Abidjan/My Life Undone. (Christmas Eve 1999)

a paper I wrote a very long time ago – about 4 years ago. No pictures, soundtrack or animation, but with your imagination applied, the imagery should suffice. Enjoy!


It sounded like fireworks. It smelt like fireworks. The noises that surrounded the cacophony resembled cheers, but I, at a delicious part of a dream and in the epitome of my coziness, was not quite ready to wake up. I was not particularly excited about Christmas, and therefore was lackadaisical about Christmas Eve and the associated celebrations. My mother and I had no concrete plans, though we had a buffet of lunch and dinner engagements to choose from. In that mind state and in the depth of my sleep, my judgment was impaired and I could not put two and two together. The noises, at first, were distant, but as the wee hours of the morning progressed, I was weaned out of my sleep like a child off the breast as the sounds encroached more definitively. It became plain as the nose on your face that something was not right. I couldn’t here the habitual noises of birds chirping, neighbors honking their horns and rushing to work.

When I came down to the kitchen to find out what was going on, the Baoule maid we had, Susan, told me that, “les militairies arrivent!” She went on to explain, somewhat enthusiastically, how things were about to change and everything that was wrong with the country would soon be better. As our house was located on a hill, I decided to go to the gate to see if there was anything that I could catch a glimpse of to help myself be au fait with the coup. The night watchman we had, Emile, was Burkinabe and I was surprised to see his bicycle still parked in the garage. When I got to the gate he was sitting on his chair with some of his peers from neighboring houses and they were all huddled around his transistor radio following the unfolding coup.  They all had uneasy expressions on their faces and all seemed to be wondering about their wives and children. As early as that first day, they were aware of the ethnic elements of what was going on and how their immigrant status was going to be an even bigger handicap. Looking out into the horizon, I could see smoke rising in the distance around the suburbs of Deux Plateau and Cocody, but I never really saw actual bombs propelled in the air. I decided to go back inside and check if my mother was awake and as I entered her room she was slightly startled. She was rummaging through paperwork and I caught a glimpse of my passport on her bed along with my immunization records. She was on the phone, I later found out, with the US embassy organizing for a possible evacuation of US citizens. I asked her what would happen to her if I left as she was not a citizen. She told me that they would not take her but the African Development Bank, that she worked for, was already planning a way to remove expatriates if a worst case scenario were to occur.

Typically in the four years that I lived in Cote d’Ivoire the Christmas holiday was one where I did not travel out of the country as the short break was reserved for relaxation and the occasional excursion somewhere into the interior of the country. I, like most Africans, reserved the right to remain on the continent where the spirit of Christmas is more heartfelt, especially because of the fact that everybody makes it a time to come together, rich or poor, to celebrate. The Christmas of 1999 was extremely boring though as my mother was overwhelmed with a workload and there really wasn’t much holiday spirit around. I knew that the most I would be doing was going to church with my mother as that Christmas day was supposed to fall on a Saturday. The events of the morning of December 24, however changed all that as there was suddenly a lot more going on. In hindsight it was the most adventurous holiday of my time in the Ivory Coast.

Some were saying it was the beginning of the end, whilst others were saying it was the end of a beautiful beginning for a country that had been a hub of peace for several decades in a region that was characterized by civil unrest, military uprisings and general instability. Whatever the case was, the stage was set for this country to fall to the plight of most of its neighbors. There is no truer saying in understanding why Ivory Coast became what it is than, “You don’t know where you’re going ‘til you know where you been.” The roots of all this came from past politics, economics and the social issue of ethnicity. One has to understand the relations the country had with European countries and how those, before and after independence, created a situation where the dormant volcano that was Cote d’Ivoire experienced enough friction to eventually erupt in what was the eventful day of December 24, 1999.

