As of 1987, the country was divided into forty-nine prefectures. The prefectural administration, headed by a prefect (préfet), represented executive authority within the prefecture. Constitutionally, the prefects responded to the local interests of their respective constituents and directed and coordinated the administrative services represented in their respective constituencies. As representatives of each ministry within their prefectures, the prefects issued directives to the heads of services and ensured their compliance, presided over all state organizations and commissions within the prefecture, periodically met with service heads at the prefectural level, and acted as trustees for public enterprises and activities in the prefectures. Prefects also were responsible for maintaining public order and security in their respective prefectures. In that capacity, they supervised local police and oversaw the execution of laws, statutes, and executive orders. To deal with civil unrest or other emergencies, they were also empowered to issue binding orders or decrees, detain suspects for up to forty-eight hours, and request assistance from the armed forces.
The prefectural administration included a secretary general, a chief of cabinet, and two division chiefs, one of whom was responsible for administrative and general affairs such as elections, supervision of the police, administration of subprefectures (sous-préfectures), and civil affairs. The other division chief was responsible for economic, financial, and social affairs, including the budget, accounts, public works, health, education, and the supervision of markets and price controls. The secretary general, besides substituting for the prefect during the latter's absence, supervised and coordinated all departmental services. The chief of cabinet, in effect an administrative aide, was responsible for intradepartmental affairs (mail, inspection visits, and liaison with ministerial departments and personnel in Abidjan).
According to enabling legislation passed in 1961, the prefectures were to be decentralized, autonomous units competent to deal with local issues. Governing the prefecture was to be a general council whose members, representing local interests, were to be elected by slates for five-year terms by universal suffrage within the prefecture. The general council was to pass a budget and act on local issues. Its decisions were then to be passed on to the prefect for execution. In reality, as of 1988 the central government in Abidjan had not passed the enabling measures establishing the general councils; hence, the prefectures were exclusively administrative structures.
Every prefecture was segmented into subprefectures, each headed by a subprefect (sous-préfet). Subprefectures were the lowest administrative unit of government and the unit with which most people interacted. Unlike the prefectures, the subprefectures had neither autonomy nor deliberative responsibilities; their function was purely administrative. The subprefects acted under the delegated authority of the prefects but also had other responsibilities. First and foremost, the subprefect was responsible for maintaining public order and could, in emergencies, request aid from the prefect or the armed forces. The subprefect also submitted a public works and civil action program as well as a budget to the prefect. As an officer of the state, the subprefect supervised the census and elections within the subprefecture and officiated at civil ceremonies. He also monitored, albeit loosely, the behavior of chiefs of villages and cantons within the boundaries of the subprefecture and represented the authority of the central government to local populations. Finally, the subprefect elicited from notables living within the subprefecture a list of grievances or suggestions that was passed on to the prefect.
Administration at the subprefecture level included a secretariat consisting of the various administrative services and divisions in the subprefecture. Assisting the subprefect was the Subprefectural Council, which replaced the council of notables, an artifact of the colonial era. This council was composed of the subprefect, the heads of public services represented in the subprefecture, local party officials, and twelve to sixteen private citizens, all residing in the subprefecture and known for their active participation in affairs pertaining to politics, commerce, and social change. The councils met twice yearly in open sessions under the direction of the subprefect. The council's responsibilities were solely consultative. At the first meeting of the year, the subprefect was obligated to present to the council the budget and accounts of the past year. By law the council had to be consulted on expenditures allocated to the subprefecture by the government or collected in the form of market, parking, or other fees. The council also submitted a program of public works or other public projects of local interest to be financed with the allocated funds.
The council had no decision-making authority and no direct political role. However, its opinions carried some weight. The citizen-members represented wealth and influence that often transcended the physical boundaries of the subprefecture. These citizens often understood the needs and customs of the local community better than the subprefect, who in most instances was not from the region.
Modern and traditional governance merged at the level of village and canton. Using criteria based on traditions, villages selected their own leaders, who were subsequently proposed to and formally invested by the prefect. The ceremony granted formal legitimacy to the village leader while at the same time confirming his status as subordinate to the subprefect. In the formal bureaucratic sector, village chiefs served simply as conduits between the subprefect and the villagers. Informally, village chiefs filled a multitude of roles, many of which paralleled the obligations and responsibilities of the modern bureaucratic administration. Under the colonial regime, groups of villages linked by common ethnicity and encompassing a relatively large area were designated a canton; this designation continued into the modern period. Canton chiefs, whose authority was also rooted in tradition, were selected according to traditional norms and formally appointed by the minister of interior. Because their responsibilities in the formal sector were never resolved, the canton chiefs remained largely symbolic figures.
By the 1980s, thirty-seven cities had been designated autonomous communities (communes en plein exercice), a legal status that dates from 1884 and applied originally to the Senegalese cities of Saint Louis and Dakar. Governing structures in autonomous communities included a municipal council and a mayor. A council would be composed of eleven to thirty-seven members, depending on the population of the city. All were elected by universal suffrage and, until 1980, as part of a slate. In the 1985 elections, council members ran independently. The legal status of the municipal councils was ambiguous. According to law, they enjoyed broad powers which were to be exercised independently of the granting authority in Abidjan. For example, the enabling legislation of 1955 instructed the councils, through their deliberative processes, to "direct the affairs of the community," which included voting on budgets. In fact, most of the decisions taken by councils first had to be approved by the minister of interior, who could veto them. Moreover, the Council of Ministers could dissolve an excessively independent municipal council by a simple decree. Consequently, the council members routinely accepted guidelines proposed by authorities in Abidjan.
The councils also elected mayors, whose functions were identical to those of subprefects. Like the municipal councils, mayors routinely submitted to the authority of the minister of interior.
In practice, municipal administration was not an outgrowth of a preexisting social and political institution. The label "autonomous communities" was, instead, the creation of a state bureaucracy that was not inclined toward sharing power. Consequently, from 1956 until the late 1970s, councils shrank in size and importance as council members died. For example, the Abidjan council, which at one point consisted of thirty-seven members, had only seventeen in 1974. As the central government loosened its grip on politics prior to the 1985 elections, potential candidates saw the position of municipal council member as a first step toward higher political office, and interest in the institution grew. In the 1985 election, more than 840 candidates ran for 235 places on municipal councils.
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