Tag Archives: houphouet-boigny

Excerpt from Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide

29 Nov

The Independence Movement

The two world wars helped foment demands for Ivorian independence, especially amongst the compradors. During World War I, the colony was forced to adopt austerity measures and recruit indigenes to fight the Germans. Around 150,000 Ivorian men were eventually killed in the trenches – a huge sacrifice, many Ivorians thought, on behalf of a nation that denied them basic rights and freedoms in return. Between the wars, cash crop farming expanded greatly, causing rivalry between the European farmers in Ivory Coast and their native counterparts. The Ivorians resented the fact that the Europeans were allowed to use free labour, got higher prices for their yields and had access to wider foreign markets. When France was overrun by Germany in June 1940, Ivory Coast experienced a 70% drop in exports of its key commodities – coffee, cocoa, wood and palm oil. A recession struck and living standards plummeted. Worse still, French West Africa pledged loyalty to the fascist Vichy regime and Nazi racial ideology began to filter into the colony. Treatment of the bonded labourers worsened and their workloads increased as farmers were pressured to amplify production for the war effort.

As the war dragged on, Ivorian students and intellectuals started to form Communist Study Groups to critique the racism and class exploitation they believed were at the heart of European colonialism, whether French or German. In 1944, a clique of influential Ivorian farmers led by a young Baoulé canton chief, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905–93)formed the African Agricultural Union (Syndicat agricole africain or SAA), quickly attracting 20,000 members, both landowners and labourers. Although effectively a trade union, it is debatable how radical the SAA really was, given that it was established with the permission of the colonial authorities and driven by the interests of Ivorian farm owners rather than Ivorian farm workers. The SAA’s main objective – to end the deeply unpopular corveé system – was driven more by the belief that this gave white farmers an unfair competitive advantage than by any great desire to improve the lot of the Ivorian working-class. At any rate, Houphouët convinced the liberal governor of the time, André Latille, of the need for such reform and la corveé was banned. Reactionary elements amongst the white settlers attempted to have Houphouët prosecuted for treason, but the then Inspector Minister for the Colonies, also a liberal, dismissed the charges.

Recognising that the SAA was part of an inevitable movement for self-determination that was sweeping across the colonised world, France organised the Brazzaville Conference in January 1944 to discuss political reforms within its African territories. Motions were passed to give Ivory Coast and other colonies, more autonomy, a new penal code and elections to send indigenous MPs to the French parliament. Immediately announcing his decision to stand in the inaugural ballot Houphouët knew he could rely on the support of his Baoulé heartland in the south and centre, but realised he would also need to secure the northeastern Bobo Dialasso zone (now in Burkina Faso). Having previously supported him, the French saw Houphouët as too much of a wild card and backed an alternative candidate native to Bobo Dialasso. The SAA canvassed hard in the region and Houphouët managed to obtain a narrow majority in the first round of elections followed by an absolute majority in the second round in November 1945. In recognition of the magnitude of this political achievement, he added ‘Boigny’ to his name, meaning ‘unstoppable force’ in Baoulé. Upon entering parliament, he became the leader of two newly-formed political movements: the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire or PDCI) and the African Democratic Assembly (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain or RDA), a coalition of communists, socialists and liberals across French West Africa united by the desire for more sovereignty if not true independence from France. This was too radical a development for the French, who sacked PDCI and RDA members from government positions and threw them in prison. Houphouët was protected from this purge by his parliamentary immunity. Large-scale demonstrations followed, culminating in the French police shooting a number of protestors dead in late 1949.

A struggle within the PDCI began between moderates like Houphouët, who wanted, as the West Africa scholar Mike McGovern puts it, a ‘semi-autonomous association’ with France, and the left, who wished for full independence with no strings attached. Not for the only time in his career did Houphouët use pragmatism as a defence. Ejecting the French completely from Ivory Coast would be economic and political suicide, he reasoned, because wherever a new administration might stand ideologically, it would lack the skills and resources to properly run the country. Leftists viewed this argument as a fig-leaf for Houphouët’s true motive: to use French participation in Ivorian affairs to shore up the power of his own ascendant class while doing nothing to improve the lot of the poorest.

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Book launch for Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide

11 Jul

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When: 11th August 2016, 6.30pm-8pm

Where: Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, WC2E9, London, UK

Hosted by: author Tom Sykes (New Statesman, The Scotsman, Private Eye) and photographer Alexander Sebley (VICE, BBC).

