Obituary: Felix Houphouet-Boigny

Tamar Golan
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:52

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, politician: born Yamoussoukro, French West Africa 18 October 1905; member, French Constituent Assembly 1945-46, French National Assembly 1946-59; Minister attached to Prime Minister's Office, France 1956-57; Minister of Health 1957-58; Minister of State 1958-59; Minister-Councillor to French Government 1959-60; President, Republic of Cote d'Ivoire 1960-93; married; died Yamoussoukro 7 December 1993.

FELIX HOUPHOUET-BOIGNY was President of Cote d'Ivoire from the time of its independence from France in 1960, developing a unique form of government, which, despite its many faults, made the country one of the most stable and peaceful in Africa.

During his long life and exceptional career, he was called many names by his people: he was 'le Vieux', 'the Sage', 'the Wise Old Man', 'the Chief', 'the Farmer-President'. He used to refer to himself as 'the Little Man at the Head of a Little Country', or 'the Ram of Yamoussoukro', the totem-name of his matriarchal Baoule tribe, meaning the man who faces, who marches in front of his herd. We, the whites who knew him, used to speak of him simply as 'HB'.

HB was officially born in 1905 in the small village of Yamoussoukro, in the heartland of the Baoule tribe, some 100 miles from the Atlantic coast and the colonial capital of Abidjan. Everyone said he was older than his official age, but nobody knew how old he really was.

For him, age was an asset. Although he liked all his nicknames and each represented a certain facet of his personality, he preferred to be referred to as 'le Vieux'. Not only because in the African tradition of being old means being wiser, more respected and honoured, but also because he felt that the older he grew, the more untouchable he became. His longevity was a symbol of power, a magical power.

Pressed again and again to tell when he planned to retire, he used at first to answer, 'I'll go when my people want me to go.' But later on, he simply declared: 'A Baoule Chief does not retire. He dies on his throne]' And so he did.

The last decade of HB's reign was a tragic paradox: the man who incarnated modernity, a rebellious leader against colonialism in the Thirties and Forties, who chose to study medicine in order to bring scientific knowledge to Africa, who served as Minister of Health in the French government in Paris in the Fifties, and in six French governments in all and who imposed modern, Western economic policies on his country when he was elected to lead it after independence - this man regressed, in the last years of his life into tribal beliefs, witchcraft practices, and a paternalistic form of rule. Yet, nobody really rose against him. In his 33 years in power he had to face some internal difficulties, but his almost absolute rule was never seriously threatened.

There was the foiled coup of 1963, the most portentous political event in the country's history. A so-called plot was uncovered by the Chief of Internal Security, Henry Goba. Many of the leading figures in Cote d'Ivoire were either detained or put under house-arrest, including the Presidents of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, ministers and MPs. A show trial ensued. The accused denied all wrong-doings, but the President of the Supreme Court died in detention. Officially it was suicide.

Five years later, HB used African tradition in the service of his politics. On the occasion of the death of his mother, he declared a period of national mourning - and a general amnesty. In due course, the President admitted that there never had been a plot against him in the first place. He asked for the forgiveness of his fellow countrymen but claimed that he had been 'misinformed', 'misled' by his Security Chief, by then deceased.

In 1970, the students revolted. At first HB used an iron fist, and closed down the universities. But within a few months he 'pardoned our children', met with them and even appointed some of the student leaders to official positions. Twenty years later, social and political stability were threatened because of the students and the intellectual community. During the most violent street demonstrations the country had ever known, anti-Houphouet slogans could be openly heard for the first time. HB was called upon to resign.

In April 1990 he gave in. The winds of change were blowing everywhere in the world, even in Cote d'Ivoire. HB announced the installation of a multi-party system. The 30-year monopoly of the PDCI-RDA Party - the pre-independence local branch of the RDA which fought for independence from France - was over. Moreover, in a gesture typical of him, HB allowed the return to the country from exile in France of his most vocal opponent, Professor Laurent G'Bagbo, receiving him in his palace as the prodigal son. This well- calculated magnanimity paid off in 1990 as it had done many times in the past. HB won an overwhelming victory in the first multi-party elections of October 1990. He was officially 85 years old when he was elected for a seventh five-year term as President of Cote d'Ivoire.