The French first landed on the shores of Cote d’Ivoire around 1637. Missionaries were sent to the coast of Assinie Mafia. In the 18th century, the territory was invaded by two related ethnicities from Ghana, the Agnis and the Baoules, that settled in the southeast and the central regions respectively. Almost two centuries after their arrival, the French signed treaties with the local chiefs, which would grant them sole control of the territory. France’s interest in the territory became more serious in the 1840’s. Between 1843 and 1844, the kings of the Grand Bassam and Assinie regions came under the protective wings of a French protectorate as proposed by Admiral Bouet-Williaumez. There was an abundance of opportunities in Cote d’Ivoire that could strengthen the French economy. Hence, a combination of French missionaries, trading companies and soldiers gradually expanded their area of control inland from the coastal areas leading to France declaring it an official colony in 1893. The colony was led by Captain Binger as the first governor and is attributed with having negotiated the countries borders with Liberia and the United Kingdom for the borders with Ghana, then the Gold Coast.

Despite the seemingly passive description above, there was a significant amount of resistance from many of the ethnic groups from the region. The Madinka people were a force to reckon with as there was a struggle between them and the French led by Chief Almony Samory until 1898. Most of the Madinka forces were from The Gambia. Another source of instability was the many sub-ethnicities that were already in the region. It was not until 1915 that a complete conquest was accomplished and the French had some semblance of peace with all the feuding groups. Their main goal was to stimulate the production of goods such as coffee, cacao, palm oil and pineapple. All of the labor force was comprised of local people who were subjected to a forced labor system with the French having sole control of the operations and production. Forced labor workers were also to work on the construction of a railroad system, which was designed to facilitate the transportation of the goods from the interior of the country to the coastal areas where they would be shipped to Europe. The forced labor workers were therefore the backbone of this economy, but took no part in the decisions made nor did they reap the benefits of their fruitful work. The reality of this situation was manifested upon a visit to a Nestle factory in the industrial district of Abidjan and later a cocoa plantation in the year 1999. It was saddening to realize the impracticality or irrelevance of some economic practices and remnants from colonialization. Most of the factory or plantation workers, however hard they may toil, had never tasted a chocolate bar, in whose creation they are the first and most essential step.

During this period, the French built schools in order to instill European values into the indigenous population. The locals were to send their children to the schools so they can receive an education. The system was supervised and administered by the Protestant church whose missionaries where the ones instructing local populations. The locals were forced to abandon their culture, tradition, and their values. It was forbidden for a local to speak his native tongue, especially in school. Those who stood against the rules set by the colonizers where beaten. The local population then had no choice but to abandon beliefs and lifestyle and wear the vest set by the colons. There was mandatory elementary school attendance for young children in villages to be educated. When they reached the secondary or high school level, they were sent to Dakar, in Senegal. After having completed their high school education, those that excelled academically beyond their counterparts were sent to France where they received higher education in French Universities.

The French maintained their practice of indirect rule by administering many aspects of life in their territories, of which Cote d’Ivoire was a part of. The Federation of French West Africa was administered from Paris and it was not until the end of World War II that this stopped. The French Third Republic wanted all the people in their territories to be “associated” and this was done by denying them of rights in France and in Africa – they basically had the privilege of being associated with the continent, yet were denied any rights. Ivory Coast was important to France in World War II, along with the other federated territories because they provided man power that proved essential to some of the victories. The year 1946 brought significant changes in the administration of the territories. Charles de Gaulle’s Fourth Republic took over from Vichy’s Third in 1943 and the Brazzaville Conference was organized in 1944 to grant “subjects” French citizenship, allow politicking and abolish some forms of forced labor as a token of appreciation for the contributions in WWII. The Loi Cadre of 1956 was the biggest change in relations between Cote d’Ivoire and France because it handed power over to some of the newly formed governments in the colonies.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny was born on October 18th 1905 in Yamoussoukro. He descended from a rich chieftain family that owned a large cocoa and coffee plantation. After having completed his studies in Dakar, he went to France where he attended university. After having completed his studies, he practiced medicine from 1925 to 1940. Boigny was a strong advocate for agricultural development and that was a trade whose value he adopted from the French model of agricultural strength. He first got involved with politics in 1944 when he lobbied for improved trade conditions for African farmers by forming the Syndicat Agricole Africain. He later entered government services and was elected chairman of the African Democratic Rally in 1946. He rose to prominence and founded a multi national party, The Rassemblement Democratique Africain, which advocated for independence from European colonial powers. He also represented his home territory in the French National Assembly in a stint that lasted from 1946 to1959 and was a minister for several years [in the French Government]. The Ivory Coast’s first semblance of sovereignty came at the end of 1958 after all the members of the Federation, except Guinea, voted on a referendum to become autonomous republics. In 1959 Boigny became prime minister of the colonial government and later became the first president of the newly independent republic of Cote d’Ivoire when independence was gained in 1960, August 7.

