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Ghana and Côte d'Îvoire: Currents of Post Colonial Democratization

By Patrick Iskandar
Published 2019-04-28

On March 6th, 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from European colonization. Nationalist sentiments swept the continent and the arduous process of decolonization accelerated throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. However, following their independence, former colonies faced a new challenge: developing a modern, independent nation-state. The legacy of colonialism gave rise to political and economic instability, posing a significant obstacle to African development. The economies of most of these former colonies were left heavily reliant on the export of raw materials, essentially guaranteeing economic dependence on the developed world. Moreover, amidst the Scramble for Africa European colonizers drew up arbitrary borders, dividing African territories along ethnic and religious lines. Consequently, several countries became multi-ethnic societies comprising a considerable number of ethnic and religious groups, which has proven to be one of the more prominent determinants of regional conflict. While many African states share striking similarities in decolonial history and proximity, certain factors have resulted in unanticipated deviations along their paths to development. This paper will center two such cases in particular: Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

Today, Ghana is believed by many to be a model for African democratization. A national referendum was held in 1992, and with 92% support, a new constitution was approved, introducing a multi-party system. Since 1996, Ghana has consistently held free and fair elections, and power has transitioned peacefully several times throughout these elections. The 2008 presidential election, in particular, quelled widespread skepticism as to whether Ghana could be considered a consolidated democracy. This election was underscored by tension, as it took place amidst a wave of unsuccessful elections and associated violence throughout the region. The results of the runoff election were remarkably close, but the incumbent New Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, lost with 49.7% of the vote, handing power over to the National Democratic Congress (NDC) candidate, John Atta Mills. While the election results were highly disputed and tensions rose immediately following the announcement of the election results, power was transferred peacefully, marking the second peaceful exchange of power since the multi-party system was established in 1992.

Côte d’Ivoire was one of seventeen African countries that gained independence in 1960, often referred to as the ‘Year of Africa’. Similarly to Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire is a multi-ethnic state, composed of over sixty ethnic groups. In 1990, a multi-party system was introduced, and Côte d’Ivoire had its first successful presidential election. However, restrictions were imposed on candidates of immigrant descent through the nativist doctrine of Ivoirité, and subsequent elections were boycotted. This divided the country along ethnic lines, and in 1999, President Henri Bédié was overthrown in a military coup. He was replaced by General Robert Guei, who proceeded to use Ivoirité to disqualify his opponent, Alassane Ouattara. The presidential election was boycotted again, and when Guei declared himself the winner, widespread uprisings took place and he was forced out of power. Laurent Gbagbo took his place, but continued to support Ivoirité, causing many to regard his government as illegitimate. Ethnic tensions continued to rise, as many ethnic groups were disenfranchised by exclusive citizenship policies, and by 2002 the country had spiralled into civil war.

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire peacefully gained independence within three years of one another. Both countries are within close geographical proximity to one another, and the size and ethnic configuration of their populations are relatively similar. Despite these shared attributes, the two countries’ paths have deviated drastically since gaining independence. This sharp divergence in their trajectories can predominantly be attributed to three factors: their respective colonial histories, the distinct incentives of their political elites, and varying degrees of their economic development.

