For over three decades after its independence from France in 1960, Côte d'Ivoire was a country in which people of different religions and ethnic groups, including millions from neighboring West African countries coexisted in relative harmony. Potential religious and ethnic tension was largely smoothed over by Côte d'Ivoire's first President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a Catholic, who ruled through his Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d'Ivoire, PDCI) until his death in 1993. During over three decades of Houphouët-Boigny's rule, the economy of Côte d'Ivoire, the world's leading producer of cocoa, was one of Africa's strongest, and attracted immigrants from around the West African sub-region. Politically, it was considered a pillar of stability in a region plagued by wars, though challenges to the one-party rule of the PDCI increased as the economic situation worsened in the 1980s. After opposition parties were legalized in 1990, security forces were increasingly deployed against dissenters from PDCI rule.
Houphouët-Boigny was succeeded by Henri Konan Bédié in 1993, the then PDCI speaker of the National Assembly. Bédié, who was elected president in l995, was also a Catholic from the same Akan ethnic group. During Bédié's six-year rule, his government was plagued by allegations of corruption and bad governance, which resulted in the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the European Union all suspending economic aid in 1998.2
As President Bédié grew increasingly unpopular, he sought to eliminate potential political rivals. Unlike Houphouët-Boigny, who encouraged immigration and included Muslims in his government, Bédié fomented ethnic and religious mistrust through his own breed of nationalism which came to be known as "Ivorité" or "Ivorian-ness." Prior to the 1995 presidential race Bédié stirred up xenophobia aimed at undermining the person he perceived to be his biggest potential political rival, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara had been prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny and later headed the Rally of Republicans party (RDR), which draws heavily on support from the largely Muslim north. Bédié insisted Ouattara was not a native Ivorian but was instead from neighboring Burkina Faso. After Bédié questioned Ouattara's nationality and ultimately barred his candidacy from the 1995 elections on the grounds that he was not entitled to Ivorian citizenship, Ouattara and the RDR withdrew from the race and Bédié was reelected.
On December 24, 1999, soldiers disgruntled over low pay seized power from President Bédié and asked General Robert Guei, Bédié's chief of staff, to lead the rebellion. After taking power, Guei formed a broad-based junta which included ministers from leading opposition parties, including the RDR and Laurent Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), and pledged to clean up corruption and rewrite the constitution. While the mostly bloodless coup was welcomed by many Ivorians who had grown weary of the increasing levels of corruption under Bédié's regime, it shook Côte d'Ivoire's reputation as a regional pillar of stability.
By July 2000, it became clear that General Guei had political ambitions and that he, too, was ready to foment ethnic and religious differences in order to eliminate political rivals. In late July, a flawed constitutional referendum was held, which, among other things endorsed amendments setting new, stricter eligibility requirements for contesting public office.3 Under the new constitution, both parents of anyone wishing to contest the presidential election had to have been born in Côte d'Ivoire.
Ouattara and other candidates contested the new requirements, but on October 6, 2000, a controversial Supreme Court decision disqualified fourteen of the nineteen presidential candidates, including Ouattara, on citizenship grounds, and former president Bédié, for not submitting a proper medical certificate. The Supreme Court, which had in 1999 been dissolved following the coup, was widely believed to have been hand picked by Guei himself.
On October 22, 2000, presidential elections were held. After early results showed Laurent Gbagbo, the FPI's candidate, leading in the polls, General Guei dissolved the National Electoral Commission and proclaimed himself the winner. On October 24, 2000, tens of thousands of protesters from several political parties took to the streets and descended on the city center. President Guei's elite Presidential Guard opened fire on demonstrators, killing scores. On October 25, 2000, after the military and police abandoned him, General Guei fled the country and Gbagbo declared himself president.
On October 26, 2000, as supporters of Gbagbo's FPI party celebrated the swearing in of their new president, Ouattara's RDR once again took to the streets, this time demanding fresh elections on the grounds that Ouattara and other candidates had been arbitrarily barred from running. The bloody clashes which ensued were characterized by religious and ethnic tensions as security forces and civilians supporting President Gbagbo clashed with the mostly Muslim northerners who form the core of support for the RDR. The RDR's call for new elections was backed by the United States (U.S.), South Africa, the United Nations (U.N.), and the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
As Ouattara and the RDR prepared to participate in the December 10, 2000 parliamentary elections, a November 30, 2000, Supreme Court decision again barred Ouattara from standing, again because of questions about his citizenship. In response, the RDR called for a boycott of the elections, took to the street in protest, and later disrupted voting in many areas in the north. After bloody clashes broke out following a protest rally on December 4, 2000, President Gbagbo imposed a curfew and state of emergency. The decision to disqualify Ouattara from standing was condemned by the U.S., the OAU, and the European Union (E.U.), which all subsequently suspended plans to send or withdrew their election monitoring teams.
The parliamentary election went ahead in all but twelve northern districts where polls for twenty-seven seats were disrupted by RDR supporters protesting the Supreme Court's ruling. There were several reports of destruction of ballot boxes and attacks upon election officials. Elections in these districts were later held without incident on January 14, 2001. The ruling FPI party won a slight majority, with ninety-six seats, followed by the former ruling party, the PDCI, which won ninety-four seats. After boycotting the parliamentary contest, the RDR did participate in February 25, 2001 national municipal elections where they won the majority of council seats, sixty-three, followed by the PDCI, which won sixty, and the FPI, who with thirty-three.
In addition to the military coup of December 1999, military mutinies in April and July 2000, an armed attack on General Guei's residence in September 2000, and a January 7, 2001, attempted coup attempt against President Gbagbo further undermined Côte d'Ivoire's reputation for political stability and damaged the economy.
2 "Political Upheavals Expose Ivory Coast's Economic Weaknesses," AFP January 17, 2001
3 The Constitution of Ivory Coast, Chapter III as amended in 2000, stipulates: The President of the Republic and the Government, Article 35: The candidate for the presidency must.... be of Ivorian origin, born of father and mother who are also of Ivorian origin. He must never have renounced his Ivorian nationality, nor have ever claimed he was of another nationality. (In French: "Il doit être ivorien d'origine, né de pere et de mere eux mêmes ivoriens d'origine. Il doit n'avoir jamais renoncé à la nationalité ivorienne. Il ne doit être jamais prévalu d'une autre nationalité.")