Written by Ionel Zamfir,
On 14 June 2017, the European Parliament will welcome Côte d’Ivoire’s President, Alassane Ouattara, who will address the Plenary. Alassane Ouatarra will be the first African president to visit the EP during President Antonio Tajani’s term of office. President Tajani, in a speech on the state of the Union delivered in May, the, emphasised that ‘we need to see Africa through African eyes’, and to this purpose he intends to invite African heads of state to the European Parliament. President Ouatarra’s visit follows the visit of African Union Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, during the May Plenary.
Côte d’Ivoire will host the next EU-Africa Summit, which brings together Heads of State and Government from the two sides, and takes place in late November 2017 in Abidjan. The Summit is expected to outline a new roadmap for cooperation between the EU and Africa in the framework of the EU-Africa Partnership.
In the six years that have passed since the end of the bloody civil war that divided Côte d’Ivoire on sectarian and ethnic lines, the country has witnessed remarkably positive trends: it has sustained one of the fastest economic growth rates in Africa with around 9 % on average, and it has enjoyed substantial political stability. However, since the beginning of 2017, military mutinies and armed protests by disaffected ex-rebels, as well as social unrest, have overshadowed this positive record. Coupled with fiscal pressures due to the drop in commodity prices, they risk endangering this impressive economic growth and the achievement of the development objective set by the government – that Côte d’Ivoire achieve emerging country status by 2020.
Following independence in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire, under the Houphouët-Boigny regime, was widely regarded as a model of political stability and economic success, in a region plagued by numerous crises and conflicts. The transition to multiparty democracy and the economic slowdown in the 1990s marked the start of political turmoil ultimately leading to civil conflict. The conflict lasted nine years, dividing the country into the predominantly Christian south and the Muslim north. The inclusive presidential elections held in November 2010, following a political agreement to solve the crisis, ended with both camps claiming victory. This led to massive violence, thousands of deaths and large-scale displacement of the population. The candidate supported by the rebel camp, Alassane Ouattara, was officially declared the winner and recognised by the international community. However, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to relinquish power and had to be forcibly removed, with outside military help. Gbagbo was subsequently sent to The Hague to be judged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The political parties supporting Outarra, organised in a large coalition, were able to secure a comfortable majority in the 2011 and 2016 parliamentary elections. Outarra himself won a second presidential mandate in 2015 with a large majority that confirmed his popularity. Nevertheless, the political wounds of the conflict have yet not fully healed, since Gbagbo’s followers have boycotted these elections.
The world’s top cocoa producer records impressive economic progress
An economist by profession, Outtara was Prime Minister of Côte d’Ivoire between 1990 and 1993, worked with the International Monetary Fund in various positions and was Governor of the Central Bank of West African States between 1988 and 1993. Given his professional background, Outtara embodied the hope for economic reform and renewed growth. Indeed, following his election, Côte d’Ivoire has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, with a yearly growth rate of between 10 % and 7.5 % since 2012. This secured the country a rise in GDP of around 50 %. The drivers of growth have been multiple. The government made strides in creating a business friendly climate, and improving the fiscal situation. Agricultural production of export items such as cocoa, coffee beans, palm oil and bananas has been robust, providing important foreign exchange revenues. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, with cocoa accounting for more than half of exports. It is also the second largest African producer of bananas. Côte d’Ivoire is a net exporter of oil, securing $2 billion in oil revenue in 2015. In recent years, several major infrastructure projects have come to life around the country. The country has also seen increased foreign direct investment.
However, important obstacles remain to the country’s development: such as its reliance on agricultural production, which is dependent on weather conditions and commodity prices, poor electricity supply and weak transport infrastructure. Economic imbalances between the coastal regions and the rest of the country remain high. Corruption and a lack of skilled workers are other inhibiting factors.
Fiscal pressures are accumulating, due increased public investment under the national Plan for Development (PND) for 2016-2020, and to lower than expected fiscal revenue and external financing. This is in part thanks to the drop, by a third, in cocoa prices in 2017. While GDP growth is expected to slow down slightly this year, according to the International Monetary Fund it will continue at rates over 7 % yearly over the next three years.
Despite political stability, security threats persist
The security situation remains fragile. The country suffered a major terrorist attack in March 2016, for which Al-Qaida claimed responsibility. The United Mission Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI), established during the civil conflict, will leave the country in June 2017, possibly leaving security gaps behind. The recent mutinies by soldiers claiming arrears and salary raises has demonstrated that political control of the military is weak. The first mutiny, in January 2017 in Bouaké, ended with the demands of the soldiers being met, triggering a spiral of similar claims by other soldiers and by demobilised former rebels. The mutiny paralysed parts of the country in May and led to clashes with loyal armed forces. The social situation has also been tense, with strikes and demonstrations over electricity tariffs, the reform of the pensions scheme, and payments of arrears in the civil service.
Major social challenges remain
Côte d’Ivoire is a lower-middle income economy and should thus be better off than most other countries in West Africa, which are low income economies. Numerous social challenges however persist. Life expectancy is low, population growth rapid (with around half of the population under 18 years of age), youth unemployment is significant. Poverty, although declining, still affects almost half of the population. Côte d’Ivoire is one of the least favourable countries in the world to be a young person, due to its low scores on education, health and well-being, and civic participation for the young, according to the Youth Development Index published by the Commonwealth.
Deepening relations with the EU
Côte d’Ivoire is one of only two countries in West Africa, which have a preferential trade agreement in place with the EU. The Stepping Stone Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and Côte d’Ivoire entered into provisional application in September 2016, pending the ratification of the EU preferential trade agreement with the entire West African region. The country thus retains its free access to the EU market – which could not have been granted unilaterally by the EU, given its lower-middle income economy status. The EU is Côte d’Ivoire’s main trading and investment partner. In 2015, 28 % of Côte d’Ivoire’s imports were of EU origin, and the EU received 34 % of Côte d’Ivoire exports (cacao, cashew nuts, gold). The new trade agreement will provide legal certainty for investors and is expected to boost trade relations between the two parties as well as economic growth in Côte d’Ivoire.