that underscored national divisions between North and South, Christian and Muslim…”[9] 

 Under the newly ratified constitution, in order to run for the presidency, both parents of the candidate must be born in Côte d’Ivoire.  Despite Ouattra’s and others’ attempts to contest this law, the newly formed Supreme Court, believed to be headed by Guei’s ally, declared the law constitutional, disqualifying 14 of the 19 presidential candidates for the 2000 elections.  As a result, brutal fighting broke out between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north.

 Presidential elections were held in October of 2000.  With the polls showing the opposition candidate leading, General Guei dissolved the National Electoral Commission and proclaimed himself the winner.  Thousands of protestors took to the streets and chaos ensued.  By the end of October the military and police had abandoned Guei and Gbagbo became president.  Violence erupted once again when Ouattra was barred from running the in the December 2000 parliamentary elections due to questions about his citizenship.  By spring of 2001, local elections were held without violence and full participation of all local parties.  Ouattra’s party, RDR, won most of the local seats and in August of 2002 RDR was given four ministerial posts in the new government.  Despite these developments, tensions continued and fighting broke out.  “On 19 September 2002, a new rebellion by military groups virtually cut the country in half, with the government in control of the south and rebels in control of much of the north.  Hundreds of people have been killed.  Thousands more have been driven from their homes and now face hunger and disease.  Abuses have been committed both by government security forces and by the armed opposition group the Mouvement patriotique de la Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI), Côte d’Ivoire Patriotic Movement.”[10]

 In October of 2002, rebels agreed to a ceasefire brokered by ministers from six African countries, but this collapsed when the military and rebels began fighting over control of the key cocoa industry town of Daloa.  With violence growing in all parts of the country, in January of 2003, President Gbagbo accepted a peace deal reached at talks in Paris between the rebels and the government.  The deal proposed a power-sharing government that remains unpopular with the public.  Political parties and rebels agreed to form a government with nine members from rebel groups holding cabinet positions.  As part of the peace deal, Seydou Diarra, a representative from the opposition, was sworn in as Prime Minister.  This transition remains incomplete and French troops are still needed to monitor the progress and maintain order.[11]    

 The political unrest and violence have badly damaged the Ivorian cocoa industry.  Cocoa processing and trading companies have shut down, rebel groups disrupt harvests and the transportation of crops.  Violence has killed hundreds of people in the country’s cocoa-growing regions.  With the cocoa industry in shambles, millions of people are left without a way to provide for their families, which only worsens the social and political crisis.  As the primary caretakers and food providers for families in Ivorian society, women bear the brunt of the hardships resulting from the current conflict.

 In Côte d’Ivoire, the Constitution and the law prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.  Ivorian women received the right to vote and stand for election in 1952, and the first Ivorian woman was elected to Parliament in 1965.  The president established the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1976.  In 2001, women held 6 of the 26 ministerial positions in the Cabinet.  There were 5 women justices in the 25-member Supreme Court, and 19 women held seats in the 225-member National Assembly.  In the same year, Henriette Dagri Dibabate served as Secretary General of the Rally of Republicans (RDR), the first woman to lead a political party.[12]

 Despite these gains, women continue to occupy a subordinate position in society.  When families have limited resources to send children to school, boys often receive educational opportunities over girls.  The literacy rate for adult men in Côte d’Ivoire is 55%, while for adult women it is 38%.[13]  Many employers discriminate against women in hiring for jobs because they don’t want to have pregnant workers.  Women seldom meet stringent loan requirements, which makes it difficult for them to start their own businesses or cope with economic hardship.

 The current economic and political crisis also threatens women’s health, safety, and ability to support their family.  Nearly 90% of women who completed a domestic violence survey in 1998 indicated that they had been beaten or struck on at least one occasion.  The law enforcement and judicial systems continue to view spousal abuse as a private, family issue and only intervene when there is serious bodily harm or the victim files an official complaint.  Eighty percent of the million people who have been displaced since the unrest began are women and children.  Forced displacement increases the risk of HIV infection, sexual abuse and exploitation, as women turn to prostitution as a way to provide for their families.[14]

 Ivorian women are mobilizing and organizing in the face of these considerable challenges.  A growing number of non-governmental organizations act as advocates for women, including the Republic Sisters, and the Ivorian Women’s Movement.  The actions of the Ivorian Association for the Defense of Women (AIDF) and Constance Yai, its president, demonstrate how Ivorian women are fighting for justice and equality.  With others, Ms. Yai has traveled throughout the country to educate families about reproductive health.  She organizes community meetings between religious leaders, traditional chieftains, the police, and health care providers to talk about women’s rights.  In 2000, AIDF opened a house for battered girls and wives which reportedly received 18 battered women a week.[15]

 Children are another vulnerable population in the current political and economic upheaval.  In 2001, almost half of Côte d'Ivoire's population was under the age of 18.  Seventeen percent of Ivorian infants have low birth weight, and the infant mortality rate is 175.[16]  In the United States, 7.7% of babies have low birth weight[17] and the infant mortality rate is 6.9[18].  Roughly 200,000 children throughout the Côte d’Ivoire live on the street.[19]

