How a church defined Côte d’Ivoire’s former President

The Catholic basilica in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, is a large church consecrated by the Pope himself. Its official title is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. It is loosely based on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, particularly the dome, and is by some estimates the largest church in the world. Based in Côte d’Ivoire’s administrative capital, the church can accommodate between 15,000 and 20,000 worshippers at a time, although these days the attendees number in the hundreds.This monument has become a lasting symbol of the regime led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first President of the independent Côte d’Ivoire. He was a divisive leader who garnered much goodwill among his people pre-independence. He served as a Member of the French Parliament as a representative of his country (effectively as a French constituency) and forced through the abolition of forced labour in French colonies. The basilica though became a major source of criticism in his later years as it was part of an extravagant spending plan that persisted at a time when the country’s economy was taking a nosedive. The monument alone cost an estimated $300m.

Houphouët-Boigny was born in Yamoussoukro as the son of a local chief and cocoa plantation owner, a position he would inherit later in life. Yamoussoukro was nothing more than an anonymous village in a rural part of the country, there was nothing significant or notable about the place. Houphouët-Boigny’s rise to power is noteworthy in itself; he duly became first President of Côte d’Ivoire in November 1960 and that decade became known as the ‘Ivorian Miracle’. The economy boomed thanks in large part to cocoa and coffee production, which enriched the President on a personal level as well as the country. Amidst this healthy economic backdrop, Houphouët-Boigny borrowed money and embarked on some ambitious projects which included the transformation of Yamoussoukro. He was to shift the country’s capital to Yamoussoukro as an act of self-monumentalisation. Other African leaders had done similar acts; Hastings Banda moved Malawi’s capital to Lilongwe;  and Bouguiba in Tunisia transformed Monastir from fishing village to a tourist resort. It was actually Bouguiba who personally advised Houphouët-Boigny to follow the trend according to Paul Kenyon in his book Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa. The same chapter outlines how his plans included new American style roads, hotels and golf courses to turn the place into a new tourist hotspot, away from the bustle of places like Abidjan. A palace with its own crocodile-filled lake was also constructed. The Basilica in the bush was to be the centre piece. 

By the time construction of the basilica was underway though, the economy had tanked. A collapse in cocoa prices and Houphouët-Boigny’s failure to adequately deal with the crisis had plunged the country deep into debt. But the Yamoussoukro project continued, apparently diverting essential funds from other regions of the country to finance it at a time of austerity. The construction costs for the church doubled the country’s debt and today maintenance of the site costs about $1.5m annually, administered these days by Polish deacons. The church contains dozens of stained-glass windows, one of which depicts Houphouët-Boigny kneeling in front of Jesus and touching his robe. Also included is a 50kg gold cross beneath a chandelier, 7,000 chairs, air conditioning and the structure is supported by 272 columns. It was presented as a gift to Pope John Paul ll who reluctantly consecrated it on the condition that a hospital be built nearby. Houphouët-Boigny died just three years after construction was completed, his funeral was held there. As mentioned above, it is sparsely attended now and Kenyon states in Dictatorland that there are signs of decay in the form of walkways crumbling and infested with weeds. 

Some people see Houphouët-Boigny as a symbol of freedom and protector of peace (Côte d’Ivoire descended into civil war after his death with many seeking refuge in the basilica during the violence), while others see him as a careless narcissist who had no right to spend money the country didn’t have on a vanity project. Whichever way you see him, one cannot deny that he has had an impact and has even achieved a legacy in the 25 years since his death. Perhaps he got what he wanted after all. 

 


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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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