The Hidden Threat to Africa's Most Promising Economy

Stephen Rakowski
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst, Stratfor
9 MINS READFeb 22, 2017 | 09:30 GMT
The Hidden Threat to Africa’s Most Promising Economy
Despite its newfound prosperity, Ivory Coast is still grappling with the effects of a conflict that ended half a decade ago.
(SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Despite years of impressive economic growth, Ivory Coast will need to enact sweeping reforms within its military to prevent its burgeoning democracy from backsliding.
  • But these reforms will be exceedingly difficult for the government to make, constrained as it is by its historical reliance on the country's powerful former rebel commanders.
  • In the absence of the much-needed overhaul, Ivory Coast's next presidential election in 2020 could become an outlet for greater unrest. 

Mutinies aren't unheard of in Ivory Coast, but lately they have become much more common within the country's persistently underfunded military. Since Jan. 6, a spate of revolts has broken out among Ivorian forces, temporarily wreaking havoc in at least 10 cities across the West African country. The latest bout of unrest, which began on Feb. 7, even involved members of an elite special operations unit. Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara has tried to placate the renegade troops by meeting some of their demands, but his acquiescence has only spurred new claims and public airing of grievances from other parts of the military. The unrest offers a rare glimpse into the deeper structural issues plaguing Africa's fastest-growing economy that, if left unaddressed, could threaten the country's stability ahead of its next presidential election in 2020.

A Decades-Old System Comes Crashing Down

Ivory Coast's current troubles date back to the early 1990s, a period of great change for the West African nation. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Ivory Coast had relied on investment from Paris to keep its economic, political and security structures up and running. (In 1980, for instance, the country had more than three times the number of French residents that it had as a French colony.) The state's longtime president and founding father, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, even gave France a near-monopoly in almost every sector of the Ivorian economy in exchange for Paris' security guarantees. With a large and permanent French force protecting his reign, the president was able to limit the Ivorian army to a small force incapable of challenging his rule.

This system survived for decades, enduring even the initial shock of a slow economic decline that began in the 1980s. After a two-decade boom fueled by coffee and cocoa exports, the crash of cocoa prices exposed the frailty of Ivorian growth, and in 1987 the country was forced to claim insolvency. But though this turn of events weakened the president's hand, Houphouet-Boigny proved able to deftly maintain his vast patronage system, suppressing dissatisfaction among the ranks of the ruling elite.

It wasn't until the end of the Cold War — and of Houphouet-Boigny's reign — that things began to change. France's willingness to continue bolstering the Ivorian state waned alongside the threat of communism and as the generation of African and French leaders dedicated to maintaining the friendship between Paris and its former colonies (known as l’amitie franco-africain) died out. Not long after, the death of Houphouet-Boigny removed the primary personality on which the Ivorian political system had been built, leaving a void that would have been nearly impossible for any successor to fill.

It came as no surprise when Henri Konan Bedie struggled to govern the divided country after he stepped into the presidency in 1993. His comparative lack of prestige — after all, he couldn't make the same claim to fame as the country's founder — and inability to balance Houphouet-Boigny's patronage network forced him to rely on his ethnic base for support. Over time, this gave rise to misguided policies such as "Ivorieness," which widely came to be associated with xenophobia and targeted the large immigrant populations that resided in the country's Muslim-majority north.

Even so, the system that Houphouet-Boigny had built and maintained for three decades lasted another six years. But on Dec. 24, 1999, a group of soldiers demanding compensation and back pay for their time in the U.N. Mission in the Central African Republic mutinied. When Bedie refused to acknowledge the troops' grievances, they overthrew him, ushering in a period of instability that would last for more than a decade.

A Divided Military

The collapse of Houphouet-Boigny's system exposed the deep rifts spanning Ivorian society, particularly the one separating the mostly Christian south from the Muslim and immigrant north. These tensions only worsened when President Laurent Gbagbo took office in 2000. Gbagbo, a fierce rival of Houphouet-Boigny, did not trust certain factions of the military that he had accused of trying to spearhead an aborted coup in 2001. Those soldiers eventually went into self-exile in Burkina Faso, laying the groundwork for a burgeoning movement against the controversial president's increasingly contested rule.