Colonial History

Ghana, previously known as the Gold Coast, was colonized by the British in 1867 and remained a colony until gaining its independence in 1957. While Ghana has been an independent nation for over 60 years, the legacy of British colonialism has had a discernible impact on the state of contemporary Ghanaian politics. For one, British imperialism was largely characterized by the spread of the Christian doctrine. The British Empire abolished slavery in the early 19th century, prior to the colonization of Ghana, so Britain focused their efforts towards setting up Christian missionary programs to spread the Christian gospel throughout West Africa. This mission-based form of imperialism heavily emphasized education, which has resulted in higher education levels among former British colonies. This ended up playing an instrumental role in promoting Ghanaian nationalist movements, which were heavily influenced by Christianity. David Kimble, a British academic who conducted extensive research on the rise of nationalism in the Gold Coast, states in the article “The End of Colonial Rule: Nationalism and Decolonization: "the nationalist movement could hardly have got under way had it not been for the remarkable work of the Missions in the field of education." Many key leaders of Ghanaian nationalist movements were Christians that received their education from Protestant mission schools. Furthermore, British imperialists promoted the development of bureaucratic and political structures among its colonies to a greater extent than most other European colonizers. The British provided a system of representation for the Ghanaian people, and while this system was limited, it ultimately exposed political elites to democratic forms of governance. In 1946, Governor Alan Burns approved profound constitutional amendments that allowed for a majority African Legislative Council to be elected. Just one year later, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was founded, marking the first political party in Ghana to call for self-governance. This indirect form of British rule promoted democratic institutions in Ghana, which has contributed significantly to the powerful presence of civil society in the country today. It should be noted that this is not a value judgment on the benefits of British imperialism, but rather an observation of the crucial role that strong public institutions play in the success of building and democratizing a nation.

Since its independence, Ghana has defied expectations and avoided major conflict, despite the prominence of violence and civil war throughout other former colonies in West Africa. This can be ascribed to two main factors: the strength of Ghana’s civil society and democratic institutions. Ghana’s vibrant civil society has contributed to the transparency and credibility of elections in the country. For example, the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) televises live debates, deploys thousands of election observers throughout the country, and in 2008, the coalition set up a parallel vote-tabulation for the first time to independently verify election results. In addition, several civil society organizations, such as the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) and the Institute for Democratic Governance (IDEG), provide platforms and forums to promote interaction between citizens and political candidates. The resilience and efficacy of Ghana’s democratic institutions have also contributed to relative peace and democratic consolidation in the country. The Electoral Commission (EC) has consistently proven to be a reliable and neutral institution that has played a crucial role in maintaining electoral credibility. Perhaps the most important function Ghanaian institutions have provided to maintaining stability has been the availability of a legitimate and accessible medium for handling election disputes. The Ghanaian judiciary created a new system at the High Courts to address electoral disputes, and the Supreme Court published a Manual on Election Adjudication, which describes several ways one can utilize the courts to dispute election results. These institutions have been used successfully to address electoral disputes during the 2008 Presidential elections as well as the 2009 Parliamentary elections. Widespread dissatisfaction with these results could have easily spiralled into violence, as we have seen in many African countries, but the Ghanaian people used democratic institutions to address their concerns, which shows the extent to which Ghana has consolidated its democracy. The efficacy and accessibility of these institutions and civil society organizations have played a large role in Ghana’s democratic consolidation, and the character of these institutions can be traced back to aspects of Ghana’s colonial history.

Côte d’Ivoire
Côte d’Ivoire has faced considerable challenges in its pursuit for democracy following its independence from France in 1960. The country has been plagued by violence and ethnic tensions, and the roots of these complications can be traced back to Côte d’Ivoire’s colonial history. France colonized Côte d’Ivoire, along with much of sub-Saharan Africa, towards the end of the 19th century. While British imperialism was established upon the premise of superiority and a ‘responsibility to civilize the native people’, French imperialism was introduced in Africa for predominantly extractive purposes. This is not to say that the French did not also adhere to this notion of superiority, but rather that the driving force of French colonialism was more economically exploitative than culturally supremacist. French colonial policy accentuated assimilation to French culture, but this assimilation was mainly targeted towards educated elites with the intention of formulating an intermediate representative group of Ivorian natives that supported French interests. This representative body, however, held no real power, and in 1947 only 21 Ivoirians were elected into this council. The consequences of the direct nature of French colonial rule were pervasive and largely responsible for the lack of substantial civil society and democratic institutions in Côte d’Ivoire, which ultimately served to be a contributing factor to the 2002 Civil War.

