Ivory Coast: Conflict Profile

After gaining independence from France in 1960, the Ivory Coast fell under one-party rule by the charismatic and totalitarian leader, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Despite having officially handed over power, the French retained strong ties with Boigny and ensured the country’s protection against external aggression with the signing of the April 1961 Defence Agreement. For a time, the Ivory Coast flourished, both economically and politically, and Boigny was hailed as a leader capable of maintaining ethnic unity and political stability in the country. He kept the military and security sector in check by limiting their size, giving them ample pay, ensuring officers were given senior civilian positions in state-run companies and providing a counter-weight against the army with the paramilitary gendarmerie force. He also balanced the competing interests of the Ivory Coast’s political elite by maintaining a system of ethnic group quotas in government positions and relying on his personal style of patronage politics, often called le modèle houphouetiste.



By the 1970s, the Ivory Coast was the largest producer of cocoa in the world, and benefitted economically from a wealth of diamonds in the North and the export of a number of other primary commodities. A large number of foreign workers, coming from Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Senegal and several other countries, entered the Ivory Coast to help provide cheap labour in these and other industries, while an influx of Lebanese began to thrive in industry and commerce. Many of the immigrants settled in the country with Boigny’s blessing and received citizenship. They were further encouraged by a new land tenure policy, first announced by Boigny in 1963, that allowed immigrants to gain ownership of the land they worked. They continued to do well in the Ivory Coast’s favourable economic climate, especially in comparison to the situation in some of its neighbours, which were descending into ethnic and political disorder.

However, when the global price of cocoa began to drop in the late 1980s, the Ivory Coast’s heavy reliance on primary commodities led to a series of serious economic setbacks. The resulting economic recession, which manifested itself in increasing unemployment and drops in income, began to escalate tensions between several groups, particularly in the cocoa-producing regions in the west of the country. A pro-democracy movement soon saw students and other activists taking to the streets in large demonstrations, with Boigny increasingly using force against them in an attempt to hang onto his decreasing grip on power. National and international condemnation of these attacks forced Boigny to hold multi-party elections in 1990, with Laurent Gbagbo of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) as his main opponent. Boigny gained 85% of the vote in what were widely labelled as grossly unfair elections. The last three years of the Boigny regime, before his death in 1993, saw increasing disorder and more brutal clampdowns from the police and army factions. Following his death, Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara and President of the National Assembly Henri Konan Bédie argued over who should succeed Boigny in the Presidency, with both coveting the position. Constitutional decrees named Bédie as the successor, and so Bédie took over the position as President until an election could be held.

Bédie was able to manipulate parts of the population using xenophobic political policies

During this period, rising unemployment had forced some of the urban population to return to rural farms and villages, but many found that the land had become worked by immigrants or first- and second-generation citizens. This resulted in feelings of marginalization among some groups and rising anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly among local populations in the west. Capitalizing on this discontent for political gain, Bédie introduced increasingly xenophobic political policies, particularly the concept of ‘Ivoirité’ (‘Ivoirianess’), which distinguished between ‘real’ citizens and the ‘foreigners’ from the north and from neighbouring countries. Using this concept of Ivoirité, Bédie was able to pass a law requiring that any Presidential candidate must have both parents born within Côte d’Ivoire. This measure effectively excluded Ouattara, Bédie’s main opponent from the north of the country who was suspected of having Burkinabe heritage, from the 1995 elections and increased civil tensions. Bédie was further accused of poor governance and internal corruption, leading to the suspension of economic aid from the IMF and World Bank in 1998.

In the armed forces, the new Bédie government soon began replacing soldiers with technocrats in coveted positions, leading to feelings of marginalization among some previously high-ranking senior officers. This resentment led army chief of staff General Robert Guéï to defy President Bédie’s requests to intervene in popular demonstrations against the government, resulting in his removal from power. Bédie began promoting officers from his own Baoulé ethnic group to key posts, while sidelining army officers of other backgrounds who had worked their way through the Boigny regime, effectively dividing the army and creating major tensions among the ranks. Junior officers from the excluded groups allied with some frustrated senior officers, including former General Guéï, and mutinied against Bédie, overthrowing him in 1999. Guéï promised that new elections would be held the following year, initially stating that he would not run himself. However, after several months he began consolidating power, excluding political opponents, and announced his candidacy for the presidency, a move that angered many who saw him as plotting the coup for his own purposes.

