All That's Missing Is a Flying Buttress

A basilica and crocodiles are the top lures in Ivory Coast's official capital in the bush

IT was supposed to be a monument to glory and the pride of West Africa, a mecca for world leaders and inspiration for all.

But Yamoussoukro, the capital carved out of the bush by the Ivory Coast's late leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny, didn't quite turn out as its creator had planned.

Yamoussoukro, his birthplace, never really became more than a small town even during the lifetime of Houphouet-Boigny, who dominated Ivorian politics from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. Since then, the town has lost whatever potential it might have had originally to be an important African city.

Like Brasilia, the sterile capital of Brazil set into the remote interior, Yamoussoukro is an artificial capital far away from the sea. Diplomats have shunned it, refusing to move their embassies from the more cosmopolitan Abidjan two hours' drive away in this former French colony.

Ministries and government officials also remained in Abidjan, traditionally the political and commercial center, preferring the buzz of what is called the Paris of Africa to the eerie quiet of Yamoussoukro's small-town streets.

Once a year, Yamoussoukro bustles into action for the annual peace prize, which carries Houphouet-Boigny's name. But this year, one of the recipients, King Juan Carlos I, didn't even show - nor did the main judge, Henry Kissinger. After the event, the dignitaries didn't linger and Yamoussoukro went back to its quiet pace.

Towering over the city from every vista is the monolithic Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix (Basilica of Our Lady of Peace), a replica of St. Peter's in Rome.

The basilica, which Houphouet-Boigny spent $800 million to build, is indisputably an architectural phenomenon meant to impress. Set on 130 acres, nearly a quarter of a million people can easily be gathered there. The dome is one of the world's highest - 90 yards in diameter and 60 yards high. The stained-glass windows alone are 63 feet high and 33 feet wide, looming like office blocks. Some 400,000 flowers, trees, and bushes are planted onto 37 acres of well-pruned gardens.

But few people seem to enjoy the site. The guards report that the basilica is nearly deserted daily. The $1.25 taxi ride for the mile drive from Yamoussoukro's center is prohibitively expensive for most town Ivorians.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the vast square lay in stillness, empty except for a couple of lizards and egrets. The footsteps of a lone visitor echoed across the stone.

More life was to be seen around the presidential palace, also built by Houphouet-Boigny. His successor has retained the totemic crocodiles, which hold court in the artificial lake that resembles a medieval moat alongside the palace grounds.

Curious foreigners and locals pull up by the busload to watch guards feed chicken meat to the reptiles. Several times a day, about a dozen of the scaly beasts slither onto the rocks at the sound of the guards' machete clanging on the iron fence.

The guard notes that the amount of meat consumed daily by the plump crocs is probably more than the average Ivorian family eats in a month.

He drives the point home as he requests a generous tip from some tourists, pointing to his stomach and making hungry sounds.

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