Houphouet-Boigny was repeatedly elected president of the country for 30 years in the row. This was in large due to the fact that there were no legal opposition parties. It is however very important to note the fact that over these thirty years, Côte d’Ivoire grew to be the most stable and prosperous country in West Africa. It was a beacon of success for all the surrounding Francophone West African nations to follow as Houphouet was admired as having freed the entire region. He did this by encouraging economic and political cooperation amongst nations whilst promoting non-intervention in the dealings of fellow members of the Council of the Entente. Many attributed this growth to the fact that the father of the nation, Felix Houphouet-Boigny was a strong and politically moderated individual. Unlike its neighbor Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire maintained strong ties with France, the old colonial power. Houphouet-Boigny believed that maintaining these ties with France would benefit the country, which it did for many years. Coming from an agricultural background, Houphouet-Boigny encouraged farmers by giving them good prices for their products. Cote d’Ivoire was then the most prosperous French West African country. The country contributed to over 40% of the region total export. By 1979, the country was the world largest producer of cocoa and the third producer of coffee worldwide. To add to that, the country became Africa’s leading exporter of pineapple and palm oil.

In the years following the end of the colonial era, Cote d’Ivoire, unlike any other Western African country, was witnessing a large increase in the number of French. There were mostly teachers and financial advisors. The French saw in Cote d’Ivoire the land of opportunity and wanted to settle and make an investment out of it. The French were not the only one to migrate to Cote d’Ivoire. There were a lot of people from neighboring countries. In the post-colonial area, there has a great vague of migration from countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. They migrated in Cote d’Ivoire where most of them found employment in the coffee and cocoa plantation. They really helped the agricultural level, because they alone constituted more than half of the work force. After the harvest, many of them did not return to their homelands, they instead settle and infiltrated the general populace to which they were an integral part. There were also people coming from Ghana and some even from Senegal. To all eyes, Cote d’Ivoire was the land of opportunity and promoted hospitality.

The first coup that rattled Cote d’Ivoire was on December 24, 1999 and nobody could have seen it coming. Because of the close ties maintained with France, Ivory Coast maintained stability for most of the proceeding decades after Independence compared to neighbors who had undergone their fair shares of political instability and uprisings since their independences. The President at the time, Henri Konan Bedie, had a little difficulty during his presidency as the prices for major export crops were falling and there were some mismanagement rumors within his administration. Some of the frustrations stemming from that are what led to the coup. Robert Guei was summoned to lead the coup and his leadership stemmed from things in his career. He was a proud supporter of Houphouet Boigny and had served as chief of military, but was not so fond of Bedie. In one incident he refused to mobilize forces in a small scuffle between Bedie and an opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara. From that demonstration of resistance he was fired and relieved of his military duties in 1997.

The first elections after that “bloodless” coup were scheduled for the fall (October) of 2000. Guei was defeated by his opponent Laurent Gbagbo of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI). The only other serious contender was Alassane Ouattara but he was disqualified on grounds of not being completely Ivorian since he had some northern and Burkinabe roots through his parents. Although Guei’s political ambitions did not seem serious at the time of the coup, he seemed to have had a change of heart as he went about dissolving the electoral commission and declared himself the winner. The coup was “bloodless” until this point. Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters flocked the streets protesting the results and they clashed with Guei’s junta forces. That was when the first blood was drawn in what had, until that point, been seen as a peaceful coup. At this point all the political parties were united against the wolf as Gbagbo’s FPI, Alassane’s RDR and Bedie’s PDCI temporarily joined forces. The storm was over when Alassane finally recognized the president and called for peace.

