The Demographic Dimensions of the Conflict in Ivory Coast

Map of population density in West Africa, 1960Migration has played a major role in Ivory Coast’s recent troubles. As immigrants from neighboring countries have moved in, Ivorian nativists have reacted by seeking to exclude foreigners—and their children—from citizenship. Such anti-immigrant attitudes and resulting policies have in turn provoked both migrant communities and members of related ethnic groups living in northern Ivory Coast. As roughly seventy percent of immigrants are estimated to follow Islam, the conflict is often framed in religious terms. Non-Muslim immigrants from other African countries, however, find themselves in the same position as Muslim ones. Internal population transfers within Ivory Coast, moreover, have generated similar and equally severe conflicts, again regardless of the religious persuasion of the migrants in question.

At the time of independence in 1960, Ivory Coast was a lightly populated land, with only three and a half million people living in an area slightly larger than Italy. As the Ivorian economy boomed through the 1960s and 1970s, propelled by cacao and other tropical plantation crops, the demand for labor surged. To meet labor needs, the government of Félix Houphouët-Boigny (president from 1960 to 1993) encouraged migration, both from neighboring Francophone countries and internally within Ivory Coast. During the boom years, immigrants and sojourners also came from more distant places. From 1960 to 1980, the French population of Ivory Coast doubled, rising from 30,000 to 60,000. Lebanese arrived in even greater numbers. By the late 1980s, as many as 300,000 people from Lebanon and Syria had settled in the country. Through the 1970s, the Ivorian government encouraged this influx, valuing the entrepreneurial skills of the Lebanese migrants. In late 2010 and early 2011, however, thousands of Lebanese fled the country after their community was targeted by militia groups, supposedly for meddling  in Ivorian affairs

Map of population density in West Africa, 1990Population distribution maps help illuminate the dynamics of migration in Ivory Coast and neighboring countries. As the first map shows, settlement in 1960 was sparse across northern Ivory Coast, yet was significantly thicker across the border in Mali and especially in Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta). These inland countries, partially isolated from global commerce, did not share Ivory Coast’s prosperity during the 1960s and ‘70s. As a result, large numbers of northerners, especially Burkinabe (as the people of Burkina Faso are called), streamed southward into the plantation districts and burgeoning cities of southern Ivory Coast. By 1990, the southeast had clearly emerged as the most densely populated part of the country, as is evident in the second map.

Migration patterns within Ivory Coast have also been influenced by population differentials. The 1965 Ivory Coast population map posted here illustrates well the internal demographic patterns shortly after independence. At that time, the southeast was relatively well settled, but the highest population densities were found in the central belt, particularly in the Baoulé heartland around the city of Bouaké. At the time, southwestern Ivory Coast was sparsely settled. To be sure, the Bété core area north of Gagnoa had numerous inhabitants, but few people lived in most other parts of the region.

Map of population density in Ivory Coast, 1965Both to enhance agricultural development in Ivory Coast and to relieve population pressure in densely settled areas, President Houphouët-Boigny encouraged his Baoulé ethnic kin to move into the southwest, promising them rights to the land that they could take under cultivation. In 1967, the government decreed that, “land belongs to the person who cultivates it.” As the Baoulé (along with the Senufo of the north) were reputed to be the country’s best farmers, Baoulé migration was widely associated with rising agricultural production and hence national economic growth.

The economic situation of Ivory Coast changed dramatically after 1980. Cacao prices, like those of many other agricultural and mineral commodities, slumped though 1980s and ‘90s; not until 2011 did the value of cacao—spurred by Ivory Coast’s recent travails—again reach the level seen in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, the Ivorian economy shrank by 28 percent, and it slipped by another 22 percent in the 1990s. At the same time, the country’s population surged, exceeding thirteen million in 1991 (it is now over twenty million). Ivorian birth rates remained exceedingly high through the 1970s, at almost eight children per woman. The country’s total fertility rate began to drop in the 1980s, but at roughly four children per woman it still stands well above the replacement level.

The combination of population growth, migration, and economic decline sparked widespread ethnic conflicts by the 1990s. The southwest emerged as a particular hotspot, as Bété indigenes clashed with Baoulé migrants, a conflict that has nothing to do with Ivory Coast’s north/south and Muslim/Christian divides. A 2005 Christian Science Monitor article does a good job of covering strife in the region that took an estimated 123 lives in that year:

Village official Stefan Kouassi talks of a “persistent tension” between his settler community of Yaokro and the indigenous villagers from Briéhoua. Yaokro was established in 1967 by 30 families from the Baoulé ethnic group who had migrated from central Ivory Coast. But Briéhoua’s people are from the Bete tribe and see themselves as the ultimate owners of the land, on the basis of centuries-old ancestral tradition. Celine Koukou Ahou, an ethnic Baoulé from Yaokro, says she can no longer sell food in the main local market because of harassment. ‘They [the Betes] say the land is theirs – that we should go back to where we came from.” … Betes throughout their southwestern home region echo the anti-settler sentiment. “The foreigners didn’t even ask permission from anyone” to take farmland, says Oubon Andre Okrou, the chief of nearby Gra-Zie village. “Now there are youths here who don’t have anywhere to farm.” In the southwest, the term “foreigner” is used for anyone outside of the region – whether Ivorian or not.

The article notes that tensions in the Bété country had been exacerbated by the Ivorian Civil War. Even though the area is well south of the military fault line that temporarily (2002-2007) split the country, the war forced many people to return to their natal villages, intensifying local ethnic struggles. The civil war itself will form the next and final topic in this series of posts on unrest in Ivory Coast.