A common obstacle to consolidation in transitioning democracies tends to be the persistence of certain aspects of the previous regime. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, this extended presence of French influence following independence was a significant determinant of the political destabilization and conflict that led to its civil war. In fact, “The French presence in Côte d’Ivoire became even more noticeable than it was during the colonial era. The number of French residents rose from 10,000 at independence to 50,000, one of the largest French communities living outside of France”. France administered direct colonial rule over Côte d’Ivoire, and as the process of decolonization began to take place throughout African colonies, France started to transfer power to pro-French Ivorian leaders. Felix Houphouet-Boigny, an Ivorian and a member of the French Assembly, was put in place as the leading political figure in Côte d’Ivoire. Felix and his party, the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), maintained strong relations with France and supported French interests. Accordingly, Felix enjoyed support from the French government and military following independence. As a result, Felix was easily able to take control of the country, and he remained in power for over thirty years.

Houphouet-Boigny’s rule was repressive and authoritarian, and he ran unopposed in every election spanning from Côte d’Ivoire’s independence in 1960 until 1990. Under this one-party system, President Houphouet-Boigny suppressed all political opponents, and the PDCI continued to dominate Ivoirian politics as the only legal political party. The political environment of Côte d’Ivoire following independence closely resembled the systems in place during its colonization, as African customary law was abandoned and French law was codified into the newly independent Ivoirian government. Houphouet-Boigny’s political oppression and allegiance to French interests posed a major obstacle to the development of civil society organizations, as the freedom to organize and form such organizations was heavily restricted under an administration that was essentially an extension of the prior French colonial rule. Additionally, the inclusive nature of Houphouet-Boigny’s political regime left little room for the development of legitimate democratic institutions. The codification of French law served to increase central state power, and no institutions were put in place to check the power of Houphouet-Boigny or address concerns of the Ivoirian people. Many ethnic groups throughout Côte d’Ivoire have been socially, economically, and politically marginalized by the policies of Houphouet-Boigny and his successors, and this was largely a result of extended French influence in the Ivoirian political system. Due to a lack of democratic institutions and effective civil society in Côte d’Ivoire, these ethnic groups had no viable channel through which they could express their grievances, which further deepened ethnic tensions and made civil war inevitable.

Incentives of Political Elites

The commitment of political elites to maintaining political stability in the country has been a leading determinant of democratic prosperity in Ghana. In 1992, a new Ghanaian constitution was passed, establishing term limits and a multi-party system. Since then, political elites have consistently shown their commitment to abiding by the democratic norms put forth by this constitution, and this has been instrumental to the consolidation of Ghana’s democracy.

Democracy enjoys widespread support throughout Ghana. While the state of its economy leaves much to be desired, it is well documented that the Ghanaian people almost unanimously support democracy as a form of government. Data from four Afrobarometer surveys, conducted in 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2008, has shown that 82% of Ghanaians prefer democracy to alternative forms of government. In addition, Ghanaian voter turnout has historically exceeded US voter turnout in elections. This support and participation in Ghana’s democracy has provided an incentive for political elites to uphold the legitimacy of its democracy. Prior to the 1992 Constitution, Jerry Rawlings served as the military leader of Ghana. Once the multi-party electoral system was established, he led the National Commission on Democracy (NCD) and ran for office and was democratically elected as president in 1993. He ran and won again in 1996, but once his second term came to an end, Rawlings readily complied with the two-term limit imposed in the Constitution. John Kufuor won the 2000 presidential elections, succeeding Rawlings and marking Ghana’s first peaceful transition of power. Kufuor went on to win re-election in 2004, and by the time his second term was over, he too readily gave up power. In addition to this, Kufuor took further action that signified his commitment to stability in Ghana. The 2008 election was seen as an especially critical election due to heightened regional tensions. The race was exceptionally close, and no candidate received a majority of votes. A runoff election was held between John Atta Mills and Nana Akufo-Addo, and Mills won the runoff by less than one percent. There was widespread dissatisfaction with these results, and large-scale violence seemed imminent. However, John Kufuor released a statement urging candidates and Ghanaian citizens to accept the election results rather than taking to the streets. This action played a crucial role in maintaining peace, and the adherence of these Ghanaian leaders to the democratic norms of the 1992 Constitution have been paramount in consolidating Ghana’s democracy.

