Abidjan is the largest city and former capital of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). It is the commercial and banking center of Côte d'Ivoire as well as the de facto capital (Yamoussoukro is the official capital.) It is also the most populated city in French-speaking Western Africa. It stands in Ébrié Lagoon on several converging peninsulas and islands, connected by bridges.
According to an Ebrié legend, the name Abidjan (formerly Abijean) came from a misunderstanding. An old man, returning from his field with an armful of branches that he probably intended to use to repair the roof of his house, happened to encounter a lost European explorer who asked him the name of the nearest village. Unable to speak the white man's language, the old man believed he had been asked what he was doing there. Fleeing in terror from this unexpected encounter, the old man shouted: "tchan me bidjan" which in the Ebrié language means "I've just been cutting branches!" The white man took this to be the answer to his question and conscientiously noted the name "Abidjan".
Abidjan was the third city to be the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, after Grand-Bassam and Bingerville, which is now considered to form a suburb of the current capital. Its populace, the Tchaman, were renamed ébrié, derived from the "quolibet" given to the lagoon pirates by the inhabitants of Grand-Bassam. As such, in their language, ébrié means "salty/dirty skin".
Under the direction of engineer, Houidaille, Bingerville was created in 1899. Following an epidemic of Yellow Fever, the colonies of Grand-Bassam decided to relocate here because of its healthy atmosphere. This was also when the Colonial government started its relocation to the remote village of Adjamé, which would come to be named Bingerville after the first governor of the colonies, Louis-Gustave Binger.
The future Abidjan, nearby, also situated by the Lagune n'doupé (Lagoon of Warm Waters, the future ébrié Lagoon) offered more space and greater possibilities for commercial expansion. The Petit-Bassam Wharf, the current Port Bouët, south of the metropolitan area, grew rapidly in competition with the Grand-Bissam Wharf, until then the principal economic gateway for the colony. In 1904, when Bingerville had not yet been completed, Abidjan became the principal economic pillar of the Côte d'Ivoire colonies, a primary relay point for distribution of European goods further inland, notably by an increasingly important Lebanese community.
On 10 August 1933, a decree was passed, moving the capital from Bingerville to Abidjan (or Abidjean), displacing many tchaman villages, which moved mostly to Adjame, the 'confluence" or "centre" for tchaman, located north of the Plateau and which again became the chief tchaman community. It is here that the community lost the "Sacred Drum" (A very characteristic drum which is currently in the possession of the Musée de l'Homme - the Museum of Man) as currency of blackmail, to force Tchaman participation in the construction of the Abidjan-Niger Railway system.
South of the Plateau District, currently the central district of the abidjan metropolitan area, the village of Dugbeyo was moved to the other side of the Lagoon, in Anoumabo, "the forest of the dogfish", which would later become the district of Treichville in 1934, renamed in honour of Marcel Treich-Laplène (1860-1890), the first explorer of Côte d'Ivoire and its first colonial administrator, considered its founder. Where Dugbeyo once stood, today the Avenue Treich-Laplène serves as the main bus and ferry terminal, and is also the location of Avenue Charles de Gaulle, commonly called Commercial street.
The city is designed along the usual colonial guidelines, on the basis of rather Utopian town-planning. The colonists inhabit The Plateau ("m'brato" in the Tchaman language) while the colonized people live in the north. The two zones were separated by the Gallieni Military Barracks, where the current Law Courts are located.
In 1931, the Plateau and Treichville (which became Commikro, "the city of clerks") were roughly connected by a floating bridge at the place du pont Houphouët Boigny. In this year, the first of the street addresses of Abidjan were set up. These remained in place until in 1964, at the whim of mayor Conan Kanga, they were (badly) supplemented with the American system in 1993.
In years 1940 and 1950, like Cairo, Tangier and Istanbul, Abidjan became a part of popular imagination as a nest for spies and criminals.
In 1951, the colonial authorities decided to build the Vidri Canal from the sea to the lagoon so that ships could access the port at Abidjan, causing a drop in temperature of the hot waters of the Lagoon n'doucé.
After independence, in 1960, the old colonial cities became administrative and business centres, as well as the Presidential seat. The southern areas of Treichville, towards the international airport and the beaches, became the district for Europeans, and the middle class Abidjanians.
The Cocody district (famous for the movie Le Gentleman de Cocody by Jean Marais) which according to colonial urban planning was to be a vast indigenous district, instead became a smart district which contained the Presidential Residence, the French Embassy, the Ivory Hotel and since 2006, the largest US Embassy in Africa.
Abidjan now entered a long phase of economic boom and huge growth which would last until the 1980's, making it the "Paris of Africa". With elegant casinos and world-class hotels, the city billed itself as the safest and most desirable tourist destination in West Africa. Its skyscraper studded skyline and fashionable shopping district became emblems of the stability and prosperity touted by the Houphouët-Boigny government and its capital-friendly pro-western policies.
Large working class zones of migrants developed between these poles, marked by precarious living conditions, feeding off the misery caused by rural migration and exploitation of sub-regional migration. It is here that the anti-French riots of November 2004 were concentrated. With decline in the 1990s blamed on negligent civil servants, political infighting following Houphouët-Boigny death, and high levels of corruption, and in spite of undeniable modernization since 1980, there has been a general degradation of Abidjan's infrastructure and a growth of pollution. The 2006 poisoning of over 10,000 by foreign toxic waste dumped in the city's refuse tips is but one, extreme, example. Since 1999 the city has sufferd further from the chaos and economic dislocation caused by civil war in the north, political tumult, and flight of capital.
In 1983, the town of Yamoussoukro became the new capital of Côte d'Ivoire under president Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who wanted to transform his native village into the Brasilia of the African Savannah. The new capital, an important crossroads as well as an active commercial pillar, remains eclipsed by Abidjan.