Economic and Political Issues of the Late 1970S and 1980S

Economic and Political Issues of the Late 1970S and 1980S

The worldwide economic recession at the beginning of the 1980s caused the prices of cocoa and coffee, Côte d'Ivoire's principal exports, to drop sharply, resulting in a significant economic slowdown. Combined with soaring commercial interest rates, the recession abruptly truncated the growth of the Ivoirian economy and exacerbated tensions in the labor force, where underemployment and unemployment had become acute. In mid-1978 complaints about inflation, the public debt, decreasing exports, the role of foreigners in the economy, and the succession question appeared in antigovernment tracts distributed in Abidjan. Popular manifestations of discontent with the regime's rigid policies, as well as with declining revenue, high urban unemployment, and the atrophied one-party political system, continued into the early 1980s. As was by now typical, Houphouët-Boigny dealt quickly with the complaints by proposing more rapid Ivoirianization and steps to decentralize and democratize local administrations. The government also trimmed the budget of several development programs.

Perhaps foreseeing political problems, Houphouët-Boigny took steps to consolidate further his own control. In 1980, again running unopposed, he was elected to a fifth term in office. In the same year, the Seventh Party Congress of the PDCI, following instructions from the president, abolished the post of PDCI secretary general and established Houphouët-Boigny as the party's executive chairman, assisted by the new nine-member Executive Committee of the Political Bureau.

Succession Question

The question of who would succeed Houphouët-Boigny became the significant political issue by the beginning of the 1980s. Many political observers believed that if Houphouët-Boigny did choose a successor, internecine feuds would erupt within the PDCI. They also believed that, at least initially, no one could combine HouphouëtBoigny 's prestige, charisma, and experience with the political acumen that he had exercised over Ivoirian politics for almost thirty years.

In 1980 a constitutional amendment created the office of vicepresident , who was to succeed to the presidency in the event of a midterm vacancy and who would be chosen by and elected at the same time as the president. The next elections, however, were not scheduled until 1985, and Houphouët-Boigny had given no indication of his plans for a vice-presidential running mate. (In 1985 Houphouët-Boigny resolved the problem by amending the constitution, eliminating the position of vice-president.)

In the 1970s, Philippe Yacé, the president of the National Assembly and PDCI secretary general, seemed to be the most likely successor. In 1975 the National Assembly adopted a law stipulating that power would pass to the president of the assembly, confirming Yacé as the second most powerful man in the country. Nevertheless, Yacé, who was popular with party officials, had many enemies, mostly because of his role as chief accuser in the fabricated 1963 plot.

In 1980 the prospects for designating a presidential successor were even more obscured when Houphouët-Boigny abolished the post of PDCI secretary general held by Yacé, who had fallen into disfavor with the president because he was thought guilty of pride. Shortly thereafter, Yacé was also stripped of his position as president of the National Assembly.

By the early 1980s, the list of possible successors included members of the old guard in the top echelons of the party as well as technocrats--middle-aged, university-educated Ivoirians--who filled executive positions in the administrative bureaucracy and the economy. Among the old guard who enjoyed great support inside the PDCI were Minister of State Mathieu Ekra; Senior Minister of State Auguste Denise; and president of the Economic and Social Council Mamadou Coulibaly. The most likely candidate, however, was Henri Konan Bedié, a Baoulé, a technocrat, and the new National Assembly president. According to Article 11, amended, of the Constitution, the president of the National Assembly takes over the office of the president of the republic should the latter die or become incapacitated. The provisional president can then run for a full term in elections, which are to take place within sixty days. As provisional president, Bedié would have an edge over possible rivals. Moreover, demographic trends favored Bedié, who as a second generation politician enjoyed growing support from younger and middle-aged Iviorians who believed perhaps that Yacé, a first generation figure, was now too old. A third group of political rivals was a younger generation of politicians, most in their thirties, who were known for their effectiveness in the economic sphere and favored closer ties with the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

In the mid-1980s, political infighting threatened to spill over boundaries of the narrow circle of the party leadership, however. That Houphouët-Boigny continued to resist naming a successor proved disconcerting to all those in positions of power, as well as to the West and especially to France, which had extensive investments in Côte d'Ivoire.

Party Decentralization

As the Ivoirian bureaucracy assumed a more prominent position in the postindependence years, the PDCI withered steadily. Increasingly it became a sinecure for the old guard, who lacked the ability to hold government office but remained personally loyal to the president. Also, by the early 1970s the one-party political structure was based on a purely ethnic system of representation at the local level that lacked any democratic procedures and that had produced an economically privileged political class. Moreover, the party and government hierarchies were characterized by nepotism and corruption. And finally, the poorly defined and overlapping responsibilities of party officials caused infighting and political rivalry.

