Urban Society

Urban Society

Urban ethnic associations performed important social functions, from the initial reception of new migrants to the burial of urban residents. They also served as important mutual aid networks and facilitated communication with home villages. Rapid urbanization brought together people from numerous ethnic groups, however, and these contacts contributed to changing values and produced demands that went beyond the reach of traditional leadership roles. In this changing environment, ethnic organizations lost influence as cultural and economic brokers. Most grievances arose in response to government policy choices, and because these policies were not phrased in terms of ethnic groups, neither were grievances against them. Neighborhood and citywide problems demanded broader solutions, and multiethnic associations emerged as important interest groups.

Ethnicity was further diminished as a factor in urban politics as foreigners were drawn to Côte d'Ivoire's lucrative job market and as Houphouët-Boigny maintained fairly balanced ethnic representation among political appointments, without bringing traditional leaders into top levels of administration. He encouraged the most ambitious and educated young men from different regions to participate in nation building, and to do so through his patronage.

Houphouët-Boigny's patrimonial style of governing began to shape the social landscape, as the political skills he acquired during the waning years of colonial rule--his expertise as a strategist, his nonconfrontational manner of dealing with political rivals, and his paternalistic approach to allies--helped consolidate his support. In the late 1980s, he continued to emulate the style of his Baoulé elders, softening strong leadership enough to maintain broad popular support, satisfying crucial popular demands, and co-opting potential opponents.

As a result of these factors--the urban emphasis, the relative unimportance of ethnic differences, and Houphouët-Boigny's patrimonial style of governing--a self-perpetuating elite emerged. Social relations were ordered more by access to status, prestige, and wealth than by ethnic differences, and for most people the locus of this access was the government. Wealth and government service became so closely linked that one was taken as a symbol of the other.


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