On a continent where night cloaks the rutted avenues of most major cities in a haze of cooking fires, the freeways of Abidjan light up in neon. Ivory Coast has for 40 years been the sleek exception to the dreary norms of sub-Saharan Africa, doing the simple things other countries refused to--investing in agriculture, opening its arms to foreign workers--to build Africa's third-largest economy from a nation of fewer than 20 million souls.

And if all that appeared to crumble at midday on Christmas Eve when Gen. Robert Guei announced he was the new president, Ivorians beg to depart from the conventional wisdom once again.

"For me, it is a good coup," said Lucien Gbaouhe, 27, an unemployed student. "We had only one party in power for the last 40 years. We need to experiment with new people."

"The situation of the young Ivorian was declining day by day," said Koffi Gnaore Yvon, 25. "We felt we were dying bit by bit."

So strong is public support for the change--and so dramatic the images of gleeful bystanders hoisting soldiers into the air as they fired their weapons overhead--that some describe the coup as a revolution. Diplomats from countries that officially condemned the action privately welcome it. And watchdog groups--frustrated by a government that was picking apart the social fabric of a country long known as West Africa's most stable and French-speaking Africa's richest--call the coup an "opportunity." The ruling junta has named a largely civilian transitional government and has promised elections.

"We came to a point where there was a need for some kind of force to intervene so that democratic principles could be restored," said Honore Guie, who heads a political education group here. "If there was a debate on public opinion, we could find some kind of solution," Guie said. "We could talk and talk and talk and solve this thing. But that was not going on."

What was going on instead was a melange of misrule and political trickery familiar to many African countries in the 1990s, the decade that was supposed to bring the continent democracy. Ivory Coast--known officially by its French name, Cote d'Ivoire--is a case study in what often came instead--a masquerade that called itself democracy but left the same crowd in charge. "The people felt cheated," one Ivorian said.

For its first 33 years, this humid, hazy former French colony was governed as a one-party state under its founding president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, a shrewd politician and charismatic leader. In the dichotomy of the Cold War, a single-party state was seen as stable, and Houphouet-Boigny kept Ivory Coast allied with the West. He made the country the world's top exporter of cocoa and a power in coffee, rubber and cotton. Investment poured in from abroad, especially from France. Workers poured in from poorer neighbors, especially Burkina Faso and Mali.

Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and with it Western tolerance for one-party states. Ivory Coast permitted rival political parties to participate in a 1990 election, which Houphouet-Boigny won easily. But after he died in 1993, voters wanted an alternative, and they did not find one in the 1995 elections as Houphouet-Boigny's successor, Henri Konan Bedie, disqualified his primary rival, Alassane Ouattara, the former prime minister.

The elections scheduled for this October were sizing up as even more one-sided. Bedie declared that Ouattara was ineligible for office because one of his parents was born in Burkina Faso, thereby failing the test of "Ivorite," or "Ivoryness" that Bedie abruptly declared a watchword in what had been an immigrant nation. The concept drove a wedge between the largely Muslim north--stronghold of Ouattara's party, the Rally of Republicans--and the south, where Bedie decided to make his base.

"It is a discussion that broke the national unity," said Joachim Beugre, of the independent newspaper Le Jour. "This concept made people believe that anyone who came from the north was a foreigner, while in Ivory Coast people came from all over the place."

The consequences were especially dire for the perhaps 5 million workers from outside Ivory Coast. "It's a country that is not rich, but blessed, because you will find one of every African community in Abidjan," said Fode Mohamed, 44, a merchant from Mali who has resided in Ivory Coast at two different times. The first, between 1968 and 1977, went fine. But when he returned in 1995, he felt less welcome.

At first, he assumed it was economic problems that had changed the mood; Ivory Coast has suffered massively from a plunge in cocoa and coffee prices. The situation has been aggravated by corruption so pervasive that the European Union and International Monetary Fund last year suspended aid.

"But that was not it," Mohamed said. "It was something else. Strange crimes didn't happen before. Foreign businessmen were [now being] killed without any reason." Last year, more than 10,000 Burkina Faso workers were forced to return home because of a policy that even proponents call cruel.

"It's a good concept, but we have to admit that foreigners have helped us a lot," said Gbaouhe, the unemployed student. "We should have done it from the beginning. You can't do it after they have been here for years, many of them born here."

