Until the 1990s, Côte d’Ivoire was West Africa’s most stable and prosperous country. Its capital, Abidjan, offered opportunity to domestic migrants and refuge to immigrants from Côte d’Ivoire’s war-torn neighbors. But even before Côte d’Ivoire descended into chaos in 1999, the Ivorian capital saw poverty spike as the economy began to falter. In the turbulent years since 1999, Abidjan has seen its poor population placed under ever greater economic pressure. With more than a third of Abidjan’s population living in slums, the situation for Abidjan’s poor remains dire even as calm is restored in Côte d’Ivoire.
After gaining its independence from France in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire quickly stood out as a paragon of good governance. With its economy boosted by cocoa and coffee exports, the country retained strong relations with the West (particularly the U.S.) and never flirted with socialism. Côte d’Ivoire’s capital, Abidjan, became the focal point of the country’s export-oriented economy and thus attracted migrants from around the country: its population tripled between 1965 and 1975. The city also attracted refugees who fled poverty and war in Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbors, with foreigners comprising about 20 percent of the Ivorian population in 1999. Abidjan’s residents made remarkably good livelihoods, with poverty rates in the city below 5 percent until the early 1990s.
This rosy scene began to deteriorate in 1986 when the economy entered a protracted recession. Economic conditions slid further in the 1990s as cocoa and coffee prices fell. By 2000, GNP per capita had fallen a third from its 1980 level. With the national economy in a tailspin, poverty in Abidjan and the nation spiked. According to MIT sources, the poor formed 20 percent of Abidjan’s population in 1995, up from under 5 percent two years prior. Abidjan’s poor suffered disproportionately in the late 1990s from cuts to foreign aid in response to government mismanagement. More recently, the poor have borne the brunt of the intermittent civil conflict that has engulfed the country since 1999. By the time national reconciliation efforts began bearing fruit in 2008, many Abidjan residents considered two daily meals a rare luxury, and school fees proved wholly unaffordable for many families.
As in many commercial hubs of developing nations, the poor of Abidjan live largely in slums. According to recent estimates, more than one third of Abidjan’s population resides in slums, up from 13.8 percent in 1988. The slum population is just as cosmopolitan as the city as a whole, if not more so: as of 1994, only 40 percent of slum dwellers were born in Côte d’Ivoire – most slum dwellers were born in nearby West African states. But Abidjan’s slums offer none of the promise that these immigrants and domestic migrants alike sought. According to Ivorian government surveys, more than two thirds of slum households reside in the slums for lack of means to live elsewhere.
Recent civil calm in Côte d’Ivoire should offer solace to the poor of Abidjan – at long last, their country is on the mend. But only time will tell if Côte d’Ivoire will ever regain its reputation as a beacon of prosperity in the world’s poorest region.
– Leo Zucker