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Former Ivory Coast President has died aged 89. What's his legacy?

Ivory Coast is mourning. Indeed, the country has lost one of its most enigmatic political figures. President Henri Konan Bedié died on August 1, 2023, at the Polyclinique Internationale Saint Anne-Marie (PISAM) Hospital in Abidjan.

He ruled Ivory Coast from 1993 to 1999 following the death of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the country’s founding father. He was also the leader of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) from 1993 until his death. Prior to becoming President of Ivory Coast, he was a member of the National Assembly of Ivory Coast and eventually became its president.

Henri Konan Bédié was born in Dadiékro, Côte d'Ivoire, on May 5, 1934. He studied law in France and then returned to Côte d'Ivoire to work in the government. He served as Minister of Economy and Finance from 1966 to 1977 and as Ambassador to the United States and Canada from 1977 to 1980.

In 1993, Henri Konan Bédié became Interim President of Ivory Coast. He was democratically elected in 1995 following the boycott of the Republican Front. He promised to bring economic growth and stability to the country, and he initially made some progress on these goals. However, he was also accused of corruption and of stoking ethnic tensions. In 1999, Bédié was overthrown in a coup d'état led by General Robert Guéï. He was exiled to France, but he returned to Côte d'Ivoire in 2001 and resumed his role as leader of the PDCI-RDA.

President Bédié was a complex and controversial political leader, but he was also a significant one in Côte d'Ivoire's history. He was the first democratically elected president of the country and the first to be overthrown.

During his rule, President Bedié introduced the concept of “ivoirité” in the social and political lexicon of the country; a manufactured sociopolitical concept that focused on promoting ethnic purity and cultural identity.

The concept was used as a descriptor of the purported intrinsic characteristics of an indigenous Ivorian, in contrast to naturalized Ivorians. The concept essentially stated that for one to be eligible to run for president, s/he must have both parents and all four grandparents born within Ivory Coast. President Bedié incorporated this concept into the national electoral code in order to sideline his political opponents, notably Alassane Ouattara, the incumbent president of the country, who was his main political rival at the time.

The concept triggered ethnic tensions which then led to political unrests. Presidents Robert Guéï (1999-2000) and Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2011) have also used the concept to sideline their political opponents and consolidate power.

In the 2010 elections, President Bedié teamed up with Alassane Ouattara to defeat President Gbagbo, who was the incumbent president at the time. During the post-electoral crisis, he gave unconditional support to Alassane Ouattara. The country plunged into a series of political violence that led to 3,000 deaths, according to the International Criminal Court.

President Bedié was undeniably a controversial and enigmatic political leader. On the one hand, he developed a concept sown the seeds of political unrest in Ivory Coast. On the other hand, he never called for political violence. Despite being overthrown, he never resorted to violence to seize back political power. He always respected the verdict of the polls.

Regardless of what we may think of him, he played a quintessential role in the political history of Ivory Coast. He remains the most respected political leader that the country has ever known. Only history will tell us if he was a great president.


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