African-Americans are still recovering from the shocking news that a DNA test has confirmed that King Tut was of European ancestry.
As we celebrate Black History Month 2012, I have already drawn attention to His Imperial Majesty Bokassa I’s coronation as the first and last emperor of the Central African Empire in 1977.
The loss of Egyptian civilization to Caucasians is a huge psychological blow to the African-American ego, but fortunately there are indisputable modern examples of black greatness around like Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s coronation which more than compensate for the loss of the ancient black pharoahs and pyramid builders like Tutankhamun.
Few White Americans are aware that modern Africans have already surpassed the architectural glories of Ancient Egypt. In the last fifty years of independence, these African leaders have built monuments to black civilization even greater than the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon, or the Roman Colosseum.
From 1985 to 1989, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, or “Le Vieux” (The Old Man) as he is known in West Africa, transformed his sparsely populated home village of Yamoussoukro into the national capital and spent $300 million dollars to build the largest church in Christendom there.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro has a striking resemblance to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Designed by the Lebanese architect Pierre Fakhoury, Our Lady of Peace is constructed entirely out of imported Italian marble and contains 7,000 square meters of hand made stained glass from France and 7,000 Italian-built, air conditioned pews. It can accommodate 18,000 worshippers inside the basilica and another 180,000 in the exterior courtyard.
It costs $1.5 million dollars annually to maintain the building in a country where only 37.5 percent of the population is Christian. Around 350 people attend mass every Sunday in Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro. The Catholic basilica is flanked by enormous deserted parking lots.
In addition to Our Lady of Peace, Houphouët-Boigny built a presidential palace in Yamoussoukro which like Gbadolite in the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of two locations in sub-Saharan Africa that could accommodate his Concorde jet. Two gold plated rams were placed at the entrance of the palace. There was a 12 foot moat for sacred crocodiles and a sacred elephant was kept on hand to wander within the walls.
The Houphouet-Boigny Foundation opened in 1989 with the mission to further peace in the world. The several floors of office space in the cavernous convention center are still almost entirely empty. The marble entrance gives access to an auditorium that can accommodate 2,000 people.
In order to travel to Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, you have to take one of several eight lane highways through town which are deserted of motorists. The jungle is encroaching upon the roads which is already giving it the desired effect of ancient ruined splendor. The streets in Yamoussoukro are reportedly full of potholes and the shopping malls are atrocious.
In spite of this, $3.6 billion dollars is being spent in Yamoussoukro to complete Houphouët-Boigny’s dream and build the National Assembly, 40 government ministry buildings, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, another presidential palace, the national television and radio headquarters and a new national senate there by 2013.
The saddest thing about Le Vieux’s extravagance is that he literally towers over his African contemporaries. Under Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s thirty three year reign, Côte d’Ivoire was the most promising country in sub-Saharan Africa. In the first two decades of independence, the economy grew by over 7 percent a year. Côte d’Ivoire was one of the fastest growing countries in the world.
Unlike his black nationalist contemporaries like Kwame Nkrumah, Félix Houphouët-Boigny was pro-Western, pro-White, pro-capitalist, and fiercely anti-communist. His policy of Françafrique embraced French colonialism as a positive good for West Africa. He relied on French foreign aid, French personnel and advisers, French military protection, and French investment to nurture and grow the Côte d’Ivoire economy while maintaining a dismissive attitude toward politics and democracy.
In this neocolonial role that (partially) observed the Iron Law of Race Relations, the number of French residents in Côte d’Ivoire rose from 10,000 at independence to 50,000. French businessmen were given every incentive to invest in the country. The investment code offered a five year tax holiday, ten years’ worth of exemptions from import duties on capital goods, and no limit to repatriation of profits on capital.
Côte d’Ivoire soon overtook Ghana as the world’s largest producer of cocoa. It became Africa’s largest exporter of coffee and a major exporter of pineapples, bananas, and other commodities. Agricultural production tripled between 1960 and 1980. Industrial production increased from almost nothing at independence to 700 enterprises with a profit of $3.1 billion by 1980.
The “Ivorian Miracle” came to a crashing end in the 1980s when over investment in public infrastructure projects like Yamoussoukro and the explosion of external debt collided with tanking cocoa and coffee prices. The cost of servicing the national debt became impossible to maintain. Côte d’Ivoire finally declared itself insolvent in 1987.
In the 19 years that have followed the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, Côte d’Ivoire has been torn apart by a coup d’état and the First Ivorian Civil War and the Second Ivorian Civil War. The fighting escalated into a French and UN military intervention last year.
As with Emperor Bokassa I in the Central African Republic, the reign of Félix Houphouët-Boigny is nostalgically remembered in Côte d’Ivoire as a golden age and a time of peace and prosperity.
Note: This essay relies heavily upon Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa: A History of the Fifty Years of Independence.
If the Ivorian spending splurge and sovereign debt crisis sounds reminiscent of the Obama stimulus (without the economic prosperity), it should because America is on schedule to financially collapse in the same ignominious manner.