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Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Encyclopedia of Africa

Elizabeth Heath

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire Largest city and chief seaport in Côte d’Ivoire, located in the southeastern part of the country. 

The cultural and economic center of the Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan surrounds the Ébrié Lagoon on the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf of Guinea. Historians are not sure when people first inhabited the area, but modern settlement dates from the early sixteenth century. Later in the century the Ébrié people selected the area as the site for three fishing villages—Locodjo, Anoumabo, and Cocody. Portuguese traders explored the area for a brief period in the seventeenth century, but Europeans largely ignored it until French Colonial rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1903 the French chose the settlement as the endpoint for a railway connecting Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) to the coast, and a small town soon developed around the train station. The lack of a viable port, however, initially stifled the town's growth.

In 1934, shortly after the completion of the rail link to the Upper Volta city of Bobo-Dioulasso, the French moved the colonial capital from nearby Bingerville to Abidjan and began building a series of bridges between the mainland and the lagoon islands. The completion of the Vridi Canal in 1950, followed by the construction of a port on the barrier island of Petit-Bassam, made Abidjan the colony's center of industry and shipping. The opening of the port also dramatically increased the city's wealth and population, and Abidjan has since become the most populous city in the Côte d’Ivoire. As of 2006 the population was an estimated 3.7 million, a fact that prompted the government of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny to begin planning to move the capital to Houphouët-Boigny's hometown, Yamoussoukro, in 1983. These plans, however, were suspended after his death in 1993. In 2001 President Laurent Gbagbo announced that the transfer of political power to Yamoussoukro would be completed. A year later, the city was officially combined with a number of outlying regions to form the District of Abidjan, though the city itself (now officially dissolved and known as Abidjan Ville) continues to function as the country's administrative, executive, legislative, and judicial center, as well as serving as the de facto capital.

A series of islands centered on a business center called the Plateau, Abidjan is considered one of the most cosmopolitan (and expensive) African cities, sometimes referred to as “the Petit Paris of Africa.” Its glass-walled skyscrapers house the headquarters of numerous international firms and agencies, and shopping centers and French restaurants cater to a sizeable population of European expatriates. Most of the city's African residents—many of whom are migrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, and other West African countries—live in neighborhoods such as Treichville and Adjamé, both centered on huge outdoor markets. The city boasts a museum of traditional Ivorian art, a national library, a university, and several agricultural and scientific research institutes.

Abidjan is home to the country's largest port as well as to factories that process the country's main exports—cocoa, coffee, and palm oil. Although these industries have contributed to the city's prosperity, its population is still sharply divided economically, and many of the neighborhoods beyond the Plateau are extremely poor, crowded, and inadequately serviced. In recent years the government has attempted to counteract urban poverty by training the unemployed as farmers and then giving them land in the country's interior. Although some of these “back to the land” programs have had a measure of success, overpopulation and underemployment remain significant problems in Abidjan.

Elizabeth Heath