When the coup happened in the early morning hours of that Friday, Robert Guei was requested to lead the forces and the movement, basically taking out of his “retirement”. A government was quickly formed along with a new constitution that was approved by the population the following summer. The new constitution was supposed to promote unity, but unfortunately it retained some aspects maintaining the divisions between the Christian south and the Muslim and mostly immigrant north. In the time that Gen. Robert Guei was “president” there were several uprisings in the streets of Abidjan, but those were quickly quelled. There was also an assassination attempt, supposedly headed by Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivorien. With all the associated turmoil that ensued after the constitutional change and the elections, Guei fled to ………… It was clear that Gbagbo had won the elections as ministers and even key military members like Capt. Henri Cesar Sama were urging for his arrest. The Prime Minister, Seydou Elimane Diarra, also backed the election results and therefore felt that the rightful leader of the nation was Laurent Gbagbo. Clearly support for Guei was waning.

Some of the factors that lead to an escalation of tensions leading to the eventual explosion that was December 24, 1999. One of the most important things to recognize and understand is the ethnic dichotomy and the diversity found in the country. In the time of Houphouet Boigny, there was a liberal immigration policy that encouraged and allowed for the rampant immigration of people from the surrounding countries of Guinea, Mali and especially Burkina Faso. From pre-colonial times all of the more than 100 ethnic groups found in the region were closely related and interactive. Within those tribes there were religious divisions with the North being predominantly Muslim and immigrant and the south being Christian. A large portion of the Ivorian population traces its lineage to Burkina Faso as far back as two generations. This group of people constituted a little more than a quarter of the entire population, but in the time of Henri Konan Bedie, there was a term called “Ivoirite” that was coined as a means of excluding the north and all those with any immigrant ties.

Concurrently with the rising ethnic tensions there was rising unemployment and that led to a lot of the immigrant labor forces from Abidjan moving back into the interior in the hopes of finding employment in agriculture.  There already was a history of ethnic violent outbursts in the interior, but this seemed to escalate it as the Betes, Baoules and Lobys now had to cope with the influx of Burkinabes now looking for opportunities in agriculture when they were having their own complications amongst themselves. When Guei introduced the new constitution prior to the October 2000 elections, on of the edicts required that both parents of a candidate must be born in the Ivory Coast, and the candidate himself, in order to be eligible for candidacy. Alassane Outtara, whose father was born near the border with Burkina Faso, represented the interests a large portion of the population who were either themselves recent immigrants or whose parents were and so the rule automatically questioned the citizenship of people who until that point had been assumed to be.


United States of America. Bureau of African Affairs. Department of State. Background Note: Cote d’Ivoire. Oct. 2006. 3 May 2007 <http://www.state.gov&gt;.

Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. The Associated Press. “Guei Flees as Ivory Coast Government Ministers Back Opposition.” CNN.ComNewsNet 25 Oct. 2000. 04 May 2007 <http://archives.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/africa/10/25/ivory.coast.02/index.html&gt;.

Zavis, Alexandra. “Political Change Leads to Bloodshed on Ivory Coast.” The   Philadelphia Tribune 3 Nov. 2000: 5c. Ethnic Newswatch. Proquest. College Park. 4 May 2007. Keyword: Ivory Coast coup.

“Regional Ethnic Diffusion, State Authoritarianism and the Crisis of Post-Reconstruction in Cote D’Ivoire.” Journal of Third World Studies 23 (2006): 189-202. Academic    Search Alumni Edition. EBSCO. McKeldin, College Park. 2 May 2007 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost&gt;.

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