The West African country Côte d’Ivoire, once hailed as an “African Miracle” for its economic growth and political stability, was thrown into civil war by a rebellion in September 2002. The rebellion failed to oust the president, but took military control over more than two thirds of the country’s territory. The thesis sees the rebellion as a result of a deep legitimacy crisis developing over years, and asks what has caused the decline in legitimacy and the political destabilization that culminated in the rebellion. Looking beyond the “ethnic manipulation” aspect of the political crisis, where political leaders of all parties have used nationality, ethnicity and identity as mobilizing factors, the study focuses on economic changes and policies and asks how these have influenced political conflict.
The findings show that political changes and reforms have influenced conflict at different levels. At the elite level, the resort to nationalism and ethnic politics, most clearly manifest in the Ivoirité discourse, is seen as a political response to a situation of economic crisis and reduced policy space. While the economic crisis in itself limited policy choices and made it difficult to uphold social cohesion, economic reforms imposed by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) further reduced policy choices and weakened the state’s institutional capacities to respond to the crisis. Furthermore, the reduced autonomy of the government vis-à-vis the IFIs in the “hardest” crisis years delegitimized the government in the eyes of the public. At the popular level, increased poverty due to economic crisis, coupled with harsh measures such as the halving of salaries due to IFI reform policies, led to increasing political protest and violence, which in the course of the 1990s was increasingly turned into a nationalistic violence.
While the study does not blame the Ivorian political crisis on the IFIs, it points to mechanisms by which economic reform policies may unintendedly affect and reinforce existing conflicts. The results hence call for greater attention to political and institutional aspects of economic reform, which tend to be overlooked in a debate dominated by economics.