Photo credit: Sunset Parkerpix

Presidential elections were held on 22 October 2000. The Rally of the Republicans (RDR) and Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) boycotted the elections due to the exclusions of Alassane Ouattara and Emile Constant Bombet by Supreme Court decree, leaving Laurent Gbagbo as the major opposition to Guéï. Gbagbo was widely cited as the winner with some 59.4% of the vote, but Guéï refused to leave office, claiming to be the rightful winner. Massive popular protests ensued and, with the help of a primarily Gbagbo-loyal gendarmerie, Guéï fled and Gbagbo was brought into power.

The marginalisation of certain aspects of the security sector continued under the new regime
The exclusion of northerners in the government and the security sector continued under the new Gbagbo regime, increasing grievances and feelings of marginalization among these groups. In September 2002, junior officers fearing greater marginalisation following new reform programs led a coup attempt. On the first night of the uprising, former General Guéï was killed under disputed circumstances. The insurgent groups came together to form the Forces Nouvelles (FN), led by Guillaume Soro, and quickly gained control of the northern 60 percent of the country, effectively splitting the country in two. Over the next few years, the conflict would frequently be described as being ethnically and regionally based, pitting the Christian southern government against Muslim northern rebels, who were accused of receiving financial support and supplies from neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

The Ivorian government and many other African countries called on France to intervene to stop the new rebel group, citing their previous defence agreements. The French initially refused, claiming that the agreements only applied to external attack, but eventually intervened to slow the rebel advance on Abidjan. By October 2002, as fighting continued, Senegal’s foreign minister attempted to hold tentative talks with the rebel groups, who demanded the overthrow of the government and called for new elections to be held. Amidst the fighting, the price of cocoa had fallen to a 16 year low and the humanitarian crisis began to deepen, as more than 10,000 people fled their homes. Many international aid agencies voiced concern that the war could soon spread to neighbouring countries. A cycle of violence and retaliation followed, and although several ceasefires were ordered, most were not adhered to.

In January 2003, the Linas-Marcoussis peace accords were signed, officially freezing the conflict and creating a national unity government that would give nine rebel leaders seats in the cabinet. However, the accords were not accepted by many parties, who either viewed the rebels as gaining too many concessions or who still wished to see Gbagbo ousted. Violence continued to flare up throughout the country, while the disarmament programme and the expulsion of foreign fighters in the north proved exceedingly problematic. In February 2004, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1528, authorizing the creation of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI).

By November 2004 the peace accords were in complete disarray

In September 2004, the UN peacekeepers and French soldiers handed over responsibility for security of the created peace line to ‘mixed brigades’ composed of ten FN rebels, ten loyalist gendarmes and four UN Police each. However, by November the peace accords were in complete disarray and Gbagbo’s government began bombing supposed rebel bases in the north, claiming they were accumulating weapons, one also made by the rebels against the government forces. A French base was bombed by Gbagbo’s forces, killing nine French soldiers and one aid worker. The French responded by attacking the capital’s airport and destroying the majority, if not all, of the Ivoirian air force. The pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots militia began rallying against the French, precipitating violent looting and rioting, while clashes between the French and Ivoirian troops ensued. This resulted in many foreigners, mostly Europeans, fleeing or being evacuated from the country to escape the violence. At this point, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the country.

Following further peace talks and the Pretoria agreement in April 2005, the UN mission began implementing part of the mandate for security sector reform, training an initial 600 FN Security Auxiliaries into the national security system, even though the parties had yet to reach an agreement on the number and ranks that would be integrated or an official restructuring program for the national army. Presidential elections that were originally scheduled for 2005 were repeatedly postponed until October 2010, as key components of the peace agreement had not yet been met. During this period, sporadic violence continued throughout the country, including massacres in the western regions.

