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Félix Houphouët-Boigny - 1960-1993

While maintaining a one-party political system, veteran Baoulé politician Félix Houphouët-Boigny (pronounced oof-WET bwahn-YEE) led Côte d’Ivoire for 33 years with wisdom and prudence, managing to avoid the ethnic conflicts and coups that befell neighboring countries. He effectively integrated the nation’s disparate regions into a cohesive economy such that Côte d’Ivoire became a symbol of prosperity and stability. The Ivorian economy doubled in size between 1960 and 1980. Even in the early 1960s, there was a question of who might succeed Houphouet. It turned out to be premature. Houphouët-Boigny, did not endow his country with the institutions needed to ensure stability after he died in 1993.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny was possibly born on 18 October 1905 -- or as early as 1898, according to some unofficial accounts -- in Yamoussoukro, a town 160 miles north of Abidjan. The son of a wealthy chief who owned large cocoa and coffee plantations, Houphouet-Boigny entered the French colonial education system to become a prosperous rural doctor and successful planter. Turning to politics, in 1944 he was a co-founder, with other African planters, of the African Agricultural Syndicate, a group organized to protect its members' interests against French settlers. Within a year -- after converting the Syndicate into the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast -- he was elected a deputy to the French National Assembly.

Once independence for Ivory Coast was in prospect, Houphouet-Boigny divided his time between Abidjan, where he was mayor, and Paris, where he continued to serve in the National Assembly. In 1956 Prime Minister Guy Mallet appointed him a minister-delegate, the first African in a French Cabinet.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was a short, lithe man, with very dark skin and a high forehead, who liked double breasted suits. He spoke in a quiet voice, was formal and protocol-conscious in his courtesy, and impatient in his ambitions. At receptions he moved in a stately way through the crowd, smiling broadly with his beautiful, flirtatious and much taller wife Marie Therèse on his arm, his eyes blinking and forehead glistening under camera lights. By 1961, Marie Therèse was running a chic Parisian dress shop in Abidjan. Houphouet was perceptive, wise, and a shrewd appraiser of political forces who, while punctilious in his dealings with French officials, was not wholly controlled by them.

Houphouet-Boigny became the first president of Cote d’Ivoire and began drafting a new constitution for Cote d’Ivoire after it gained independence from France on 7 August 1960. Since independence from France, Ivory Coast maintained a level of political stability, economic development, and cooperation with the West that was almost without parallel in black Africa. This record was due largely to the pragmatic and traditionally pro- French policies and benevolently authoritarian rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the country's founding father.

After two decades of successunder Houphouet, however, Ivory Coast faced growing political challenges and its most difficult economic slowdown since independence that, if mis-handled, could result in instability and opportunities for outside meddling. Houphouet, aged 76 in 1982, had not designated a successor or established constitutional procedures for succession should he die in office without naming a political heir. Moreover, the Ivorian leader had given no public hint that he intended to retire voluntarily any time soon. Under these circumstances, Houphouet's death-or a sharp decline in his physical or mental condition - would pose a potentially serious political test for the Ivorian system.

Ivory Coast's comparative political harmony depended on Houphouet's firm, paternalistic control of political activity. A strong presidential form of government and a single party system tha the forged before Ivory Coast gained independence concentrated power firmly in his hands. The Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PDCI) includef all important political interest groups and servef both as a policy making forum and as an instrument for overseeing policy implementation.

Houphouet's reliance on direct personal dialogue and conciliation of potentially restive elements helped deter open unrest and destructive political competition. Political opponents generally had been co-opted into the ruling party; by the 1980s there was no evidence of any significant opposition group within or outside the country. Ethnic rivalries had been held in check by the President's careful allocation of political patronage and key positions among the country's 60 tribal groups.

Among Houphouet's political problems have been public charges by disgruntled village chiefs and local party officials that the entrenched post-independence political leadership is overly corrupt, arrogant, and unresponsive to local needs. In an effort to clean house and to still such criticism, Houphouet in 1980 gave the Ivorian public an oppor-tunity to vote unpopular incumbents out of office in the country's first competitive elections. The elections helped renew the legitimacy of local party leaders and legislators, but also produced splits in the party that remained unhealed.

Much of Houphouet's ability to con-solidate and sustain his political position over such along period has depended on remarkable gains in theeconomy and Ivorian living standards. The heart of his strategy was a combination of economic liberalism and substantial French participation in the development process. In addition to Paris's development aid - more than $1.5 billion in net disbursements over the 1975-80 period - and private investment flows, technical support by French expatriates provided the expertise that allowed Ivory Coast to build a modern economy.

