Ivory Coast leader: one of Africa's few leaders securely in power

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast, took a five-month holiday this year - a luxury few African presidents could afford. In most African countries, the temptation to organize a coup would have been irresistible. But in peaceful Ivory Coast there wasn't even the suspicion of a plot.

President Houphouet-Boigny - who this week celebrates 23 years in power - seems to be one of Africa's most secure and respected leaders.

During his long vacation, he made official tours of the United States, Canada , and Britain. He was the first African president to be invited by the Reagan administration to make a state visit.

During his tour, Houphouet-Boigny continued his crusade for a fairer deal for developing countries that export commodities. Ivory Coast, reportedly the world's largest cocoa and third-largest coffee producer, has suffered from a sharp drop in prices, and it blames speculators.

Cocoa and coffee underpinned the Ivory Coast's spectacular economic growth in the 1960s and '70s and the achievement of a per capita income of $1,100 a year. When Houphouet-Boigny led his country to independence from France in 1960, the Ivory Coast was one of the poorest in West Africa. It lacked both mineral wealth and an educated pool of labor.

Houphouet-Boigny decided to make agriculture the base for the country's economic development. Himself a prosperous cocoa planter, he encouraged a massive increase in cocoa and coffee farming through attractive pricing and support programs.

Apart from his preference for farming, Houphouet-Boigny differed from most other African presidents by choosing to continue close ties with the former colonial masters. He felt the quickest way to economic prosperity was by using French technical expertise and capital.

The number of French residents in the Ivory Coast has tripled since independence to more than 40,000, including some 3,400 teachers and administrators.

Shortly after he became President, Houphouet-Boigny told Kwame Nkrumah, President of neighboring Ghana, ''You go your way and I shall go mine with the old colonialists. In 10 years we shall see who has done most for his country.''

President Nkrumah, who had embarked on an ambitious policy of pan-African socialism, was deposed by a military coup a few years later. By then Ghana, whose future seemed so bright at independence in 1957, was already heading toward economic and political chaos.

But the economy of the Ivory Coast grew steadily. Its government had encouraged private enterprise and foreign capital. Growth rates averaged more than 7 percent a year.

Abidjan became one of the most prosperous cities and ports in West Africa. In little more than 50 years, it has grown from a small fishing village into a cosmopolitan city of nearly 2 million people. The ''plateau'' commercial center resembles Manhattan with its many modern skyscrapers overlooking a lagoon waterfront.

A long period of prosperity and the growth of a middle class were major factors behind the Ivory Coast's impressive record of peace and stability, observers say.

Another factor was the small but well-paid Army: There has been little threat of a military takeover. The stationing of some 450 French marines at Port Bouet near the airport has provided additional security.

Houphouet-Boigny was once labeled a communist by the French because of the campaign he led during the 1940s to end forced labor on the plantations. But this didn't prevent his election to the French National Assembly in 1945 and his appointment as a minister in 1956.

Relations have remained close ever since. The shock of the election of France's Socialist government in 1981 was softened by the fact that it was headed by an old friend, Francois Mitterrand.

Despite Houphouet-Boigny's French suits and life style, the President upholds African traditions. He has also honored his birthplace, Yamoussoukro, a small Baoule village on the edge of the rain forest in the nation's center, by making it the new capital.

Houphouet-Boigny, affectionately known as ''Le Vieux'' (the wise old man), exercises unchallenged paternal authoritarianism in establishing unity among the numerous tribes that make up the population of nearby 9 million. Multiparty democracy and a free press are luxuries the country cannot yet afford.

Houphouet-Boigny comes from a family of Baoule chiefs who migrated from Ghana three centuries ago. He has respected tradition by refusing to name a successor.

This has done nothing to curb growing concern about the country's future and continued political stability in the face of prolonged economic recession.

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