Political manipulations painted the conflict as ethnic, even though in reality, the population was heavily mixed
In November 2006, the FN created their own police and gendarmerie to patrol their controlled areas, while recruitment to the national police and army factions continued, mainly from ethnic groups favourable to Gbagbo. The national police and gendarmerie were militarized and brought into the war effort alongside the army, resulting in a loosening of the chains of command. Despite the UN arms embargo, both sides were able to rearm and re-equip themselves and became heavily fortified.

Following the 2007 Ouagadougou Agreement, responsibility for implementing the accord, including security sector reform, now resided with President Gbagbo and newly-appointed Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, leader of the FN. Security sector reform was narrowed to address only the reunification of the Ivoirian Forces de défense et de sécurité (FDS – the national army) and the FN. Contrary to the advice of security analysts and experts,  the parties decided to wait to develop a new security-sector policy and architecture until after the elections. An election scheduled for 29 November 2009 was again postponed, as voter registration and identification processes failed to reach their stated aim. These processes were widely considered to be ill conceived and mismanaged, with the International Crisis Group stating that Gbagbo had deliberately hampered their financing and that the operation appeared to be running without a clear timetable.

Ivorian youngsters torch a UN car on a crossing in Riviera II, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, 13/1/2010

Photo credit: Stefan Meisel

Disarmament and demobilization programmes experienced similar delays. In June 2010, the UN recorded 32,777 registered former combatants, with 23,777 to be demobilized, 5,000 to be incorporated into the new army and 4,000 to be part of the Integrated Command Centre. However, at the time of the elections in October, only 17,601 combatants had been demobilized and a limited number of weapons, most of them unserviceable, had been collected. Amidst these delays in the demobilization and integration processes, Gbagbo had promoted a few senior FN members to positions within the FDS, but the majority of promotions were given along ethnic and loyalty lines rather than on merit, lowering overall morale and creating outrage among the FN camp.

The presidential elections held in October 2010 pitted Gbagbo and Ouattara against one another. When neither candidate received a majority of the vote, a second round of elections was scheduled for November 2010. There were some instances of violence between supporters of the two camps following the first round of elections, as armed youth militias took to the streets. Furthermore, despite the rhetoric of reunification in the armed forces, the country was still essentially split in two, with two armies and two completely separate chains of command. Thus, when the results of the second round of elections were disputed, the Integrated Command Centre quickly dissolved and security forces became partisan participants in the crisis.

On 30 November 2010, the speaker of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) attempted to announce the results of the second round of elections, but was blocked by Damana Adia Pickass, a pro-Gbagbo member of the Commission, who snatched the papers away from him at a press conference, citing that they were not agreed upon unanimously by the Commission. Then, on 2 December, the CEI released provisional results naming Ouattara as the winner with 54% of the vote. The Constitutional Council (CC) immediately proclaimed the results as invalid, citing that the CEI had passed its legal timeline to announce the results and that the matter now legally belonged to the CC. The CC proclaimed Gbagbo as the victor with 51.45% of the vote, after nullifying the results in seven disputed northern territories. On 4 December, Soro resigned from his position as Prime Minister and Gbagbo was sworn in as the new President. Violent clashes erupted, as supporters of both sides quickly rearmed and remobilized.

clashes between Gbagbo loyalists and opposition supporters ensued
The UN and the vast majority of the international community were quick to denounce Gbagbo and claim Ouattara as the rightful President. Several mediation attempts proved unsuccessful and violence between Gbagbo loyalists and opposition supporters continued. In addition to the FDS, Gbagbo was supported by the Young Patriots militia, led by youth leader Charles Blé Goudé.  Gbagbo demanded that the UN leave the country, while certain factions of the FN threatened to march on Abidjan, and Soro and Ouattara called for an international military intervention to remove Gbagbo from power. Gbagbo concentrated his forces and weaponry primarily in Abidjan and Yamoussoukro to prevent the FN from marching on these cities and to stifle possible popular protests in heavily populated areas. On December 16, 2010, an attempt to take over the state-run Radio Television Ivoirienne (RTI) was disrupted, and the FDS allegedly opened fire on Ouattara supporters, igniting outrage worldwide and prompting increased calls for international intervention.

