The Ivory Coast: Le Folklore, La Prospérité: The French Influence Hangs Heavily Over This Former Colony, but the Ivory Coast Has Shrewdly Exploited Foreign Investment, and Its Own Fertile Land, to Build the Fastest Growing Economy in Africa

The French influence hangs heavily over this former colony, but the Ivory Coast has shrewdly exploited foreign investment, and its own fertile land, to build the fastest growing economy in Africa.

On the northern border of the Ivory Coast, where the country is still dry, one can see men leading herds of white humpbacked cattle down the centers of sleepy roads. A hundred miles to the south, where the land starts to turn green with rain and money, the herdsmen—who have come from the Ivory Coast’s inland neighbors, Mali and Upper Volta—now walk on the side of the roads, winding their herds around the bulldozers and paving gangs, the buses and pineapple trucks. One hundred and fifty miles farther down to the sea, at the great capital port of Abidjan, the cattlemen’s journey comes to an end. There the animals mill dustily, awaiting slaughter in treeless fields between the airport highway and the flare of the oil refinery, while the nomads lean on their staves and talk of prices.

The herders make the long trip because they are sensible businessmen. Prices are higher and demand for beef is greater in Abidjan than in the poorer countries of the Sahel from which they come. The cattlemen are not alone. Since the early 1960s, foreign labor has poured into the country’s productive plantations and, to a lesser extent, into its factories. By 1974, as a nine-year drought drove more Sahelians to the south, over 80 percent of the laborers in the Ivory Coast’s agricultural sector and one third of the workers in industry were foreign Africans. By 1977, it was estimated that of the Ivory Coast’s 7.3 million people, 2 million were originally from other African countries.

The laborers come by truckloads to cut cane at the giant Ferkéssédougou sugar plantation, and to work in the palm oil plantings and timber regions of the southern forest, Even the smaller Ivoirian-owned family farms that grow the country’s cocoa and coffee are often manned by foreigners.

Most of the laborers come for several years, but some of them come for a season. The young men of the Dogon, the anthropologically celebrated cliffdwellers of Mali, leave their own onion and millet fields in the hot, rainless spring and go south to the Ivory Coast. There they can earn $600 or $700 in a season and return across the border with smuggled radios, bicycles, and cans of cooking oil under the seats of their trucks.

The bicycles, the radios, and the oil are cheaper and in better supply in the Ivory Coast. It is a country awash with goods. The money comes from the land. There is no oil in the Ivory Coast (though promising offshore deposits have recently been discovered) and no major mining. But practically everything that can grow, does. The country is the world’s third leading coffee exporter and has become first in cocoa (in part thanks to beans smuggled in from Ghana, its troubled eastern neighbor). The forests of the southwest and the modern port of San Pedro make it a principal supplier of timber to Europe. Most striking on a continent of singlecrop economies, the Ivory Coast has successfully diversified its agriculture since it achieved independence in 1960. The drier northern part of the country now produces some sugar, and the region’s red dirt roads are lined with dusty balls of cotton spilled from trucks headed for the coast. The southern part has become Africa’s leading exporter of pineapples and bananas.

The country has welcomed foreign investment and trade, and Americans have not been slow in taking advantage of the opportunities. While the American political presence—centered in the Embassy on Jesse Owens Drive—has been low-key, deferring to the postcolonial prerogatives of the French, American companies have not been as diffident. After France, the United States is the Ivory Coast’s most important trading partner, and more than sixty U.S. firms now operate in the country.

American businessmen surveyed recently were enthusiastic. The Ivory Coast was “the best country in Africa.” Executives cited the “stable, supportive” political climate, the government guarantees of remittances of profits and capital. Labor unions were found to be “reasonable” or, less euphemistically, “very tame.” Bribery was said to be not nearly as serious a problem as elsewhere on the continent.

Some American firms, such as Union Carbide, manufacture in the country; others, such as Caterpillar, Goodyear, General Electric, and Price Waterhouse, have regional headquarters for West Africa in Abidjan. Even though Nigeria’s population and oil receipts make that country by far the largest market in the region, Abidjan is a much more pleasant place to work from than Nigeria’s Lagos—a city so chaotic that it terrifies most Nigerians, let alone foreigners. (Besides, there’s an ice skating rink in Abidjan.)

