The end of the 19th century saw West Africa joining the family of the world’s cocoa-producing areas. The first West African cocoa growing began on the islands of Sao Tomé and Principe, located in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Even though the international community had banned slavery in the 1870s, the colonial Portuguese living on these islands were actively purchasing and using slaves from Angola well into the 20th century. This story was exposed by a trial against Cadbury, a Quaker-owned company, which claimed that the chocolate company, known for its social activism, was knowingly producing chocolate from beans picked by slaves (Satre, 2005.)
Cocoa was introduced to continental Africa when a Ghanaian laborer, Tetteh Quarshie, returning in 1876 from six years working on another island, Fernando Po, secreted under pain of death some unfermented cocoa beans in his clothing and brought them to his family’s farm in Mampong, Ghana (Anonymous, 2006A.) This was the period known as the Scramble for Africa, when, shortly after the Berlin Conference of 1885, sub-Saharan Africa was broken up among the French, British, Belgians, and Germans (Hochschild, 1998). The French were anxious to develop their holdings. At the time, Côte d’Ivoire was blanketed with forest and roamed by bands of elephants. The first cocoa plantations appeared in the eastern zones, but cocoa culture moved west as rainfall diminished and the soils lost their fertility.
Côte d’Ivoire rapidly developed into a major grower of cocoa and coffee. Today, it is the fourth largest grower of coffee in the world and it produces 43% of the world’s cocoa. French citizens living in Côte d’Ivoire were encouraged to establish plantations and because of the need for intensive labor to care for the trees and process the cocoa pods, they used forced labor. This lasted until the Second World War (Anonymous, 2006B.)
Many Ivorians elected to join the cash economy and a class of smallholders, cocoa farmers tending 5-20 acres, developed. In order to compete with the French plantation owners who were using forced labor, the smallholders encouraged the immigration of Burkinabé from Burkina Faso. Last August, a Burkinabé cocoa farmer interviewed in Batteguedea, Côte d’Ivoire, stated that his grandfather came to the Daloa area from Burkina Faso at the turn of the 19th century (Ouedrago, J.B., 2005). During this period, different ethnicities began to live in neighboring villages, although rarely together in one village.
In 1932, Félix Houphouët Boigny, a young doctor who would eventually become president, cut his political eye-teeth by defending small African cocoa planters against the appropriation of land by the large French plantation owners. He also fought against other unfair political treatment by the French colonialists of the Ivorian farmers. In 1944, Houphouët-Boigny created an agricultural union, the SAA and in 1946, he became the first African member of the French Assemblée Nationale. In 1958, he was appointed First Minister of Côte d’Ivoire, and as a close ally of President Charles de Gaulle, he declared the country’s independence from France in 1960 and assumed the presidency. During his subsequent 32 years in power, Houphouët-Boigny was the odd African leader, working with the former colonial power instead of choosing the more popular socialist route. His rightward leanings caused resentment among other African leaders, but it also led to rapid economic development—especially during the 1960s and 1970s, when Côte d’Ivroire was called the Ivorian Miracle, and Abidjan was referred to as the Paris of Africa. In response to the criticisms of other African leaders, who, during the time of the Cold War, were playing the First World off against the Second World, Houphouët-Boigny maintained very close relations with the Mother Country, even going so far as to build a tunnel from his residence to that of the French ambassador and maintaining a government within a government by employing French in critical positions. Responding to criticism of his chumminess to the West, he is reported to have said, “Let’s each of us do his experiment, each respecting the other’s approach, and then in ten years, let’s compare the results.” (Hofnung, 2005). In the short-term, Houphouët-Boigny won.
Despite his Baoulé origins, Félix Houphouët-Boigny did not favor those of his ethnic background. Instead, he saw the advantages of opening his country to immigration: he encouraged French and Lebanese immigration as well as Burkinabé from neighboring Burkina-Faso. Houphouët-Boigny also understood the importance of the cocoa-coffee sector of the Ivorian economy. To maintain its viability, he established the Caistab, or caisse de stabilization, an account that was used by the government to maintain consistent farmgate prices. During the 1980s, however, the world price of both coffee and cocoa sank to historic lows and stayed at those levels. This bankrupted the Caistab and made Côte d’Ivoire susceptible to the dictates of the World Bank, which loaned money on conditions that countries liberalize their financial institutions. At this point, Côte d’Ivoire began a steady economic decline.
The last years of Houphouët-Boigny’s term saw a rapid erosion of his power and of the economy of Côte d’Ivoire. He died in the middle of his term and the President of the National Assembly, Henri Konan Bédié, finished it. In reaction to the substantial influx of “foreigners” during the Houphouët-Boigny years and the rising discontent over the country’s economic woes, Bédié introduced the concept of Ivoirité, and differentiated between biologically pure Ivorians and those of “doubtful origin”. This allowed the government to distract its citizens from certain governmental failing, putting the limelight on people from the north.
Since then, Ivoirité has also been used by others -- by General Robert Gueï, who deposed Bédié, by Laurent Gbagbo, the current president, and by the Supreme Court, which ruled that Alassane Ouattara, a presidential candidate from the northern part of Côte d’Ivoire could not assume such a role because of his non-Ivoirian parentage. It was Ivoirité that led to the schism between north and south. On February 19, 2002, the country was torn into two halves—the northern portion which is primarily Muslim and the southern portion, which is partly Christian and partly Muslim. A further downward spiral happened on December 7, 2004, when the Ivoirian military launched assaults on French soldiers in Bouake and in Abidjan. Two military jets launched rockets and killed 9 French soldiers and an American citizen on a humanitarian mission-- apparently on orders from the highest levels of government. Blé Goudé, a young Ivoirian who commands the Jeunes Patriotes, also said to be following orders of President Gbagbo, led an uprising against the country’s remaining 8,000 French. Crying “To each his Frenchman”, people who had lived in Côte d’Ivoire for their entire lives were forced to the airport and to leave the country forever. Today, very few French remain, although French companies still run the electric infrastructure, the cell phone network, and the water.
The vacuum created by the French has been partially filled by the Lebanese, who have purchased many formerly French properties; it is said that more than half of the high-rises in Abidjan are now Lebanese-owned.
The Ivorian Miracle was therefore a mirage (Hugeux, V., 2004). The standard of living has plummeted. The once prosperous Côte d’Ivoire now ranks 163 out of 177 in the UN Human Development Index. The average life expectancy is 42. (Almberg, 2005).
Côte d’Ivoire is at a crossroads: will it succumb to chaos, sucked into a whirlpool of ethnic hatreds, destroyed, like some galaxies, by its own gravitational forces? Or, will it, with the help of the world community, use reason and pragmatism to embark on the path of unification politically and economically in order to break the spiralling downward trend?
The answer to this question is being written daily. On the positive side, Côte d’Ivoire is blessed with a highly educated electorate. The newspapers of this country maintain a high standard of professionalism. The infrastructure is still good, better than that of Ghana. But on the negative side, ethnic hatreds still simmer below the surface. Although many Ivoirians complain about the cynical use of Ivoirité, there are still people in high places who seem to hold unity second to their own personal political ambitions.