International sanctions and blockades were put in place to limit Gbagbo’s ability to pay the FDS and civil servants and force him to step down from power, with devastating effects on the population. However, despite the sanctions, Gbagbo continued to access funds by taxing the Abidjan Port and nationalizing the cocoa and coffee industries, as well as from friendly African and international countries. ECOWAS threatened a military intervention, but subsequently backed off, instead calling on the UN Security Council to reinforce the ONUCI mandate to allow it to use all necessary means to protect people and property. The African Union reiterated the necessity of a political solution, calling for the establishment of a Ouattara-led Government of National Unity. On 24 January 2011, Ouattara called for a ban on cocoa and coffee exports from the country in an effort to limit Gbagbo’s funding, causing many farmers to take to the streets in protest.

International sanctions and blockades were put in place to limit Gbagbo’s ability to pay the FDS and civil servants and force him to step down from power, with devastating effects on the population. However, despite the sanctions, Gbagbo continued to access funds by taxing the Abidjan Port and nationalizing the cocoa and coffee industries, as well as from friendly African and international countries. ECOWAS threatened a military intervention, but subsequently backed off, instead calling on the UN Security Council to reinforce the ONUCI mandate to allow it to use all necessary means to protect people and property. The African Union reiterated the necessity of a political solution, calling for the establishment of a Ouattara-led Government of National Unity. On 24 January 2011, Ouattara called for a ban on cocoa and coffee exports from the country in an effort to limit Gbagbo’s funding, causing many farmers to take to the streets in protest.

28 March 2011, Ouattara declared that all peaceful solutions had been “exhausted”
On 17 March 2011, Ouattara created the Republican Forces of the Ivory Coast (FRCI), composed mostly of former FN rebels and defectors from the government security forces, in a symbolic attempt to unify the two and more easily prompt defections from the loyalist camp. He also appointed Guillaume Soro as his Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, temporarily breaking his previous coalition promises to appoint a PDCI representative to the post. On 28 March 2011, Ouattara declared that all peaceful solutions had been “exhausted” and FRCI forces began an assault on Yamoussoukro.

Displaced people crossing the border from Ivory Coast to Liberia

Photo credit: DfID

The loyalist forces were largely destroyed in these final battles, leaving the poorly trained and non-cohesive FRCI in charge of the country’s security. In late April 2011, the FRCI began the process of disarming some of the militias who had helped Ouattara ascend to power, particularly the Invisible Commandos led by Ibrahim Coulibaly. Coulibaly (popularly known as IB) had been suspected of participating in several coup attempts, including an attempted assassination of FN leader Soro, with whom he had longstanding tensions. IB and the Invisible Commandos are said to have refused to immediately disarm, and a battle ensued between the FRCI and the Commandos, resulting in the deaths of Coulibaly and several of his men.

Despite Gbagbo’s defeat, violence and human rights abuses continued in areas throughout the country, preventing hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons from returning to their homes. On 31 May 2011 Ouattara was formally sworn in as President in Yamoussoukro. In November 2011, Gbagbo was handed over to the International Criminal Court, where he is currently awaiting trial on four counts of crimes against humanity.

Since taking office, President Ouattara has focused heavily on rebuilding the economy and restoring domestic security. A Commission on Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation (CDVR) was launched in September 2011, but has been widely criticized for its lack of concrete results. After completing its work in September 2013, the CDVR’s mandate was extended for an additional year in February 2014. Ouattara also created a Special Investigative Unit within the Justice Ministry to address crimes committed during the 2010-2011 crisis. Trials for abuses committed during the post-electoral violence are ongoing; however, as of the time of this article, no Ouattara supporters have yet been charged for any abuses during the crisis, leading many observers to question the impartiality of the justice system. The International Criminal Court has also issued warrants of arrest for Charles Blé Goudé and former first lady Simone Gbagbo, both of whom are currently in Ivoirian custody while the government considers their extradition. Within the security sector, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs continue with the help of UNOCI, although progress has been slow and there remains a large number of small arms circulating in the country. The Ouattara administration continues to engage in sporadic political dialogue with opposition parties, including Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), through the Cadre Permanent de Dialogue (CPD).

Last updated: March 2014. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.