In the Ouattara case, Bedie's government issued an arrest warrant charging the former central bank president--and until last year the deputy director of the IMF--with falsifying his identity papers. When Ouattara's supporters took to the streets, 20 party leaders were thrown into jail. Meanwhile, farmers burned cocoa beans rather than sell at depressed prices.

When Bedie addressed parliament Dec. 22, some hoped that he could ease the growing pressure by offering a Christmas amnesty. Instead, Bedie ranted defiantly for more than an hour. "That speech was over the top," said one Western diplomat.

The soldiers hit the streets the next day, angry that the government had withheld the pay they earned as U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. They looted shops, but they also freed political prisoners and chased Bedie into the home of the French ambassador. The French, who have a history of intervening to restore rulers in their former colonies, left Bedie to his own devices. Two days later, he fled to Togo, and has since gone to France.

Gen. Guei, 58, who had been Bedie's army chief until 1995, said he was drafted as the mutineers' leader only after they took to the streets. He quickly asserted control, ordering the end of looting and the return of "commandeered" luxury cars and creating the National Public Salvation Committee.

A week later, after consulting with Ouattara--who had been in Paris--and the opposition Popular Front party, Guei named what he said was a transitional government. But in a rupture that some call a worrisome echo of the falling out that followed Houphouet-Boigny's death, the Popular Front immediately withdrew, complaining that Ouattara's Republicans controlled too many ministries and suggesting that Ouattara helped engineer the coup.

Ouattara denies that. "This was a complete surprise," he said, in a lagoon-side home where Parisian furnishings compete with tusks and ivory knickknacks. "Of course, we condemn any coup, because a coup is not a democratic way to come to power. But if you have a dictator, and he does not listen to anyone. . . "

But many Ivorians say the coup was the logical result of the pressure that international donors, including the United States, were bringing to bear on Bedie's government. "No tears are being shed over Bedie's departure," said a Western diplomat from a country that officially condemned the coup. "The previous government had become so corrupt and so autocratic and so anti-human rights, whatever else we think of the coup-makers, if they're true to their word in the long run, it might be a good thing."

There are precedents in the neighborhood. It was a Nigerian general who brought about the elections that last year ended 16 years of military rule in Africa's most populous country. And on the day of Bedie's last speech, impoverished, arid Niger inaugurated its newly elected president. The elections were organized by the latest junta, which had killed the previous strongman.

But not everyone is buying the idea that a coup can be good. "Our statement remains the same," said Paul Olweny of the Center for International Policy in Washington. The center's Demilitarization for Democracy project maintains that African armies "should be there to protect democracy, not trash it or in any way run the show," Olweny said.

"Remember in Uganda in the early 1970s, there was euphoria when Idi Amin came to power."

Ivory Coast at a Glance

Land: 124,502 square miles, somewhat larger than Arizona

Population: 15.8 million; projected population by 2025: 27.8 million

Religion: 60% Muslim; 25% indigenous beliefs; 12% Christian

Life expectancy: 47 years at birth; (Comparison: Liberia, Ghana 59; Guinea 45)

AIDS prevalence: 265.5 per 100,000; (Comparison: Burkina Faso 91.2; Mali 35.1; Ghana 102.1;)

Income: $710 per person a year; (Comparison: Ghana $390, Burkina Faso $250, Mali $260)

Poverty: 17.7% live on less than $1 a day. (Comparison: Guinea 26.3%)

Education: Adult literacy 42.6%; primary school enrollment 58.3% of relevant age group; secondary school 34.1%

History: Ivory Coast became a French protectorate in 1842. It gained independence in 1960. Until December 1993, the nation was ruled by its founding president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who died in office. The legislature named a successor, Henri Konan Bedie, who was then elected in 1995; he was overthrown in a military coup in December.

SOURCES: World Almanac, World Bank, Population Reference Bureau, U.N.

CAPTION: Gen. Guei speaks with journalists after making Christmas Eve radio announcement that he had assumed power.

CAPTION: Ousted president Henri Konan Bedie is greeted by an officer at airport in Lome, Togo, after he fled there from Abidjan. Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, right, looks on.

CAPTION: Ivorians, whose economy depends on agriculture, have spoken largely in favor of the coup, including women at Abidjan's teeming market.