You’re cordially invited to the launch of the very first full-length English language guidebook to Ivory Coast. The country is a stunner, from the cream-hued beaches of Assinie in the southeast to the crimson savannahs of the north to the awe-inspiring mountains of the west and a wealth of wildlife-rich national parks (500 bird species, chimps, crocs, hippos and even lions and elephants can be glimpsed). At weekends the nightspots of the largest city, Abidjan, boom with the sounds of home-grown musical genres like coupé-decalé and zouglou alongside US hip-hop, French free-form jazz and Latin American soca. If Ivory Coast’s music is the envy of Africa, its traditional art and craft scene is the envy of the world. In the north, jewellers, blacksmiths, weavers, potters and wood-carvers use ancient techniques to create unique artefacts. Aside from the usual practical information, the book includes reportage, interviews and political, historical and cultural analysis.

 

Ivory Coast travelogue in next issue of New African

27 Jan

Thrilled that New African, for whom I’ve been writing for three years now, will be featuring my travelogue ‘Witter the White’ in their next issue. The story’s about my encounter with an aged Dutch cocoa farmer in his Merchant Ivory-style lodge in the midst of his jungly plantation. Photos are provided by Mr Alexander Sebley.

Cote d’Ivoire Country Profile (originally published in New Internationalist)

26 Sep

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At certain times of the day in Cocody, Abidjan’s smart and leafy quarter of foreign embassies and chic eateries, Westerners – most of them French – outnumber Ivorians. The eateries serve French food, the billboards advertise French fashions and French TV blares out from opulent homes. Visiting Côte d’Ivoire today, it’s tempting to feel that, despite the upheavals of the past 50 years, the country has come full circle to the moment of its independence from France in 1960. The current president, Alassane Ouattara, is arguably emulating Côte d’Ivoire’s first ruler, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, by being France’s – and by extension the West’s – ‘man in Africa’.

In the 1960s, Houphouët sold off Côte d’Ivoire’s lucrative cocoa industry (then as now accounting for a third of the world’s yield) to foreign corporations who were allowed to retain 90 per cent of their profits. The same two US companies – ADM and Cargill – still dominate Ivorian cocoa today and Ouattara has been busy awarding vast construction tenders to French firms such as Bouyges. As with the Houphouët era, the result has been ‘growth without development’: the business elite are getting richer from new hotels, highways and other amenities, while the living standards of the poor have barely risen.

Although Ouattara is widely praised for ending a decade of horrific civil war, marginalized regional and ethnic groups continue to hold grievances about the legitimacy of his regime and the imperialistic behaviour of the French during the conflict. The first civil war broke out in 2002 against the backdrop of rapid economic decline that had begun with the collapse in global cocoa and coffee prices in the late 1970s. Elected president in 2000, the nationalist Laurent Gbagbo scapegoated immigrants who, during the Houphouët boom years, had moved from the north of the country (as well as from neighbouring nations such as Mali and Burkina Faso) to work in the plantations of the south. But Gbagbo’s real crime – in the eyes of the West at least – was to challenge French economic exploitation of Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo cancelled a major contract with SAUR, a French gas supplier that refused to pay taxes to the Ivorian exchequer, and handed the construction of a new bridge in Abidjan to the Chinese, who agreed to do the job for a quarter of the price demanded by the French.

France’s military assault on Côte d’Ivoire in 2004 used the same ‘humanitarian’ rhetoric as the UK and US had in their invasion of Iraq the previous year. And, as with the ‘coalition of the willing’, France’s true motives were strategic and economic. Its particular brand of ‘regime change’ resulted in the annihilation of the Ivorian Air Force and the shooting of between 20 and 57 unarmed protesters in Abidjan.

The 2010 elections contested by Gbagbo and Ouattara were blemished by fraud, intimidation and violence that led to the deaths of 3,000. Both candidates were implicated in the killing, but the French intervened on behalf of Ouattara, helped depose Gbagbo and sent him off to The Hague on war-crimes charges. His trial begins next year. To many Ivorians, victor’s justice has prevailed against a man who, while no angel himself, at least tried for a little more autonomy for his people.

While the Ivorian economy is growing at an almost Houphouët-era rate, 42 per cent of the population live below the national poverty line and Gbagbo loyalists in the east and southwest of the country continue to threaten the peace process. François, a young Ivorian first-time voter I met in Cocody, hopes that the election in October this year will ‘not cause these contradictions to explode’.