With the furtive help of Burkina Faso's government, the banished military leaders established the New Forces in 2002 and gradually took control of Ivory Coast's northern territories, resulting in the de facto partition of the country. Their conflict with the Gbagbo administration came to a head in the wake of Ivorian elections in 2010 when, under highly dubious circumstances, the incumbent president claimed victory over his rival, Ouattara. As a former high-ranking International Monetary Fund official and Ivorian prime minister, Ouattara had become a symbol of northern interests and had close ties to the New Forces based there. When Gbagbo refused to cede victory to his competitor, the country sank into crisis. Amid the New Forces' calls for Ouattara to assume the presidency, the international community began to weigh in on the matter, giving France the opening it needed to intervene to dislodge the president. Gbagbo's power slowly crumbled until he was captured by rebel forces in 2011, allowing Ouattara to take charge of the country.

The rise of the Ouattara administration ushered in an era of significant economic progress. Since 2012, the Ivorian gross domestic product has grown by an average of 9 percent each year, thanks to strong performances in industries such as cocoa and cashew production, infrastructure and telecommunications. Its success has earned high praise from international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, plus a hike in foreign investment into the country's promising economy.

Nevertheless, Ivory Coast is still grappling with the effects of a conflict that ended half a decade ago. Ouattara's rise to power rested, at least in part, on the strength of the New Forces — influence that the group's powerful former commanders are reluctant to give up. Even now, reports suggest that several of the New Forces' old leaders control illegal gold mining operations and weapons caches large enough to allow them to challenge the Ivorian military.

The Treacherous Path to Reform

This is the context within which the Ivorian government has had difficulty bringing the military under its control. After the Ivorian conflict ended in 2011, the government integrated the New Forces and its leaders into the military. Though necessary at the time, since the Ouattara administration needed to be able to count on the trustworthiness of the armed forces, the move sowed the seeds of this year's mutinies. Old troops aligned with the ousted Gbagbo mixed with new ones faithful to his successor, and the military quickly became a mishmash of groups with competing interests and conflicting loyalties. Several commanders have reportedly ignored Ouattara's commands to disarm, instead using their political and military might to enrich themselves and their followers. As a result, the perception has grown among soldiers that the gains of the country's newfound prosperity are being funneled to a small group of elites. Ouattara's attempt to negotiate with mutinying factions, albeit in good faith, has simply reinforced the belief among dissatisfied units that rebelling is the only way to ensure that their demands are taken seriously.

Ouattara is certainly in a tricky situation. Over the past five years or so, Ouattara has adopted sound fiscal policies and enacted several political reforms, including the creation of a vice presidency and a Senate, that are designed to provide greater stability to the Ivorian state. But this progress — while remarkable — hasn't had much of an impact on most segments of society, including the military's lower ranks. Moreover, many of these reforms could be undone in the years ahead by fragmented forces that don't wholly answer to civilian leaders.

As it stands, the military and security services are not subject to the same checks and balances that other government institutions are. Only two New Forces commanders, for example, have been indicted by Ivorian authorities for the crimes committed during the political crisis of 2011. But even they remain in their posts today, underscoring their power and the clout of their protectors while highlighting the lack of enforcement mechanisms for civilian oversight channels.

This dangerous dynamic could pose a profound threat to Ouattara's legacy and Ivorian democracy. To keep the country on track, politically and economically, the president will have to push through some difficult changes to the security sector. But so far, the disarmament of militias and the professionalization of the armed forces have lagged. At the end of January, for instance, two former rebel commanders accused of running illicit mining operations, amassing sizable stockpiles of weapons and committing crimes during the country's political crisis were promoted during a reshuffle of the military and gendarmerie.

This is the context within which the Ivorian government has had difficulty bringing the military under its control.

If an overhaul of the security services does not materialize, the possibility of a contentious presidential election in 2020 cannot be ruled out. With Ouattara planning to step aside, military factions hoping to protect their own interests might throw their weight behind different candidates, setting the stage for a heated battle to control the next administration. Should this happen, it will call into question the notion that Ivorian democracy is improving, perhaps even inciting violence if military elements believe their favored candidates lost unfairly. For example, Guillaume Soro — a former New Forces commander and the current president of the National Assembly — maintains strong ties to his old comrades. If he chooses to run for office, he could whip up substantial support from former New Forces units that have been absorbed into the fractious Ivorian military.

The Ivorian economy has made great strides in recent years, progress that has been complimented by Ouattara's firm leadership and successful political reforms. But the president's attempt to strike a balance between favoring his longtime supporters and undertaking necessary security reforms is becoming more difficult by the day. And if Ouattara fails to rein in the power of his former allies before the next election, his country could sink back into the instability it is striving to leave behind.

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