Ivory Coast's leader is dead

HE WAS nicknamed 'Le Vieux' before most of his neighbouring heads of state were born. His political career spanned most of the 20th century - a pedigree in French politics longer than that of President Francois Mitterrand and the elder statesman of Francophone Africa. In the 1930s he was an anti-colonial activist, in the '40s a member of the French Assembly, in the '50s a minister in six French governments and in 1960 he led Ivory Coast to independence.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President of Ivory Coast, died yesterday at his home at Yamoussoukro, 33 years to the day since he led his country to independence. Announcing his death, the Prime Minister, Alassane Ouattara, said: 'Ivory Coast is orphaned.' President Mitterrand said: 'The world has lost a great statesman and the Ivory Coast has lost its most illustrious son.'

No announcement has been made, but he will probably be given a grandiose funeral at Yamoussoukro. Houphouet-Boigny was small in stature and known for his charm and sagacity. He had none of the charisma that other, less durable African leaders possessed and was never at ease in front of a crowd.

Houphouet-Boigny, officially 88 but believed to be much older, pursued pro-French and pro-Western policies, maintaining relations with South Africa and Israel and encouraging free-market economics. Despite high growth rates, Ivory Coast's economic boom after independence was superficial, and in the mid-1980s, when interest rates soared and its commodity prices collapsed, Ivory Coast was as much adrift as any other African country.

Houphouet-Boigny's death plunges Ivory Coast into a crisis. According to the constitution the Speaker of parliament, Henri Konan Bedie, should rule until new elections, but these are not due for two years. Moreover, Mr Ouattara is challenging Mr Bedie. Yesterday Mr Bedie announced he was assuming the responsibilities of the presidency.

Obituary, page 14