HB will be remembered by future generations in his country and in Africa not only for his tolerant and agile political style, but also and perhaps even more for his economic policies. At independence, on 7 August 1960, he adopted a clear line which he stuck to all through his rule: the economy comes first and the economy means a liberal, capitalist economy.

HB placed himself from the outset in complete opposition to his neighbour and rival - President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Nkrumah preached political independence as a pre-condition to economic independence. HB believed it was the other way round.

There was a rare, symbolic encounter between these two key figures of African independence. They met in 1958 at the French officers' club La Vigie ('The Lookout'), on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, near Abidjan. Ghana was already independent. Cote d'Ivoire had voted for a gradual process of decolonisation from France, within a framework of a French-speaking West Africa. The two men differed on everything, and all they would do was to agree to disagree.

Nkrumah, charismatic, a crowd-lover, wearing African attire, challenged HB, slight, shy of crowds, wearing a dark European suit: 'Let us meet in 10 years' time] Let us see where each of us will be then]' Nkrumah voted for pan-Africanism, neutrality, the Soviet Bloc and state-controlled economy; HB was pro-Western, pro-French and a staunch supporter of capitalism and liberalism.

A decade later, Nkrumah was living in exile in the Marxist-style Republic of Guinea, led by President Sekou Toure, the arch-rival of HB. He was overthrown in the first of several military coups d'etat which shook Ghana in the years to come. The economy of what was once the richest country in Africa lay in ruins. His neighbour, HB, was at the height of his success, and Cote d'Ivoire was enjoying what was then called 'the Ivorian miracle', nearly 20 years of relative economic prosperity, one of the highest rates of growth on the continent, political stability and unflinching Western support.

HB took pride, openly, in his close ties with France, the former metropole. He was a personal friend of all the French Presidents, even though his ties with the socialist Francois Mitterrand were not as warm as with his Gaullist predecessors. He supported France almost unconditionally on the international scene, and in return France supported him in every possible way. Thus, the man who started his political career as an opponent of the brutal aspects of French colonial rule, who organised the popular revolt against 'Travaux Forces' ('Forced Labour') who at one point allied his African Party with the French Communist Party, became Paris's most faithful ally.

For some years, HB's policy was of great help to the young Ivorian economy. But the 1973 oil crisis, and the world-wide economic recession which followed, caught HB unprepared. Cote d'Ivoire's main exports are coffee and cocoa, in which it is a leading exporter. It also exports other agricultural produce, such as pineapple and plantain. But it has only meagre mineral resources. The prices of these primary commodities have been constantly on the decline. Cote d'Ivoire's external debt reached the fabulous sum of dollars 20bn by 1992. Many of the loans were made by private banks, at relatively high rates and on short or medium terms. The West's unfailing confidence in HB brought all these loans. But the blessing had turned into a curse. For the first time in its history, Cote d'Ivoire could not honour its debts.

Both crises - the economic and the political - came to a head at the end of the Eighties and continued into the Nineties. 'Le Vieux' went on a new crusade, for a fair price for primary commodities in the world market, and against the unequal Terms of Exchange. It was a just battle. But when HB finally sought the assistance of other Third World leaders, they failed to rally. He belonged to another generation, to another world.

Yet his people continued to support their 'Vieux'. The deep economic recession, the profound social 'malaise' did not push them to violent action. They even forgave HB his personal misdoings and extravagances: his marriage to a Togolese woman 50 years his junior, the construction at Yamoussoukro of a dollars 150m Roman Catholic basilica, modelled on St Peter's, in Rome, and his pride in amassing such wealth that he declared himself 'one of the richest men in Africa'.

To the end, HB remained 'Le Vieux' and Cote d'Ivoire remarkably calm and non-violent. What will the Ivorians do now? What will be the aftermath of HB? Grim days lie ahead for the peaceful people of Cote d'Ivoire.

(Photograph omitted)

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