Monday, February 22, 2010

Abidjan in the former Pearl of West Africa

Greetings from Abidjan, the capital of Cote d'Ivoire, the last stop of my West African trip.  And what a disappointment Abidjan has been. I was here several times in the early 1980s when it was one of most desirable places to live in Africa with a beautiful ocean setting, rain forest, fantastic beaches nearby and extensive French infrastructure and culture. To paraphrase a term often used to refer to British India -- it  was the jewel in France's colonial crown.  From independence in 1960 to the mid-1980s the country flourished under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a benign and beloved dictator, who endeared himself to the former colonial power by worshiping everything French and trying to emulate it.  During his early tenure, the key to the Ivorian economy was the country's ability to produce some of the world's best cocoa and coffee which was in great demand throughout the developed world.  Houphouët-Boigny popularity was due to his being open to all elements of Ivorian society and maintaining good relations with neighboring countries, even welcoming many of their citizens as workers who could then send money back home.  However towards the end of his reign in 1993 he became very strange, perhaps even senile and much of what he did probably contributed to the country's demise.  He wanted his legacy to be his home town of Yamoussoukro and had it designated as the country's official capital even though the embassies and much of the government's work is still in Abidjan.  He arranged for the world's largest Catholic church
( to be built there, incurring in the process a large national debt.  As completion neared, he commissioned a stained glass window of his image to be placed beside images of Jesus and the apostles. His image depicts him as one of the three Magi, kneeling as he offers a gift to Jesus.  To emphasize his loyalty to France and the French language, Houphouët-Boigny also announced a policy that the country should henceforth be called Cote d'Ivoire in all languages and that the English name Ivory Coast was no longer to be used.  Of course the British Press and others refused to honor his wishes and still call it Ivory Coast.

The gradual demise of Cote d'Ivoire as an African power started with a sharp downturn in world cocoa prices and was no doubt exacerbated because Houphouët-Boigny remained in power long after he lost his ability to lead.  The leaders that came after him were much more nationalistic and even tribal which led to two civil wars during the past 10 years. There is frequent talk of elections but they keep getting postponed. The current government also has a strong anti-foreigner sentiment, even against families who have been in Cote d'Ivoire for several generations (ôte_d'Ivoire#Politics). The civil wars caused the French to depart the country in droves, selling many of their businesses for cents on the dollar to Lebanese businessmen who have long been prominent in the commerce of surrounding countries. And the unrest continues even this week with demonstrations in cities all around the country (

A large new US Embassy that was opened just a couple of years ago now sits half empty because regional personnel from USAID and other agencies have moved to the safer capitals of Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal.  Current staff draw hazardous duty pay and are not allowed to bring their families with them out of security concerns.  Most shops in the downtown area which was formerly a paradise for connoisseurs of African art and handicrafts are now boarded up.         
The demise of Cote d'Ivoire during the past couple of decades is not unlike what has happened across the continent in Kenya the former Pearl of British East Africa.   Gertrud and I spent three years in Nairobi in the mid-1980s when it was still a very pleasant place to live. Corruption and unrestrained population growth are among the factors that are ruining Kenya.  And reminders of the bombing of the US Embassy are still very much alive and undermine Western confidence in Kenya. The names of seven embassy employees who worked directly for me are among those on the wall honoring those who were killed. It was erected in a memorial park where the former embassy stood (

So the obvious question: what is the future of Africa and what can be done to stem the continent's continuing tragedies and chaos?  Are African countries doomed to continue in this pattern indefinitely?  Recent successes in democratic Ghana and a few other countries offer some hope.

Update 21 Dec 2010: 
 It is possible that the Ivory Coast will soon be wrapped up in another civil war.  The President of the Ivory Coast was defeated in a recent election and refuses to concede, demanding that all UN personnel leave.  The Ivory Coast may fall even further from its former status as one of the most desirable African counties to live.

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