Grateful Ivory Coast turns President's home town into majestic capital

All roads in the Ivory Coast lead to Yamoussoukro - at least they willm after the capital of this country is fully tranferred from Abidjan to President Felix Houphouet-Boigny's birthplace 155 miles into the interior of the country.

Ivory Coast's National Assembly voted to transfer its capital to Yamoussoukro as ''a tribute from a grateful nation to a widely respected leader,'' an Ivorian official explains.

But there is more to the move than a gesture of thanks to the man who has led this country of 9 million people since independence from France in 1960 and who has kept the country a showpiece of political stability.

Abidjan, the current capital, has mushroomed to a population of 2 million over two decades. It has become a center of international business activity in West Africa and yearly absorbs about 40 percent of the national investment budget. It lures Ivory Coast villagers toward city jobs and destitute immigrants from neighboring African countries. But with the world recession, job openings here are rare, crime has risen sharply, and burglaries in Abidjan's smart residential suburbs of Cocody and Deux Plateaux are growing frequent.

The mayor of Abidjan, Emmanuel Dioulo, worries that his city could slide into the chaos that engulfed the Nigerian capital, Lagos, further down the coast. If Abidjan's current rate of growth continues, its population would reach 10 million by the year 2000, which is more than the present national population.

Therefore it was Mayor Dioulo who proposed to transfer the capital last January. Yamoussoukro is only a 2 1/2-hour drive from Abidjan, thanks to a fine motorway cut through the tropical rain forest. Just 20 years ago, it was a cluster of huts set in rolling landscape on the edge of the savanna.

Few could guess that Yamoussoukro would one day became the country's fourth capital in less than 100 years. But Yamoussoukro's development as a capital has had careful groundwork - more careful than Abidjan's in that a lot of infrastructure is already in place.

Investments began in the 1960s and reached prodigious proportions in the 1970 s. At the time they were regarded by outsiders as folies de grandeurm - an attempt to create an African Versailles.

Yamoussoukro is planned to imperial proportions with broad avenues lined with prestigious buildings such as the marble Maison du Parti, the grandiose Houphouet-Boigny Foundation, and sumptuous educational institutes. The whole is illuminated by many thousands of street lamps.

The five-star President Hotel with its 14 stories is another well-known landmark. So is the adjoining 18-hole golf course, which already attracts weekend visitors from Abidjan.

An international airport nearby is equipped to fly in visitors from farther afield.

Despite the investments to date, much more needs to be built to make Yamoussoukro a proper capital, notably ministerial office buildings and accommodations for civil servants.

But because the Ivory Coast is heavily in debt and committed to an austerity program with the International Monetary Fund, the timing of the decision to transfer the capital has puzzled observers.

It is not yet clear what the financial world located on the coast at Abidjan will do. Many US firms have set up offices in Abidjan, especially after Phillips Petroleum discovered offshore oil in 1980. With its excellent communications, working and living conditions, Abidjan was a good base for business activity.

But undoubtedly business leaders, too, see the dangers of lopsided economic development here. The city absorbs more and more of the national budget in order to provide transport, sanitation, housing, and other facilities needed by the expanding city.

But Abidjan has been ''a victim of its own success,'' Interior Minister Leon Konan Koffi told the National Assembly. When it was chosen as capital in 1934 because of its potential as a rail terminal and port, Abidjan was little more than a fishing village on the Ebrie Lagoon.

The first capital chosen by the French was at Grand Bassam, 40 kilometers east along the coast. After only five years, an epidemic precipitated evacuation to higher ground at Bingerville. However this capital proved to be less conveniently located than Abidjan. Ivorian officials say no date has been set for the effective transfer to Yamoussoukro. It is expected to be made progressively over many years. Initially the new capital is likely to be little more than a symbolic national city, where meetings of the council of ministers and the National Assembly are held.

The transfer is supported throughout the country by the local sections of the ruling Parti Democratique de Cote d'Ivoire. But some opponents in intellectual circles would have preferred a national referendum on the transfer. They are also concerned that relocation of the capital to a region dominated by the powerful Baoule tribe will disturb the country's complex ethnic balance.

Foreign diplomats have expressed little enthusiasm at moving up-country despite the dry climate, golf, and sailing on Lake Kossou. They are apparently reluctant to leave the bright lights and animation of Abidjan.

Businessmen in Abidjan are concerned that the transfer will cause extra expense and time in commuting to Yamoussoukro to confer with government officials.

Property owners in Abidjan, including some prominent personalities, could also be concerned about reletting their luxury villas in Cocody after the diplomats have left.

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