Côte d’Ivoire
Côte d’Ivoire bears great resemblance to Ghana in terms of ethnic demographics. However, ethnic tensions that precipitated civil war in Côte d’Ivoire were largely absent in Ghana. Such unexpected deviation was the result of asymmetric incentives among respective political elites. Ghanaian elites have been driven by incentives to avoid division and accept democratic norms. Ivoirian political elites, however, have done the opposite. Since the introduction of a multi-party system, Ivoirian politics have been characterized by instrumentalism, or the manipulation of culture as a tool for political gain. Ivoirian elites have had the incentive to mobilize along ethnic and religious lines, and this ethnic mobilization was a prominent cause of the civil war.

This brings about the question of why the incentives of Ivoirian elites differed so radically from those of Ghanaian elites. The answer to this question can better be understood through the Theory of Relative Deprivation. This theory highlights the importance of horizontal inequalities, which refers to inequalities between culturally defined groups. This theory has been re-developed in recent years by Frances Stewart, who states, “where there are social, economic and political inequalities, coinciding with cultural differences, culture could become a powerful mobilising agent that can lead to a range of political disturbances”. William Case further developed this theory in 1996, claiming “elite unity or disunity is the main determinant of the forms regimes take.” This creates a distinction between horizontal inequality at the elite level and at the level of the masses. While horizontal inequality among the masses can often lead to political violence, inequality among elites is more likely to be a determinant of conflict. If political elites are at a consensus with one another, they have less incentive to mobilize along cultural lines. However, in Côte d’Ivoire, horizontal inequalities existed both among elites and among the masses. In 1993, with the support of the PDCI, Henri Bédié, succeeded Houphouet-Boigny as president following his death. Soon after, Bédié introduced the doctrine of Ivoiritè, which was an ethnically divisive political tactic that disenfranchised Ivoirians of immigrant descent and disqualified them from seeking the presidency. This disproportionately marginalized northerners, and Ivoiritè was added to the 2000 Constitution. This introduced horizontal inequality at the elite level, as certain influential political leaders, such as Alassane Ouattara, were disqualified from running for election. Bédié also gave more political influence and economic privileges to members of his own ethnic group, the Baoulé, and he altered the composition of the military and state institutions to favor this group. This horizontal inequality at the elite level incentivized leaders to mobilize among ethnic and religious lines, rather than attempt to uphold democratic norms, and this ultimately culminated with a civil war.

Economic Development

Historically, one of the longer lasting and more detrimental impacts of imperialism on former colonies has been the reinforcement of an export-based economy. Dependency theory argues that the development of the “metropolis”, or what we consider to be the developed world, has come at the expense and “underdevelopment” of the periphery. As a result, most countries have remained heavily dependent on the export of raw materials following independence. This leaves the economies of these former colonies vulnerable to factors beyond their control, such as fluctuations in demand and prices of goods in the global economy. Following its independence from Britain, Ghana remained overly dependent on its agricultural sector and on the export of raw materials such as cocoa, coffee, and gold. In fact, following independence, Ghana was the largest cocoa exporter in the world. Following the oil shock in the late 1970’s, cocoa and coffee prices fell drastically and Ghana faced a debt crisis. However, through economic reforms such as the 1983 Economic Recovery Program (ERP), Ghana was able to turn its economy around, and the country has continued to experience economic growth well into the new millennium.

