Travel warning: Due to the tension and threat of widespread instability and violence throughout the country, the Foreign Office in the UK advises against all but essential travel to the Ivory Coast. The security situation following the disputed Presidential election on 28 November continues to be volatile and any British nationals within the country are advised to stay at home.
During Medieval times, the region that is now Ivory Coast was at the centre of several major African trade routes, linking the empires which then existed in Ghana and Mali. European traders had been present in the region since the 15th century, but it was not until the 19th that the French undertook a determined penetration of the region.
The territory was later incorporated into French West Africa until it was granted independence in August 1960. The leadership of the country was taken over by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a quirkily effective politician who dominated the country's political life for the next 30 years. Houphouët-Boigny retained close links with the West - especially France, but also apartheid South Africa.
During his time in office, the Ivory Coast was renowned as the most prosperous and most stable country in the West African region. It also hosted the largest French community in francophone Africa. His rule was shaken by economic recession in the 1980s, when commodity prices of the main exports, cocoa and coffee, plunged. Domestic pressure for democratisation produced further stresses.
The first multi-party elections since independence were held in 1990 which Houphouët-Boigny easily won against veteran opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo. Houphouët-Boigny died in December 1993 and was replaced by the former speaker of the National Assembly, Henri Konan Bédié. The careful ethnic and regional balance which Houphouët-Boigny had nurtured, together with his welcoming of immigrant workers, was soon compromised. Bedie introduced the concept of 'Ivoirite' (Ivorian nationalism) into the political discourse, which quickly acquired xenophobic connotations.
This began a sequence of events which was to deprive the country of its long record of stability and prosperity. An armed rebellion in 2002 split the nation in two, and the main players in the conflict have so far failed to find a political solution. Although the fighting has stopped, the country remains divided and peacekeepers patrol the buffer zone between the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south.