Ivory Coast - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section Ivory Coast: the Bradt Guide

The 2010 election crisis and the second civil war

After the first conflict, Gbagbo came under increasing international pressure to hold free and fair elections. Originally scheduled for 2008, they eventually took place in October and November 2010. Ouattara and Gbagbo exchanged allegations of fraud while their supporters intimidated and fought one another. One of the worst incidents was an army raid on an RDR campaign office in Abidjan that left eight activists dead.

On 2 December Youssouf Bakayako, the independent electoral commissioner, announced the results of the election from the safety of the UN-guarded Golf Hotel. Ouattara had won a slight majority with 54.1% to Gbagbo’s 45.9%. The pro-Gbagbo President of the Constitutional Council then declaimed on national TV that the results were invalid because they had been announced after the agreed deadline. Under Ivorian law at that time, the Constitutional Council had the right to make the final decision in the event of an electoral disagreement such as this. Finally sick of Gbagbo’s wayward and unreliable approach, France – along with the international community – called for Ouattara to be sworn in, but Gbagbo wasn’t going quietly.

What followed was a dreadful orgy of violence that, in a matter of months, would surpass the horrors of all four years of the first civil war. Gun- and grenade-fights broke out across the country and the security forces in Abidjan mowed down nonviolent demonstrators. Xenophobia masked as anti-imperialism resurfaced when the Young Patriots and associated groups looted foreign-owned shops and UN offices. Gbagbo hired Liberian mercenaries to gang rape women and summarily execute men thought to be Ouattara supporters. By the time a full-blown war between north and south had begun in March 2011, some 450,000 Ivorians had been displaced overseas.

With French and UN support, the FN quickly seized control of most of Ivory Coast, but in doing so committed some of the worst atrocities of the conflict. Shortly after the intense two-day battle for the city of Duékoué, a mass grave was discovered suggesting that as many as 3,000 men, women and children had been slaughtered by Ouattara’s forces. By April, the rebels had arrived in Abidjan. They laid siege to the presidential palace and, on 11 April, broke inside and apprehended Gbagbo. Some commentators doubt this official line, claiming instead that French special forces did the deed. At any rate, many Ivorians were shocked when the International Criminal Court announced that it would be trying Gbagbo and his top apparatchiks for war crimes, especially given that Ouattara had – and still has – many questions to answer about the conduct of his own armed forces.

Natural history

Ivory Coast’s natural environment falls into two broad categories. Many of the places described in the north section of this book lie in the savannah region, a plateau of sandy- and lateric-soiled pastures capped by sparse to moderate vegetation. Ubiquitous here are karité, bouquet-shaped flowering trees whose oily seeds are extracted to make shea butter, a vital ingredient in cosmetics, dermatological medicines and certain kinds of cooking oils. Further south, centuries of deforestation may have severely reduced the size of the tropical woodlands, but a rich variety of fl ora can still be found in national parks such as Taï in the far west, Azagny on the southwest coast and Banco. All these reserves are protected by law from poaching, logging and settler encroachment. Just before the first civil war, the government outlawed the export of raw logs, set aside 17% of the country for conservation and sponsored re-planting in the south and southwest. Particularly in the case of Taï National Park, the conflict put a sudden stop to these measures, but since stability was regained the Ouattara regime has begun to prioritise the environment once again. The OIPR (Ivorian Office of Parks and Nature Reserves) is now working with international organisations such as WCF (World Chimpanzee Federation) and IBREAM (Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals) to ensure that Ivory Coast’s biodiversity endures.

Monkey Ivory Coast by Alex Sebley© Alex Sebley 

Poaching, logging, poor transport links, the legacy of the civil war and administrative indifference are probably the five main reasons why Ivory Coast can’t now compete with, say, Kenya’s or South Africa’s wildlife viewing opportunities. That being said, the national parks are home to around 230 species of mammal and 252 species of bird. Any visit is bound to yield at least some wildlife sightings.

The name ‘Ivory Coast’ is not as suggestive as it once was, given that the big-eared African elephant population is now in the low hundreds, though you might get very lucky and spot one in the wild in Taï or Azagny national parks. It’s a bitter irony that the world’s largest and strongest land animals have been so easily annihilated by far smaller beings, first by European ivory hunters in the 16th–18th centuries then by the poachers and soldiers of the 20th century. The country’s second largest mammal is the hippopotamus, which divides its time between dry land and water. It’s possible to travel  out to certain points on the River Sassandra and see and hear these brutes cooling off in the mud or poking their heads out of the water’s surface. Taï is home to one of the world’s last populations of pygmy hippopotami.

People and culture

Music

Music pervades all aspects of Ivorian life. It’s played and performed everywhere – on buses, trains, beaches and football pitches, and in bars, restaurants, workplaces and the tiniest village squares. Those new to the country are often surprised at how readily stone-cold sober people will get up and dance with flamboyant abandon, not a hang-up in sight. One reason for this may be that music and dance are as old as the oldest African societies, and they have always meant more than mere entertainment. They are essential means of self-expression and used to mark births, deaths, marriages, harvests and other momentous events.

Arts and crafts

Whatever social upheavals have befallen Ivorian society, its arts and crafts scene has always remained vital, fecund and significant. Hand-made, -painted and -varnished with indigenous materials, Dan and Senoufo masks are typically stylised and fantastical, while Baoulé masks tend towards realism. All over the land, gorgeous wooden figures are hewn from ebony, fromager, acacia, bois de veine and other locally-growing trees.

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