The Ivory Coast: A Jewel Before Its Decline

Since a contested presidential election in November, the West African nation of Ivory Coast has fallen into chaos. The country has long been in the decline, but at one point, it was considered the jewel of West Africa, its economy fortified by profits from cocoa exports. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks with Yale professor Mike McGovern about the Ivory Coast's history and the events that led up to the current humanitarian crisis.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Mike McGovern, Yale professor and West Africa specialist, remembers Ivory Coast in calmer, more prosperous times, when the country was flush with cocoa profits and the city of Abidjan was at its busy peak. He described it for us this way.

Professor MIKE McGOVERN (Anthropology, Yale University): It would've been a lot like going into the middle of Times Square at night and seeing all of the high-rise buildings and the neon lights. And the roads were well-paved. There were big overpasses, something that's relatively rare in a lot of West African cities. And things generally worked.

The electricity didn't go out. The water ran pretty much 24 hours. These are things that people in most West African cities cannot take for granted, but in Abidjan, you could.

WERTHEIMER: In better days, isn't it true that people were coming into the Ivory Coast to do business from all over West Africa, from Europe?

Prof. McGOVERN: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: Was it all about the production of chocolate?

Prof. McGOVERN: Well, the foundation of the economy was cocoa. Cote d'Ivoire remains the biggest cocoa producer in the world. About 40 percent of the world's cocoa comes from there.

WERTHEIMER: So what happened to Ivory Coast?

Prof. McGOVERN: Well, around the mid-'80s, the economy started turning for the worse. And there are a number of reasons for that, but one of them was that a lot of other countries saw that growing cocoa could be lucrative. And so with countries like Indonesia coming into the market and stepped-up production from places like Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire was squeezed to sell its cocoa at a lower price.

And so things kind of entered a steady slide from about the mid-'80s until the present. Of course, in the last 10 years, that slide has become precipitous.

WERTHEIMER: As I understand it, there was another ingredient in this mix, and that has to do with the large numbers of immigrants who had come into Ivory Coast during its period of prosperity. And as the economy declined, they were still there, and the locals began to resent them.

Prof. McGOVERN: That's true. About a third of the population there are either immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. And when the economy turned down, then the feeling towards immigrants became increasingly negative, and people started feeling that if they were able to sort of expel this immigrant population, they would somehow cure all of the problems that really were independent of the immigrant population.

In many respects, immigrants in Cote d'Ivoire do work that most Ivoirians couldn't be bothered to do or wouldn't be willing to do. So the rhetoric around immigration is not so different from what you can see right now in Europe or the United States.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this conflict has stretched over five months. There are thousands of people dead. When you think back to the prosperous country that was there maybe 20 years ago, do you see any possibility of the Ivory Coast getting back to that?

Prof. McGOVERN: The quick answer is that in the next five or 10 years, probably not. I do have some faith that Ivoirians are very practical and entrepreneurial. And really if somebody can offer a situation to most Ivoirians under which they can make a decent living and make more money than they have been making, then ultimately, people are going to find a way to work out the other problems.

But this is really a long-term situation. We're talking about 15, 20 years from now.

WERTHEIMER: Mike McGovern is a professor of political anthropology at Yale University. He's the author of the book "Making War in Cote D'Ivoire."

Mike McGovern, thank you for being with us.

Prof. McGOVERN: Thank you.

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