Photo: Getty Alassane Ouattara

Alassane Ouattara, President of Côte d’Ivoire

By Adam Robert Green | Published:  15 November, 2011

“The institutional framework for democracy is not complete until we have parliamentary elections. We hope all parties, including the former president’s party, will participate”

Following independence from France in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire boasted a successful economy, ethnic harmony and openness to migrants, and a leadership role promoting peace in South Africa. Considered by many as the pearl of West Africa, the African Development Bank chose Abidjan for its headquarters in 1963.

Yet a gradual deterioration in the regime of its first leader, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, the leadership vacuum after his death in 1993, and economic strains from the 1980s debt crisis, saw its fortunes decline. Political violence has revisited Côte d’Ivoire since a 1999 military coup in which General Robert Guéï displaced Mr Houphouët-Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bédié – culminating in last November’s disputed election, in which incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to his rival, Alassane Ouattara. A four-month-long standoff pushed the country to the brink of civil war, in which 3,000 Ivorians lost their lives, 1m were internally displaced and 200,000 fled the country.

Mr Ouattara, a former prime minister, was installed as president in June, following a UN-led military intervention that led to Mr Gbagbo’s arrest on 11 April. Visiting the US in September for the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, he laid out his plans to restore Côte d’Ivoire to its former eminence. Speaking to This Is Africa on the top floor of the Ivorian embassy in Washington, to loud chants of ‘ado, ado’ – representing his initials – from a packed hall of well-wishers who had descended upon the building, he outlines his plans for reconciliation in the West African state.

The economy is recovering faster than expected, he says, and job creation, especially for young people who he claims were “manipulated” during the conflict, is his priority. “All over Africa, youth unemployment has been a problem. If you look at the Arab Spring, it was due to the youth; their lack of employment, their lack of freedom. Now in Côte d’Ivoire we have democracy, but we need to get jobs.”

His government is pursuing public investment programmes including a hydro-electric plant in the west, highways and bridges in Abidjan, and railroads to Guinea and Mali, he says. The government is mapping out what he calls “super” districts – 12 in total – across the country, aimed at endowing each with specific building projects, a hospital and a university.

He hopes this will start to tackle regional inequity. One reason many internal migrants moving to Abidjan during the conflict have not returned is that their home regions have fewer opportunities. What started as political migration has turned into pragmatic economic opportunism.

Mr Ouattara, a former IMF official, says he is courting the private sector for the long-term recovery. Cocoa has been the driving force of the economy for decades, and Côte d’Ivoire could provide half of the world’s cocoa by next year, but oil and gas will play a growing role, according to Mr Ouattara.

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