American-based international banks have also shared in the boom. Morgan Guaranty Trust, Chase Manhattan, and Bank of America have substantial participation in Ivoirian banks. Citibank is especially committed to the country, and in 1976 led a twenty-nine country consortium in providing a $140 million loan—the largest credit ever to a black African country—to the Ivory Coast.

This richest and most quickly developing country in Francophone West Africa can boast of paved roads, television, concrete houses, running water, magically fertile soil, and a trade balance to make economists proud. Everyone should therefore be happy, but not everyone is. And it is not only the foreign African workers, laboring for wages that are attractive only by comparison with the bleak prospects at home, who have cause for discontent. Witness the peculiar events of last December’s Independence Day.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny—“le vieux” — the Ivory Coast’s strong-minded president, was to celebrate the December 7 holiday in the provincial town of Séguéla. Each year a different town hosts the Independence Day festivities and receives a gift from the central government—a new hospital or waterworks, at the least an official guesthouse for the president. The celebration therefore becomes a showpiece of the government’s —and the president’s—effort to spread the bounty of development evenhandedly.

But in the days before the holiday last year, pamphlets were distributed on the streets and in the cafés of the country’s two largest cities—Abidjan and Bouaké. The handbills predicted a “bloodbath” on Independence Day and demanded the ouster from the country of the French—the managers and technical assistants who control so much of the country’s economic life—and the Lebanese—the Middle Eastern immigrants who play a large role in Ivoirian commerce.

The printed threats, coupled with a number of incidents of “banditry” in elegant residential sections of Abidjan during the weeks before, were enough to scare the French community. After expatriate personnel threatened to stop work, police patrols were increased around the large French technical school in the capital. Paratroops flown in the night before Independence Day beefed up the country’s regular French military presence, already substantial. On the holiday itself, the French stayed off the streets and in their houses.

But in fact nothing happened, not in the capital nor in the provinces. As the French emerged from behind their locked shutters, they were still nervous. One of the technical assistants—or “coopérants,” as they are called —suggested to me that Houphouët-Boigny had staged the whole thing “just to show how tough he is.” On the other hand, the Ivoirians were not impressed by the skittishness of the French. An Ivoirian official told the Paris-based journal Jeune Afrique: “This isn’t the first time the whites have panicked. . . . It’s only necessary for a shot to be fired somewhere in Africa and the whites are terrorized and threatening to pack their bags.”

Houphouët-Boigny himself let loose a tirade a week after the holiday. Although it was nominally a call for “calm and serenity,” he spent most of his time castigating the “mean spirits,” the “individuals of bad faith,” the “impenitent detractors” who were behind the leaflets. He vowed that he would deal harshly with any future disorders. Most significant, he gave a hint of the large reserves of xenophobia in the Ivory Coast. It was disgruntled Ivoirians, he said, under the pernicious influence of French leftists, who were responsible for the trouble. He also indicted unruly Lebanese, who —Houphouët-Boigny suggested—weren’t very good at managing their own country.

Neither the government nor the French came out of the affair with much dignity. It was a disquieting demonstration of the tensions between the groups on whose compromise of interests the Ivory Coast’s economic success is based. The French, quite simply, were scared. They were acting, only too obviously, like people who feel guilty. And in the minds of some Ivoirians, there is plenty for the French to feel guilty about. For if the bottom rungs of the economic ladder are filled with African immigrants, the top are reserved for the French.

The French presence in the country, both in money and in manpower, is overwhelming. While agriculture, the main engine of the economy, is largely owned by Ivoirians (pineapples and bananas are important exceptions), the giant timber sector, the dominant interest in industry, and much of commerce are in the hands of the French. There are perhaps 60,000 French working in the Ivory Coast, six times more than in the days when the country was a French colony. They dominate management positions, both public and private, play an important role as teachers, and are represented throughout nearly all government ministries. The World Bank has estimated that expatriates, predominantly French, hold more than 80 percent of the jobs in occupations requiring a university education, 60 percent of the jobs requiring upper-secondary training, and nearly a third of those requiring a lower-secondary background.

Frenchmen are everywhere, and they are well paid. In the agricultural sector, non-African salaries are twenty times the average payment to Africans. In services and government the non-Africans’ earnings average five times those of Africans. Even in the same job classifications non-Africans can earn two to three times as much as their local counterparts. The coopérants, the technical assistants, form an increasingly large group, their number approaching 5000. Since the French contribution to the coopérants’ support is fixed, their salaries are a growing burden on the Ivoirians. The largest drain on the Ivory Coast’s reserves of foreign exchange, enough in most years to wipe out the country’s favorable trade balance, comes from foreigners sending their earnings abroad.

