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An Ivoirian Remontada

Par Zyad Limam - Publié en mars 2024

Africa Cup of Nations final game. It was a hot night on 11 February and the Alassane Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé erupted with joy. The Elephants were the champions after a thrilling match against Nigeria's Green Eagles. Sébastien Haller, back from everything, from cancer and injury, scored the winning goal. The President, almost moved to tears, presented the cup to the team made up of players from across the entire country, from north to south, east to west, and even the diaspora. What made this night all the more magnificent was the fact that the team had fought its way back from the depths of humiliation and defeat, after a devastating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in the group stage. The story of this incredible comeback, and this tenacious team's determination, daring and talent, has made football history. It's a powerful, symbolic story of unity and solidarity for the whole country.

Not just a sporting victory but also a major organisational achievement! The government, led by Patrick Achi, then in the last stretch by the very effective Robert Beugré Mambé, the organising committee COCAN and the relevant government departments made a winning team. Sure, there were a few hiccups, but they were rectified in time. There were no major incidents and security was guaranteed. The stadiums were ready and operational. The pitches more than held their own. After a few initial glitches, the spectators and visitors turned out in force. It was a great if not the best African Cup. Through the media, TV and radio broadcasts, influencers, visitors, and the Ivorian team's performance and storytelling, the image of a dynamic, vibrant and confident Côte d'Ivoire was dispatched to the world. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. The involvement and efforts of all concerned had to have been spectacular. But it also reflects the image of today's Côte d'Ivoire.

Quick flashback. Early 2011, not that long ago, just over a decade. The country was emerging from a near-civil war and what was somewhat modestly referred to as the ‘post-election crisis’. Alassane Ouattara came to power, but he faced a daunting task. The state lay shattered, the economy devastated, the wounds deep, and each side was counting its casualties. A precarious balance was maintained in the country by a United Nations force.

All this was about to change, and fast. Overall wealth has doubled since then, and is set to double again by 2030. With a GDP of close on $70 billion, and an economy the size of those of Cameroon and Senegal combined, Côte d'Ivoire is the continent's ninth wealthiest country. Abidjan is a global and cosmopolitan city, the interface between Africa and the world. GDP per capita is above the overall average for sub-Saharan African countries, and second in the ECOWAS bloc (just behind Cape Verde, ahead of Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, etc.). The country's credibility on the international markets is evident from the recent success of the $2.6 billion Eurobond and the IMF support plan concluded last year. Côte d'Ivoire is under construction. Abidjan's often spectacular transformation is rather ambitious, with bridges spanning the lagoon, ring roads surrounding the city, towers rising into the sky, and the metro coming soon... But the development effort also extends to the country's hinterland, with dams, roads, rural electrification, the construction of hospitals and universities, and much more besides.

Despite the wounds of war, the legacy of 'Ivoirité' (Ivorian identity) and the 2000s, despite the pressure of migration, despite the ever-present ethno-political instrumentalisation on all sides, and notwithstanding the complex and often fractious reconciliation process, Côte d'Ivoire is ultimately rediscovering a form of unity. It's fragile, yes, it's still new, but urbanisation and growth are encouraging diversity, inter-ethnic marriages and shared interests. The African Cup of Nations also revealed this.

Democratisation, albeit imperfect, is progressing faster under the RHDP than under any previous government, from Félix Houphouët-Boigny through Henri Konan Bédié to Laurent Gbagbo. Since 2021, the country has seen legislative and then local and regional elections that were largely open and competitive. Flagrant or brutal human rights abuses remain rare. President Alassane Ouattara is powerful, it's his word above all else that counts, but the system is open in many ways. There is a dynamic media scene, with private (and public) television channels stimulating debate, not just political, but also societal. The Internet and influencers are gaining ground. There is no shortage of ambitions within the ruling party. And they are not necessarily hidden. The opposition is by no means silent. And while Guillaume Soro is in exile, following what is perceived as a betrayal by the government, Laurent Gbagbo is now a free man and his influence is very real, as is that of his wife, Simone. The PDCI, the historic party, has a new leader, affiliated to the family of its founding president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Tidjane Thiam has an impressive international track record. He is relatively young (63) and driven. But the party has to be rebuilt from the bottom up. And it remains to be seen whether TT's appeal will extend beyond the Abidjan elite to reach out to the country's historical and farming regions, and even further north and west (a necessary extension for anyone seeking the supreme office). In short, Côte d'Ivoire is not Sweden or Denmark. There is still a long way to go, but the political scene is alive. And lively.

Obviously, there is no shortage of difficulties and dead-ends. Debt and how to finance growth are real issues. To honour its commitments and maintain its credibility, the country will have to step up its performance, export more and better, and mobilise domestic resources. Modernisation will require a major effort from everyone, particularly in the public sector. While poverty is declining, it is far from having disappeared. And neither has corruption. In fact, it's being fuelled by the size of the national economy. Inequalities, which are another consequence of rapid growth, are widening. Pockets of poverty present a constant challenge, as demonstrated by the current involuntary resettlement crisis in Abidjan. In Abidjan as a whole (population 5 to 6 million), an estimated 800,000 people live in precarious or ultra-precarious conditions.

For the first time in 30 years, Côte d'Ivoire has risen from the low-HDI category to the medium-HDI category, but its performance could be significantly better. Gender equality, parity between men and women, and the promotion and protection of young girls remain urgent issues. Issues relating to basic education and training also continue to be major concerns.

That being said, and without becoming overly optimistic, Côte d'Ivoire remains, since the start of the 2010s, one of the rare African examples of real emergence. There is a dynamic at work in Côte d'Ivoire, and in Abidjan in particular. In any case, cities are playing an increasingly important role in this emergence process. Here, we do not feel on the fringes of the world, constrained by ultra-local problems. Here, instead, we feel the air of the open sea. And it feels good.

Central to this dynamic is a plan, a project followed consistently . And the role of the President, Alassane Dramane Ouattara. ADO governs both from above and up close. He is, obviously, a politician. He is clearly a patriarch, and sometimes touchy. He fought his way to power, founded a party, a force, a movement in his favour, with loyal lieutenants. He has people around him, and that counts. He is protected by his inner circle, and that counts. He has the backing of the technostructure, and that counts.

But what matters most to him are results. Deep down, ADO wants to succeed, show that an African country can succeed, show that an African head of state can make a difference and escape the usual clichés. He cares about his legacy, his place in the country's history, and the image he projects to the world.

Clearly, it's not a done deal and the future has yet to be written. Côte d’Ivoire need to maintain and strengthen the virtuous circles of development. Strengthen and maintain the virtuous circles of democratisation and modernisation. Factor in new threats, such as climate change and regional security. And lastly, face the upcoming deadline. October 2025 and the presidential election. ADO has not announced his decision or his choices, but he, more than anyone else, knows what's at stake. The President knows that the deadline commits him, as well as the whole of Côte d'Ivoire.