 According to government statistics, 57 percent of school-age children in Côte d'Ivoire attended primary school in the 2000-2001 academic year.[20]  Sixty-seven percent of male children are enrolled in primary school, compared with 50% of female children.[21]  The current violence in the country has severely affected children's access to education and some schools have closed down completely.  Since the renewal of the political violence in mid-September 2002, an estimated 1 million primary school students in Côte d'Ivoire have had their schooling interrupted.[22]

 With families struggling to survive and earn a living, children are often put to work to help provide for the family.  Many children in urban areas sell goods on the street.  Forced child labor is a problem in the farming sector.  Approximately 15,000 children between the ages of 9 and 12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee and cocoa plantations in Côte d'Ivoire.[23]  International advocates have cited the cocoa industry in particular for its abuse of children.  Children working on cocoa farms perform difficult and dangerous tasks, like applying pesticides and using machetes to harvest the cocoa.  They work 12-hour days, are separated from their families and are sometimes not paid.  The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture found that only 34% of children working on Côte d'Ivoire's cocoa farms attended school, while 64% of those not working on cocoa farms were in school.[24]

 The AIDS epidemic is fast unraveling the fabric of Ivorian society.  Around 10% of the population is infected with the HIV virus.[25]  Roughly 400,000 Ivorian women are living with HIV/AIDS.  In 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of death for adult men in Cote d'Ivoire and the second leading cause of death for adult women.[26]  Families caring for HIV/AIDS-infected patients spent 80% of their health care costs on medical care for the relative with HIV/AIDS.  HIV/AIDS expenses once took up 11% of Cote d'Ivoire public health system budget.[27]  From 1996-1998, 67% of Ivorian teachers' deaths were HIV-related.[28]  AIDS-related deaths have reduced the pool of agricultural workers, shrinking the volume of crop harvests and the amount of land under cultivation.  The number of children under age 14 orphaned by AIDS is 420,000.[29]  Teachers have been taken out of classrooms, farmers out of the fields, and parents away from their children, all fallen casualties of the country's AIDS epidemic.  The spread of HIV/AIDS threatens to further weaken a society already in severe economic and political crisis.  In the context of the current conflict, Côte d’Ivoire faces a long struggle to reestablish peace and prosperity.

 Like many developing countries, Côte d’Ivoire is burdened with millions of dollars in debt repayments that it must make to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank every year.  In 2001, the value of Côte d’Ivoire’s Gross Domestic Product was $10.4 billion.  For the same year, the value of its total outstanding debt was $10.6 billion and it made around $898 million in debt repayments. [30]  For Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) like Côte d’Ivoire, such repayments take away vital resources that could instead be used to improve schools, provide access to clean water, or fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 


·  Get each member of your unit to send a post card or call their congressional representatives urging them to vote for full authorization of  H.R. 1298, the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003.  Full authorization of the legislation would appropriate $15 billion to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria over a 5-year period, with $3 billion in 2004.  Remind your members of Congress to keep their promise to people suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa.

        U.S. Senate Switchboard: (202) 224-3121
U.S. House of Representatives Switchboard: (202) 225-3121

        Office of (Your Senator’s Name)           Office of (Your Representative’s Name)
United States Senate                                 United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20510                         Washington, D.C. 20515

Mara Vanderslice
Jubliee USA Network
222 East Capitol Street, NE
Washington, DC 20003
 (202) 783-3566 - Phone

June 2003


[1] BBC News, Country Profile: Ivory Coast.

[2] Background Note: Cote d’Ivoire,” U.S. Department of State.  November 2001.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Human Rights Watch, Ivory Coast Country Report 2001.

[6] Institute for Security Studies, Cote d’Ivoire – History and Politics.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Background Note: Cote d’Ivoire,” U.S. Department of State.

[10] Amnesty International, The Wire, Cote d’Ivoire hit by turbulent times, December 2002.

[11] BBC News, Timeline: Ivory Coast.

[12] “Country Report on Human Rights Practices - 2001,” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, March 2002,.

[13] “Key indicators for children and women in Ivory Coast: SOWCR, 2003”, UNICEF.

[14] “UNICEF Humanitarian Action: Côte d’Ivoire Sub-Regional Crisis,” UNICEF, January 24, 2003.

[15] “Country Report on Human Rights Practices,” U.S. Department of State.

[16] “Key indicators for children and women in Ivory Coast: SOWCR, 2003”, UNICEF.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Infant Mortality”, National Center for Health Statistics.

[19] “Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Côte d’Ivoire”, U.S. Department of State.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Key indicators for children and women in Ivory Coast: SOWCR, 2003”, UNICEF.

[22] “Back to School for Thousands of Displaced Children in Ivory Coast,” Kent Page, UNICEF.

[23] "The Chocolate Industry: Slavery Lurking Behind the Sweetness," Global Exchange.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Country Profile: Cote d'Ivoire”, UN Development Programme,

[26] "Economic Impact of AIDS in Cote d'Ivoire," The POLICY Project, Lori Bollinger, John Stover, and Benjamin Zanou, September 1999, p. 4.

[27] Ibid, p. 7

[28] “Côte d’Ivoire: HIV/AIDS epidemiological summary,” African Development Forum., October 2000.

[29] “Key indicators for children and women in Ivory Coast: SOWCR, 2003”, UNICEF.

[30] “Côte d’Ivoire Data Profile,” The World Bank Group.

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