Life is pleasant for the French. At Christmastime, evergreens and Beaujolais are flown into the capital. Even in the smaller provincial towns the expatriate community will gather at a local inn and linger in long discussions with the French patronne over the relative ripeness of the Brie and Camembert. Vacation tourism in the Ivory Coast is growing—there were 140,000 visitors in 1977 and the country has its own Club Méditerranée—but a large part of the tourist industry caters to the local French who escape to beach or hill resorts from Abidjan.

I spent Christmas with some French families in a vacation village high in the green mountains that spill over the Guinea border around the town of Man. The hotel we were in is based on a celebration of le folklore, the distanced, slightly sugared French enchantment with African culture that hovers somewhere between Lévi-Strauss and Walt Disney. Guests stay in simple cement huts sprinkled among the similar houses of the real villagers. On their way to the pool they walk among the cookfires of the Ivoirians and return in the dark stumbling over stray goats. This is all quite intentional. The hotel’s brochure informs visitors that they will be able to picnic with the elders and “chat with the villagers.” Much as tourists in East Africa are supposed to keep an eye peeled for Grévy’s zebra, here the lucky guest may in the morning see a mother—“or perhaps an older sister”—bathing the younger children.

For Christmas Eve the hotel management had prepared special delicacies— oysters, white sausage, a Bûche de Noël— the traditional elements of a holiday réveillon. But since it was still the Ivory Coast, they had also arranged for un peu de folklore—elevenand twelveyear-old girls to dance at poolside during cocktails. The children performed a circumcision celebration dance and some of the more enthusiastic European spectators got up to frug to the drumbeats. But when the moon rose the dancers vanished; the few Ivoirians left, were waiters. At the stroke of midnight a French carol sang from the loudspeaker. The couples stood, then embraced in the light of the glittering Christmas tree.

Most of the French, like the majority of the immigrant African workers, are creatures of passage. Some work in the Ivory Coast as a way of fulfilling their military service obligation to their own government. But the nearly twice as many Lebanese, the traditional middlemen of Francophone West Africa, are more likely to settle in for the long haul, and they cannot as easily establish such retreats for themselves as the mountain hotels and cafés of the French. Their economic position, though generally prosperous, is precarious. Like the Indians and Pakistanis of the former British colonies of East Africa, the Lebanese have occupied those positions in the economy that require comparatively small amounts of capital. Distribution, transport, shopkeeping, and light industry: these are precisely the activities that an Ivoirian middle class might covet as a way of entering the economic life of their own country. Unlike the French, the Lebanese haven’t the prestige and sanction of being former colonial rulers. So while they are not necessarily more conniving or corrupt than the French or Ivoirians, they are more easily exposed to blame.

Still, as long as the Ivory Coast’s prosperity holds, there is a place, however uneasy, for the Lebanese in the country—though the uneasiness can go to poignant, extremes. In Abidjan a young Lebanese man eating ice cream heard my American English and introduced himself. He was, it turned out, from Calgary, Alberta. After college in Canada he had tried to run a real-estate office and then a hairdressing shop; both of them were failures. A family connection had shipped him out of the snow to the Ivory Coast, where two of his uncles work as coffee and cacao dealers about 100 kilometers outside of Abidjan.

A true western Canadian, he spoke no French, and the uncles—through Arabic—had to interpret the outside world for their nephew. The older men were doing comfortably, they admitted, even though times were no longer like the old days when they had sold coffee for ten times the price they had paid the Ivoirian farmers. Government regulation had trimmed the margin, but they still had their business and life was good. Just where the nephew would fit in was less clear. He spoke longingly of snow, American cars, and cash on hand. “Things are terribly expensive here,” he said, “but with $40,000 you could make a lot of money.” He didn’t have it, and while his uncles were paying for the ice cream, they did not seem inclined to come up with the capital. The nephew was not sure whether he would stay in Africa, nor did he know where he could go. Scanning the streets for a main chance, fearful that all Ivoirians were out to rob him, after less than a month in the country he had developed an urban variant of dépaysement—the frightened disorientation French explorers felt when they had wandered too long in the West African savannah.

