Ivory Coast resurgent in peacetime

By James Copnall
BBC News, Abidjan

  • Published
Fireworks light up night sky over Abidjan cityscapeImage source, AFP
Image caption,
Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan has bounced back after an extended period of peace

For many years, Ivory Coast was a byword for instability. From the 1999 coup, to the outbreak of civil war in 2002, to the violence after the 2010 elections, the West African state went through a prolonged crisis.

But recent news from the country has been much more positive: with peace has come impressive growth, making it one of the world's fastest growing economies.

Abidjan always had style, even when I was living here at the height of the civil war a decade ago.

There's something about the combination of palm trees and skyscrapers, their neon lights reflected in the city's lagoon like shimmering promises, that gets even the most prosaic soul soaring.

The cityscape has been compared to Manhattan, or - like many a town in Francophone Africa - the French capital: Petit Paris, they called it.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The world's leading producer of cocoa is now manufacturing more chocolate in-country

Over the years Abidjan has been a magnet for chancers, dreamers and those looking for a better life - from Ivory Coast and all over West Africa.

Even on its worst days, when gunshots echoed around the streets near the presidential palace, or the smoke from burning tyres stained the horizon, Abidjan maintained a sort of put-upon glamour, like a film star living in drastically reduced circumstances, determined not to let the indignity show.

Those violent times are over, at least for now, and they have been replaced by an economic boom. The country has been at peace for five years, and since then GDP growth has averaged 9% a year.

You can hear the burgeoning economic confidence in the patter of investment fund managers, laying out the new pan-African opportunities radiating in and out of Ivory Coast's economic capital.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A new bridge has improved Abidjan's notoriously bad traffic

You can taste it in the high-end restaurants in the Plateau, the central business district, where you can munch a crocodile carpaccio or the tenderest of steaks - at a cost, of course.

You can see it in the refurbished Hotel Ivoire, a building once symbolic of the country's decay, now restored to its full glory, or in the new bridge across the lagoon, a toll highway of business-like concrete.

I found the changes in Abidjan most striking on one of the old bridges. A decade ago, soldiers would set up roadblocks here as night fell.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
President Ouattara (R) has overseen a period of enviable economic growth

Men in uniform would ask drivers for "something to drink" - a bribe of a dollar or so. It was an unofficial toll booth, with the money extracted by fear.

At the time, I tried to work out how much cash disappeared into military pockets, and concluded it would be impossible to get rid of these roadblocks. Who would dare?

Well, I was wrong about that. They have been removed, and traffic now flows uninterrupted across the bridge.

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The economic growth is a direct result of political stability. The president is supported by the country's two biggest parties, and most foreign countries.

The opposition is weak, and divided. I watched a few dozen people gather to protest against a constitutional referendum.

They held banners saying they were tired of ADO, as President Alasanne Dramane Ouattara is known.

A man ranted that the president was a foreigner, an old xenophobic line straight out of the crisis years, when Mr Ouattara was excluded from political life because his opponents claimed he wasn't fully Ivorian.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Forces loyal to Mr Ouattara helped enforce his 2010 election win

Later the protesters were dispersed with tear gas, but there were so few of them it hardly seemed worth the riot police's time.

The referendum was won by a landslide, although many doubted the official voter turnout of over 42%.

The president's political domination, following two election victories, is real. It is also buttressed by the state.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Abidjan has recovered its status as one of West Africa's most cosmopolitan cities

National television devotes much of its news bulletin to the president and his activities, even though Mr Ouattara used to complain about exactly this kind of lop-sided coverage when he was in opposition.

The president also wants to merge the two biggest political parties, which seems like a backward step towards the single party rule the country knew for its first few decades after winning independence in 1960.

Perhaps more seriously, ADO is accused of practising victor's justice: his military allies, who put him in power after former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his electoral defeat, have not been held to account for their crimes during the conflict.

Meanwhile, Mr Gbagbo is on trial at the International Criminal Court.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Economic development has been slow to reach rural areas

The president's supporters assert that the country is stable, and the economy is soaring. But most of the investment has been concentrated in Abidjan, leaving many elsewhere in the country frustrated.

It's easy enough to find that sentiment in the big city too. On referendum day, I wandered around Abobo, a poor neighbourhood of Abidjan which gave almost unconditional support to Mr Ouattara during the war years. The roads were pot-holed, with rubbish piled up.

Young men played football on the street with a punctured rubber ball. A junior official from Mr Ouattara's party took me aside.

"There's no progress," he complained.

Image caption,
Mamadou Traore's house in a poor area of Abidjan was destroyed. He voted for Mr Ouattara but is now disillusioned

"There's no security. It's filthy, it's disordered. The people in charge should resign. It's humiliating to live here."

He didn't blame the president, but he did wonder why the neighbourhood's loyalty had not been rewarded.

With the chaos and misery of the crisis years left behind, further progress in Ivory Coast seems like a good bet.

But the country will surely only fully take off when everyone feels they have a stake in the game.