In the late 1970s, Houphouët-Boigny, faced with growing party disarray, began to decentralize the PDCI at the local level, where a substantial change in party leadership took place. For the first time, the local party secretary generals, previously elected as part of a slate, were now to be chosen in open elections.

Discontent on Campus

The academic community was the most vocal protest group. The first sign of difficulty occurred in 1982, when the union of students went on strike to protest government efforts to halt political speeches on the National University of Côte d'Ivoire campus. Houphouët-Boigny responded in his typical paternalistic fashion: he chastised the students, dissolved their movement, and forced them to return to their villages until they all had apologized in writing to the government. Laurent Gbagbo, a young professor who during the strike spoke out on the need for a multiparty system, went into voluntary exile in France and became a symbol for young Ivoirians who wanted to liberalize the ruling party.

Further disturbances occurred in 1983, when approximately 4,000 secondary-school teachers, members of the National Union of Secondary School Teachers of Côte d'Ivoire (Syndicat National des Enseignants du Secondaires de Côte d'Ivoire--SYNESCI), went on strike to protest the elimination of their housing allowances. Their strike was also an expression of solidarity with those students and professors who had protested over issues of free speech the year before and, more significant, had voiced their basic opposition to Houphouët-Boigny. Because the teachers' union was the only union independent of the PDCI (SYNESCI refused to affiliate with the official government union), the government dissolved the union during the strike. In addition, the teachers complained that Houphouët-Boigny had unfairly penalized them and ignored cabinet members who, they alleged, had mismanaged the economy. Reacting once again in an arbitrary manner that further alienated teachers and students alike, Houphouët-Boigny closed all the secondary schools and sent the 200,000 students home.

Other Sources of Discontent

The teachers' strike quickly expanded into a major political issue at a time when underlying popular discontent had already come close to the surface. Shortly before the strike, the president had announced an expensive move of the capital from Abidjan to his village birthplace, Yamoussoukro. The move promised to increase vastly the value of land in the region, much of which was owned by the president and his family. And then, after the strike, Houphouët-Boigny delivered an extraordinary speech to the PDCI's Political Bureau in which he divulged the sources and use of his own extensive wealth. The consequent publication of the speech surprised much of the population, many of whom had been adversely affected by the country's increasing economic difficulties, and aroused tremendous popular disapproval.

In 1984, despite record harvests and prices for cash crops and a rescheduling of the external debt, the political atmosphere remained glum. Public investigations revealed high levels of corruption in the public housing sector and led to a protracted trial and the subsequent imprisonment of a number of high-ranking officials. More important, the trial implicated higher authorities, including past and present ministers and members of the president's family, none of whom was brought to justice.

Popular discontent also increased in response to the president's implementation of austerity measures. In the public sector, the government froze salaries. Throughout 1984 the employees retaliated by threatening strikes, work stoppages, and absenteeism. In the private sector, where politicians who were also business people had always enjoyed privileged treatment, financial irregularities were usually ignored. But the austerity measures took aim at the business people, eliminating their privileges and exposing financial scandals. For example, Emmanuel Dioulo, Abidjan's mayor, reportedly defrauded the National Agricultural Development Bank of US$32 million. At the end of March 1985, when the PDCI's Executive Committee lifted Dioulo's parliamentary immunity so that he could be tried on criminal charges, Dioulo fled the country. Following the Dioulo affair, Houphouët-Boigny launched a series of tax investigations of Yacé and other prominent political figures who had acquired personal fortunes.

During Houphouët-Boigny's 1984 annual summer vacation in Europe, a number of political tracts, published by unidentified opposition groups, appeared in the capital. The tracts questioned the president's political views and denounced the failure of the PDCI to manage the economy. The PDCI leadership responded to the attacks by organizing a series of trips to the interior to speak personally to the population. This measure, however, only created more tension because the leaders competed among themselves for coverage in the national media and exposed their sometimes bitter rivalry. One reason for the increasing intensity of the rivalry was the scheduled September 1985 Eighth Party Congress of the PDCI, to be followed by legislative and presidential elections.

In addition to the succession issue and the economic crisis, urban populations were faced with a worsening crime wave for which Ivoirians blamed foreigners primarily from Ghana and Burkina Faso. Some gangs, however, were directed by the Ivoirian underworld, an organized crime group that sometimes recruited unemployed youths from Upper Volta. Many of the attacks were aimed at affluent French and Lebanese business people.

Thus, by the end of 1984, uncertainty and instability permeated the Ivoirian political and economic sectors, replacing the growth and optimism of a decade earlier. The most pressing issue, however, as viewed by the Ivoirian political elite and Western governments (France in particular), was whether Houphouët-Boigny would designate an official successor for the 1985 elections. The Ivoirian elite seemed committed to a stable transition of power, mostly to protect their economic interests. Clearly, many Ivoirian politicians believed that this designation would eliminate much of the then-pervasive popular discontent.

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