The Lebanese are not alone in their uncertainty. No foreign partner in the Ivoirian polity has much justification for confidence. The French still wield enormous economic authority, but there are increasing limits to their profits and their power. In January, Jacques Raphael-Leygues, France’s ambassador to the Ivory Coast, retired on account of age. A staunch Gaullist, he had served in his post since 1963, and had presided over the heyday of French economic power. Close friends, he and Houphouët-Boigny had adjoining villas in Abidjan’s plush Cocody district. His leaving, and the increasingly serious calls by the government for the Ivoirianization of management, may be signs that the era of unrestricted French activity is coming to an end.

The African immigrant farm workers also have cause for concern. Though they still have their jobs, their already low wages are falling in relation to those earned in other areas of the economy and in the face of the growing Ivoirian inflation, which last year was close to 20 percent. Both poor and foreign, the workers, who privately complain of police harassment and shakedowns by officials, are at the mercy of political and economic decisions over which they have no control.

Still, as the false alarms of December demonstrate, it is perhaps too easy to be edgy about the Ivory Coast. For more than twenty-five years the country has grown richer, faster and more steadily than any other country on the continent. As long as that prosperity continues, one might reason that the tensions between the various groups will be muted. The foreigners, there on the sufferance of their Ivoirian hosts, will still be able to get their shares—the French their profits, the African immigrants their jobs, the Lebanese their sales—and will be unlikely to rock the boat.

For the Ivoirians themselves, the picture is a little more complicated. Although the country has been moving toward self-sufficiency in food, the prices of staples have soared recently. Educated Ivoirians are finding jobs increasingly difficult to come by. Uncertain about their future, they develop the edginess, the “complex,” that many foreigners who live in the country notice, and perhaps provoke. For all the impressive growth statistics, the country still depends on foreign labor, foreign capital, and foreign markets for its crops. When Europe’s economy is sluggish, as it recently has been, Europeans buy less timber and fewer pineapples, and no amount of planning by the Ivoirian technocrats and their French coopérants can do much about it. The slackened European demand and falling crop prices have cut the expected growth rate in 1979 down to 2 or 3 percent.

Problems of distribution must, also be faced. Much of what rural Ivoirians have reaped from development has come at second hand, filtered through the public sector. This is what one sees along the roads of the Ivory Coast, and the roads themselves are no small part of it. Since independence, HouphouëtBoigny’s government has spent huge amounts of money on schools, hospitals, housing, roads, and electricity.

But the spending doesn’t always seem to work. The World Bank estimates that the Ivory Coast allots more of its budget to schools than any other country in the world. Yet the rapid expansion of education has largely meant clinging to the often dimly relevant French curricula and a surprising reliance on television.

The primary school system is built around TV. The hills that missionaries regarded as impressive sites for churches now support relay towers. Even schools that do not have TV sets employ teaching materials designed for television lessons. The use of TV, the fact that education is free, and the still heavy dependence on expatriate teachers make education phenomenally expensive. The cost per student is perhaps double that in most other African countries. As the first generation of TVtrained students prepares to take exams in the next year or two, many Ivoirians are deeply skeptical about the quality of the education being received.

Like the education system, government housing suffers from being French and expensive. While spending has been heavy, much of the investment has gone into giant and primarily urban projects which have often imported the bleakest aspects of suburban Paris. The high cost of public housing has priced needier Ivoirians out of the projects, even with subsidized rents.

The government has also spent freely throughout the various regions of the Ivory Coast, but there as well, big spending has not proved a panacea. Giant projects such as the Ferkéssédougou sugar plant provide a comparatively small number of jobs for their immense cost. In spite of special programs, the western and northern regions of the country still lag far behind the forest districts. The per capita income in Odienné, in the drier northwest section, is barely one fifth that of Abidjan.

Charitably, the Ivory Coast’s public spending, despite its limits, is continuing proof of the government’s good faith in trying to distribute evenly the rewards of development. Uncharitably, it is an attempt to buy off discontent and postpone unrest through a showy cosmeticism. In any event, the spending cannot go on forever. Foreign funds finance many of the projects, money borrowed on increasingly hard terms. Between 1970 and 1976, the country’s outstanding external public debt more than quadrupled to well over a billion U.S. dollars. Then, in 1977 and 1978, it soared to $3.8 billion. The rising debt, high domestic inflation, drops in coffee and cocoa prices, and a sag in exports in the face of European economic troubles finally forced cutbacks in public works and construction spending last year. This no doubt delighted the austerity police of the international financial community, who have often called for such restraint. But to an Ivoirian government that has long skillfully dispensed boons, it is the removal of an effective buffer to dissent and a demonstration of the fragility of the “Ivoirian miracle.”