More than 65,000 French nationals held key management, technical, andcivil service positions. French support facilitated Ivory Coast's diversification of its economic base from dependence on cocoa and coffee into other agricultural commodities and light industry. Aided by strong demand for its exports, the country became West Africa's economic star, averaging 7.5-percent real growth per year until the mid-1970s. Ivory Coast also had one of the region's best records in employment, access to consumer goods, and provision of public services. Such performance attracted unskilled workers from poorer neighboring states, whonow comprise about 30 percent of the population. Although immigrant labor strained public services, it helped limit inflation for many years these workers generally earned much lower wages than native Ivorians.

Economic conditions and prospects began to change with the energy crisis, the slowdown of the global economy, and the attendant decline in demand for tropical products in the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s, the economic growth rate had been cut by more than two-thirds and unemployment was on the rise. Despite the discovery of oil adequate to provide some relief from soaring import bills, Abidjan still faced serious problems as it tried to cope with slower growth, heavy service on the debt it accrued in the lean years.

In foreign policy, Houphouet held to a moderate, pro-Western stance based on a continuing close economic, military, and cultural relationship with France. Houphouet and senior members of the political elite maintained close personal and cultural ties to France and French leaders. Because of extensive economic and financial assistance from Paris - France was Ivory Coast's major trading partner and aid donor - the French Government and business community had considerable influence in the Ivory Coast.

Houphouet was regarded throughout the region as the elder statesman of West Africa. He was the oldest surviving francophone leader and had considerable influence among moderate African heads of state who respected his advice and services as a conciliator. Houphouet actively encouraged regional cooperation and economic development by supporting the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Council of the Entente, a loose political and economic union of Abidjan's French-speaking neighbors: Togo, Benin, Upper Volta, and Niger.

Houphouet's stature occasionally allowed him to pursue unpopular policy initiatives, such as his unsuccessful call in 1970 for a black African dialogue with white-ruled South Africa. Houphouet was ardently anti-Communist and suspicious of Soviet, Cuban, and Libyan activities inAfrica. Abidjan did not have diplomatic relations with Moscow, Havana, or Tripoli. Houphouet viewed Qadhafi as a Soviet surrogate and looked to France and the United States to stem Soviet expansionism and Libyan meddling in the region.

The political system in Cote d'Ivoire was president-dominated. Political dialogue is much freer today than prior to 1990, especially due to the opposition press, which vocalizes its criticism of the government. Beginning in 1990, Cote d'Ivoire evolved, with relatively little violence or dislocation, from a single-party state. Opposition parties, independent newspapers, and independent trade unions were made legal at that time. Since those major changes occurred, the country's pace of political change had been slow, prior to the period of turmoil ushered in by the December 1999 coup.

Under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President from independence until his death on December 7, 1993, Cote d'Ivoire maintained a close political allegiance to the West while many countries in the region were undergoing repeated military coups, experimenting with Marxism, and developing ties with the Soviet Union and China. His successor, President Henri Konan Bedie, served from 1993 to 1999 and was familiar with the US, having served as Cote d'Ivoire's first ambassador to the US. Falling world market prices for Cote d'Ivoire's primary exports of cocoa and coffee put pressure on the economy and the Bedie presidency.

Yamoussoukro, where Houphouet-Boigny was born, was then a small town on a laterite road, a place of crocodiles. Now it accommodates Houphouet's monument to himself, the largest cathedral in the world. Reached by a super-highway, it was the nominal capital of the Ivory Coast.

As his health began to fail, there were increasing complaints that he lacked the energy to carry the nation into a new era of growth. President Felix Houphouet-Boigny died 07 December 1993. Houphouet-Boigny underwent surgery for cancer of the prostate, but the cause of death was not immediately known.

In a region where many political systems were unstable, Cote d'Ivoire showed remarkable political stability from its independence from France in 1960 until late 1999. When Félix Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993 after 33 years in power and without a clear plan for succession, it bred political and economic strife. The careful balancing of various ethnic, religious and urban-rural interests began to unravel. Debates erupted concerning the rights of Ivoirians versus non-Ivoirians, particularly in terms of land tenure and voting. These issues, coupled with north-south cultural and religious divisions, contributed to the civil war of 2000-02 and the post-electoral crisis of 2010-11, when Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to President-elect Alassane Ouattara.





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