Ghana’s Economic Recovery Program consisted of reductions in economic regulation, new exchange rate policies to curb inflation, and increased promotion of external financing, such as Foreign Direct Investment. These policies were generally effective, and Ghana entered an extended period of relative economic prosperity. Since independence, Ghana has successfully diversified its economy, and by 2013, Ghanaian service and industrial sectors eclipsed its agricultural sector in terms of share of GDP. In addition, Ghana was able to cut its poverty levels in half, transitioning from a 52.6% poverty rate in 1991 to 21.4% in 2012. Extreme poverty and infant mortality rates have also declined significantly, and in 2010, Ghana joined the league of African Oil Producing Nations and attained middle-income status among the international community. While inequality persists in Ghana and poverty remains concentrated in certain regions, Ghana was largely able to escape its colonial legacy and implement a sustainable economy that is not entirely dependent on the export of raw materials. As of 2010, Ghana ranked highest among West African countries in the UN Human Development Index, which measures factors such as health, life expectancy, education, and income. The economic diversification and prosperity that Ghana has experienced since its independence is atypical of the region, and it has played a major role in consolidating Ghana’s democracy.

Côte d’Ivoire
In the years following Ivorian independence, Côte d’Ivoire experienced sustained economic growth. This was largely due to the policies of Félix Houphouet-Boigny and the continued financial support he received from France. Under the rule of President Houphouet-Boigny, the Ivoirian economy remained primarily export driven throughout the 1960’s, and Côte d’Ivoire emerged as a leading global exporter of cocoa. However, this cocoa industry perpetuated the exploitation of the North for labour, creating a stark divide between the Northern and Southern regions of the country. The North continued to experience high rates of poverty and inequality, while the South reaped most of the economic benefits of the cocoa trade. The structure of this industry carried over to the oil and gas sectors, and wealth remained concentrated in the South. By 1980, the Ivoirian economy took a plunge in response to the oil shocks and the sharp decline in the global price of goods. In response, the government implemented austerity measures to reduce the budget deficit, and this further aggravated regional and ethnic tensions throughout the country. Ivoirians were frustrated by lower wages and an increase in unemployment, both of which disproportionately impacted Northerners. This economic and political turbulence continued throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, and the Ivoirian government was unable to appropriately address these issues. Poverty rates increased throughout this period, and inequality remained stagnant. Although Côte d’Ivoire was able to maintain economic prosperity for some time following independence, this over-reliance on an export based economy proved to be unsustainable, and the failure of the Ivoirian government to reverse this economic instability throughout the 80’s and 90’s exacerbated ethnic inequalities and precipitated the civil war.

The legacy of colonialism has cast a shadow that still lingers over much of the post-colonial world. Some countries, such as Ghana, were able to surmount these burdens and successfully democratize, largely because they retained healthy and functional institutions of democratic governance. Unfortunately, more often than not former colonies remained plagued by conflict and instability, and many experienced shocking and abrupt economic and political ‘breaks’ with their respective metropoles. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, this has resulted in sustained civil conflict and dysfunction. The more centralized nature of French imperial rule inhibited the growth of civil society and democratic institutions in Côte d’Ivoire in the years following independence, and this provoked sentiments of resentment towards exclusionary citizenship policies and lack of political representation. The failure of the Ivoirian government to distance itself from a neocolonial, export-based economy resulted in the stagnation of economic development, intensifying regional inequalities. This produced an environment in which political elites were incentivized to mobilize along ethnic and regional divides, which ultimately led to the civil war. British colonization, while hawkish and inhumane, allowed for the development of representative institutions in Ghana, which allowed them to more effectively form democratic institutions following independence. This, along with the diversification and growth of the Ghanaian economy, contributed to the mitigation of many grievances among the Ghanaian population. The availability of democratic channels to address these grievances allowed Ghana to avoid the proliferation of ethno-nationalism that transpired in Côte d’Ivoire. Ghana’s democracy has not been free of complications, such as lack of female political participation and an overly dominant executive branch. However, Ghana has been relatively successful in surmounting the burdens of colonization that have afflicted much of the global periphery, and today Ghana has earned its status as the epitome of democratic consolidation in West Africa.

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