The image of that fragility that lingers longest in the visitor’s mind is, crazily enough, the fragility of fenders, the shattering of glass. The Ivory Coast is a land of desperate traffic jams and spectacular accidents. In Abidjan, where so much is foreign, coming in or going out to the rest of the world, there is a frantic straining of men and material that often horribly get in each other’s way. “Too many accidents,” an old man told me. “Every day someone dies.” African and European, everyone talks about the perils of traffic, and a best-selling book in the country is Les Dangers de la Circulation, a cartoon pamphlet that tries to warn country folk how not to get run over in the city.

Upcountry in Yamoussoukro, though, the traffic is no problem, perhaps because it is a town built for traffic. Its straight broad avenues are lined with nearly a score of motels and gas stations, scrubbed, shining, and practically all empty. Yamoussoukro is the president’s hometown. If Houphouët-Boigny is the Ivory Coast’s George Washington—and both men sprang from the same kind of exportwealthy planter class—then this is his Mount Vernon. The president has a palace here: an immense, round, glistening white palace that looks like a Viennese pastry cook’s idea of a spaceship. It sits surrounded by acres of foliage and cement-lined canals, the whole estate enclosed by giant walls perhaps ten feet thick, broken only by massive gates that gleam gold in the tropical sun.

To a Westerner, Houphouët-Boigny’s castle seems a building waiting for attack. There is something almost tauntingly anti-insurrectionary about the mammoth guarded wall, the nearmoats, the straight, broad streets. It is architecture made to be defended, like the capitals of post-Napoleonic Europe. To an African, though, it may be something different, impressive despite or perhaps because of its non-Africanness. “Everybody says Houphouet has sold the Ivory Coast to the French,” an Ivoirian told me, “but really he is the only black man who knows how to use the whites. For years we blacks built houses for the French. But Houphouët, he had the whites build his house for him.”

In fact the danger facing Yamoussoukro is probably not that the showplace will go up in insurrectionary flames but that it will become a ghost town, a symbol of overextension like Fatehpur Sikri, the great Mogul city that was abandoned after fifty years because no one saw fit to make sure there was enough water for the palaces. Dependent upon the poverty of its neighbors for its labor force, dependent upon European prosperity for the cash to keep it going and the demand for its crops, the Ivory Coast can seem unreal and artificial. But the water towers, the phone lines, the modern well pumps and smooth tarmac, are real enough. They are there on the ground, as they are not in the Ivory Coast’s poorer neighbors. The country has made a habit of resisting prophecies of doom.

There is, inevitably, the question of political transition. “Does le vieux have a right to die?” asks a letter to a West African editor. The seventy-three-yearold Houphouët-Boigny, though he still tightly controls government power, is beginning to draw younger men into the ruling circle of the Parti Democratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). This year he permitted younger technocrats to challenge incumbents for mayoral offices, even where, as in Abidjan and Bouaké, the incumbent mayors were longtime associates of the president.

But worries about succession, a constant Western preoccupation in Africa, are probably exaggerated. The case of Kenya—in many ways the prosperous East African counterpart of the Ivory Coast—may be instructive. There, despite almost universal predictions of bloodshed and chaos, the government whirred smoothly on after Jomo Kenyatta’s death. It did so because there had grown up a new class of propertied Kenyans whose overwhelming imperative was to keep making money, and who as a class were large enough and powerful enough to keep things stable. The same process may take place in the Ivory Coast.

Ultimately, the question is what the new generation of Ivoirians will be able to make of the economic machine that is their country, whether they will be able—and whether the world economy will permit them —to keep the Ivoirian miracle alive. The Ivory Coast has worked its land well and opened its arms to foreign investment and expertise. It has used government less as a regulator or equalizer than as a genial steward of the boom economy, the eager builder of roads for the export-laden trucks to roll on. The next years will show whether such a country, which has diligently played by capitalist rules, can make it, or whether the game is rigged and the promises of the economists are only an enticing illusion.



Ben Rathbun writes frequently from Washington about labor and economic affairs.

George H. Rosen is a free-lance writer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.