Ivorians demand switch to multiparty democracy, 1989-1990

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Ivory Coast
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Location Description: 
While protests occurred across the country, many major protests took place in Abidjan, where the country's university was located.
A wide cross-section of society including farm workers, university students and government employees demanded a shift to a multiparty democracy and an end to austerity programs imposed following a fall in global commodity prices.--New York Times.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny ruled Cote d'Ivoire for thirty-three years, following its independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. However, Houphouet-Boigny oversaw an important transition to a multiparty system in 1990, which led to the implementation of democratic elections. The transition to a multiparty system came after a large-scale nonviolent campaign by civil servants and students to demand a government that more accurately reflected the will of the people.

The campaign had two main components, consisting of strikes by selected interest groups and public protests by Ivorian students. Economic concerns helped to catalyze the popular outpouring of discontent when global prices of cocoa and other commodities fell, causing hardship for Ivorian producers and exporters. At the time, the Ivorian government had a policy of subsidizing farmers, and when global prices for cocoa, coffee and other crops began to fall, government intervention protected producers from an immediate drop in income. However, in October 1989, as world prices stayed low, government reserves began to run out, and Houphouet-Boigny announced an end to the subsidy program.

In order to combat a liquidity crisis brought on by deflated commodity prices and reduce the country’s unsustainable level of debt, the government cut back on the subsidies and instituted severe austerity policies. Both measures proved unpopular amongst urban and rural Ivorians, as government jobs were cut and farmers saw lower prices for their crops. This discontent was coupled with long-standing dissatisfaction with a government that many citizens felt was not representative or responsive to the desires or needs of the Ivorian people.

For example, while farmers in the north began to agitate by forming small farmers’ unions—a tactic that was illegal under Cote d'Ivoire’s one-party system, produce transporters and taxi drivers went on a simultaneous strike to protest the proliferation of road blocks by policemen and members of the military. With much of the country’s exporting business slowed by a wide and effective strike from April to June 1989, Houphouet-Boigny agreed to host several “Days of Dialogue” in September, and the number of roadblocks was dramatically reduced. Furthermore, in response to the deep discontent with the political elites and makeup of the Ivorian political system that was voiced by participants at the dialogue, Houphouet-Boigny began reshuffling his cabinet, cutting members to appease his opponents.

A few months later, in February 1990, Ivorian students began holding large demonstrations to protest both the effects of the austerity programs on students’ benefits and their inability to hold the government accountable. Students engaged in various forms of protest, generally centered in Abidjan, where the country’s only university at the time was located. Tactics ranged from marches on the Presidential palace to the occupation of St. Paul’s Roman Cathedral in central Abidjan for over ten hours. These protests were often met with violent responses by security forces, who frequently beat protestors before taking them into extended detainment. Police officers sought to actively disrupt forms of protest, going as far as to fire tear gas and stun grenades at protestors on the campus of the University of the Ivory Coast.

Army and air force recruits followed the students’ lead in April 1990, staging protests at bases across Cote d'Ivoire, arguing against the implementation of a maximum service length of one year, going as far as occupying the international airport at one point. At the same time, police and firefighters, fed up with low wages during the economic crisis, also joined in strikes and protests.

Facing pressure from all sides of society, particularly with the military beginning to turn against him, Houphouet-Boigny recognized that major concessions had to be made in order to appease the public. In May 1990, he agreed to raise wages for police officers and firefighters, as well as renegotiate army service contracts. Most significantly, Houphouet-Boigny responded to student protests by agreeing to legalize opposition parties, ushering in a multiparty system. Following up on this promise, he scheduled elections for the fall of 1990.

In the fall elections, Houphouet-Boigny’s main opposition was Laurent Gbagbo, a university professor who had been the most vocal opponent of the regime and one-party system, and became the de facto opposition leader with his party, Front Populaire Ivoirien. However, given the various groups involved in staging protests that were relatively independent of one another, it is hard to pinpoint a single individual as a leader who truly pushed the campaign through to completion. Houphouet-Boigny would go on to win the 1990 election in a landslide, aided by a short campaign season that hurt the newly formed opposition parties and low voter turnout, as many Ivorians did not trust the integrity of the elections.

While Houphouet-Boigny and his party, Parti Democratique de la Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI), remained in power for the next several years, the transition to a multiparty system was remarkably peaceful and smooth, given the country’s long history of authoritarian rule. The campaign can be characterized as a combination of different grievances, brought to the surface by exogenous macroeconomic factors that weakened the state’s bargaining power. Yet, given the violent history of power transitions in West Africa, it remains a powerful reminder of the power of the people to demand change, even after decades of oppression.

Research Notes

The fall in global commodity prices created an economic environment ripe for social change and pressure to be put on the government, and can thus be considered an influence of sorts.

Handloff, Robert E., ed. "History". Ivory Coast: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988. Online at http://countrystudies.us/ivory-coast/3.htm. Accessed 15 March 2012

Associated Press. "Police in the Ivory Coast Suppress Continuing Protests by Students". New York Times, February 27, 1990. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/27/world/police-in-the-ivory-coast-suppress-continuing-protests-by-students.html. Accessed 15 March 2012

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. "Ivory Coast: Current political situation". UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 1 June 1991. http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,IRBC,,CIV,,3ae6ac6858,0.html. Accessed 15 March 2012.

Horizontal inequalities and violent conflict: the case of Cote d'Ivoire, Armin Langer, CRISE, Working paper No. 13, November 2004.

Popular Protest and Political Reform in Africa, Comparative Politics, Bratton and de Walle, 1992.

The 1990 Elections in Cote d'Ivoire, Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Jennifer Widner.

Additional Notes: 
This campaign represents an important example of nonviolent power transitions in a region characterized by prolonged civil conflict during regime change. The wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia just after this switch are chilling reminders of the potential long-term conflict that can emerge when violence is engaged, making the Ivorian campaign that much more admirable.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Tarit Rao-Chakravorti, 15/03/2012