Dagna Rams says the book should be useful to those who already have a good knowledge of Ivorian history, and would like to obtain a more in-depth understanding of the country’s development.
During the early independence era, it was in African countries that two ideologies – capitalist and socialist – sought to prove their modernising potential. On the one hand, leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia pursued plans inspired by the Soviet model – nationalisation, rapid industrialisation, and universal education. Other countries chose to embrace capitalism from the start – opening their borders to foreign investment, foreign workforce, and keeping strong ties with the former metropoles. Ivory Coast, under Felix Houphouët-Boigny, embraced the latter path with enough success to make it into US President Johnson’s speeches: “To those that tell us that developing countries are really doomed (…) we have a simple answer. We say to them: Look at the Ivory Coast.” (in Bamba, p. 117) The initial optimism was eventually tested by the oil crisis of the 1970s and the resultant decline in commodity prices. Abou Bamba’s book, African Miracle, African Mirage: Transnational Politics and the Paradox of Modernisation in Ivory Coast looks at precisely how the initial “economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s turned into a mirage by the late 1970s” (p.11).
For Bamba, independent Ivory Coast was never autonomous enough to pursue its own development path. Rather, it was a platform for ideological struggles between foreign actors, who wanted to define and navigate its modernisation. There were French development workers, who maintained institutions that continued Ivorian dependence on the metropole. And there were American modernisers, whose fascination with Ivory Coast was “mounting.” (p.42) Bamba’s central preoccupation is with how Ivorian leaders aimed to play these foreign actors off against each other with the aim to “get a better deal on modernization” (p.64).
France was afraid that it would lose control over its former colonies. America’s financial power and growing consumption of Ivorian products such as cocoa meant it had increasing interest in the country. According to Bamba, Ivorian politicians were able to triangulate the situation in the country’s favour. For example, by late 1960s, Ivory Coast was one of the biggest recipients of American hard loans in West Africa. At the same time, France sought its influence on the country’s developmental projects using a network of institutions on the ground such as Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer (ORSTOM; Office for Scientific and Technical Research in Overseas Territories). The author refers to different examples of developmental projects such as the Kossou dam to provide the country with electric power, agriculture reform to diversify produce, and developmental projects to boost the south-western and northern regions. In all these cases, we are introduced to a parade of international and national actors, and the minute details of the projects’ fates.
Ivorian leaders clearly did not have it easy. Every chapter paints them stuck between the “overbearing” French presence on one side and the expensive loans of American investors on the other, reaching a point where: “preferring to pay more [for a loan] seemed to have been a lesser evil” (p.149).
The book should be useful to those who already have a good knowledge of Ivorian history, and would like to deepen their understanding of the country’s development – its experts and expertise, investors and their investments, numbers and figures. The author’s prose might occasionally seem rushed – was politics in Ivory Coast indeed so technical, as the author states on numerous occasions, as to “de-democratize the search for the good life”? (p.163) At other times, Bamba is so committed to theory that he never questions its power to explain the reality. For example, he quotes Baudrillard’s statement: “America is the original version of modernity” (p.44) to make a point that Ivorian leaders quickly realised that “much of the French modernisation performances were a dubbed version of American practices” (47) – a realisation that apparently explains why they would try to get rid of “the mediation of Paris” (47). Still, the arguments the authors are original in their exploration of the limited choices that African leaders face on route to modernisation.
African Miracle, African Mirage: Transnational Politics and the Paradox of Modernisation in Ivory Coast. Abou Bamba. Ohio University Press. 2016
Dagna Rams (@dagnna) is a doctoral student at the University of Lausanne. Her research is on politics and informal economies of electronic waste in Accra, Ghana.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.