Côte d'Ivoire: Progress, Regress, and the Constant Threat of Violent Turmoil

The country has made fragile, too-easily-reversible advances since its descent into chaos nearly two years ago.

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Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara waves from his vehicle as he greets residents during a visit to Man, in western Ivory Coast, on April 21st, 2012. (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

"I have come to seek your advice and your blessing." So said the Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, as he met Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City on Friday. Ouattara could do with some counsel. On Wednesday, he dissolved his government, apparently placing Côte d'Ivoire's precarious political stability in jeopardy. Meanwhile, yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report accusing his army of abuses of power, including the arbitrary arrest and torture of civilians.

The dissolution of the government stems from a proposed change to the country's marriage law, which treats the man as the head of household. Ouattara's RDR party wants to amend the law to grant wives equal rights to their husbands. The amendment was sent to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday where members of the PDCI, the second-largest party in the coalition government, opposed it. Unimpressed, Ouattara dissolved the government later that day citing, as an RDR spokesperson carefully phrased it, a "problem of solidarity within the alliance."

The president is impatient to build on the progress the country has made in the 18 months since he took control. He came to power following a violent stand-off as former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept that he lost the presidential election toward the end of 2010. During the four month post-electoral crisis, more than 3,000 people were killed and over a million people displaced. Thanks in part to a French military intervention, Ouattara was finally installed as president in April 2011, and Gbagbo was handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The country's worsening security situation, which has deteriorated badly since August, will be much more difficult to resolve.

With a stable government in control, security has improved and most of those displaced by the post-election violence have returned to their homes. Meanwhile, the economic recovery has been remarkable. After a decade of neglect, the dilapidated transport and energy infrastructure are being repaired and enhanced. Roads are being built and access to electricity is being extended. International allies have given their financial backing to Ouattara and debt relief has cut the country's debt to less than half the level it was at in 2010.

Ouattara, a former IMF economist, has pushed through long-overdue reforms, improving the business environment and making the country more attractive to international investors. Multinationals, previously deterred by political instability, are eager to get involved and a string of multi-million dollar deals were announced in the first half of 2012. The agriculture sector is booming; the country supplies 40 percent of the world's cocoa, and other soft commodities are growing strongly. Export earnings from coffee, palm oil, and cashew nuts are all up. As a result, the economy will grow at a rapid 8 percent this year, and the outlook is potentially even rosier. Companies are keen to do more agro-processing in Côte d'Ivoire, which offers a good base to export from, as well as strong local demand from its 20 million-strong population. This would create more jobs by adding value to products, rather than exporting raw commodities.

The events of the past week threaten to undermine all of this economic progress. The split between the RDR and the PDCI was ostensibly about the marriage law, but the rift runs deeper. They have not been comfortable allies since the coalition was formed in April and have had several significant disagreements. Yet despite dissolving the government after only six months, Ouattara is in a strong position. The RDR party won an outright majority in the legislative election in December, taking 54 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. He decided to form a coalition with the PDCI, which took 34 percent of the seats, partly as a reward for their support for him in the presidential election, but also because he wanted to broaden his base of support. He could cut the PDCI loose and still enjoy a majority in the National Assembly.

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Joseph Lake is a New York-based member of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Sub-Saharan Africa team.

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