– See more at: http://newint.org/columns/country/2015/05/01/cote-divoire/#sthash.ksl8iHI3.dpuf

The Fairground of Abidjan: A Nation Within a Hotel (originally published in New African)

14 Feb

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Even on a bleak day during the West African rainy season, the modernist main tower of the Hôtel Ivoîre casts a luminous white reflection across the surface of the Lagoon Ébrié. At another angle, the tower throws a dark shadow over Blokosso, a village that survived the recent civil war unscathed because both sides believed it was protected by magic.

The Hôtel Ivoîre is itself a kind of reflection or shadow, albeit in a different sense. Over its fifty year existence, it has been profoundly shaped by some of the most significant events and personalities in the history of Côte d’Ivoîre. Many of the nation’s hopes, dreams, fears, contradictions and conflicts have played out in one way or another in the building that V.S. Naipaul described as the ‘fairground of Abidjan’.

My tour of the hotel begins outside the large French windows of the restaurant. I am joined by my friend and photographer C.A.R., an Ivoîrienne and an authority on her own country. Our guide is the Communications Manager of the Hôtel Ivoîre, Zaid Batoul. She is a small and bubbly Moroccan lady.

Naipaul’s fairground metaphor starts to make sense when I look around me and see various opportunities for hedonism. The largest casino in the country is here, thatch-roofed like a tribal hut. Later on it will be full of upper-crust Ivoîrians playing blackjack and roulette with Chinese engineers and Lebanese entrepreneurs (there are currently 130,000 Lebanese resident in Côte d’Ivoîre). Two guests sit drinking cocktails beside a lake-sized swimming pool, ignoring the pitiful weather. Zaid points up at a cross-shaped appendage to the top of the main tower. This, she says, is the Roof of Abidjan, a stylish restaurant run by a French master chef and frequented by pop stars, supermodels and politicians.

Noticing a statue of a ram’s head on one bank of the swimming pool, a different connotation of fairground springs to my mind. The hotel’s architecture already feels like a fairground ride: by turns beguiling, amusing and confusing.

C.A.R. suggests one reason for the confusion: almost every brick of the Hôtel Ivoîre is invested with a complex symbolism that can be hard for an outsider to grasp. ‘So what does the ram’s head symbolise?’ I ask her.

‘”Boigny” means “ram”,’ she replies.

It is impossible to discuss the Hôtel Ivoîre without reference to its founder, the first President of the Republic, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905-1993), and his belief in what some might call magic and others might call the power of symbols over the collective unconscious of an entire society. Zaid leads us to an edifice that resembles a tortoise. Apparently Houphouët’s intention here was to reassure his people that, while the nation’s progress may be slow, it is also steady. Next to that is a curvilinear, Henry Moore-esque sculpture of a telephone that is supposed to reflect the nation’s modernity and avant-garde perspective. In times of trouble Ivoîrians can, metaphorically, “phone” the future to find out what lies in store for them. As we go inside the hotel, we pass model doves and ceremonial masks from every tribe in the country: reminders of the virtues of peace and racial tolerance.

The potency of a symbol depends upon its referent being at least partly truthful. The above examples are no exception. After gaining independence in 1960, Côte d’Ivoîre took an unusual path for a post-colonial African nation. Its economy modernised quickly and grew at a First World rate, the standard of living soared and social relations stayed harmonious. More unusual still, “Le Vieux” (“the Old Man”) as Ivoîrians nicknamed Houphouët, set up a Western European-style welfare state that brought free healthcare and education to the most deprived. According to Faustin Toha’s book Houphouët-Boigny in One Hundred Thoughts, the Old Man said ‘racial discrimination is painful and appalling … for our dignity’ and invited immigrants to work in the coffee and cocoa plantations that formed the backbone of Ivoîrian prosperity. For four decades, Ivoîrians regarded themselves as one big happy family and the Old Man as their old man, the father of the nation. Whenever Houphouët met one of his children he would ask them, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ When the request was for money he would tell one of his treasury ministers to handle it. Towards the end of his life, Houphouët set up a peace prize in his name, so proud was he of gaining independence without a shot being fired and, after that, avoiding the kinds of internal conflicts that have blighted Côte d’Ivoîre’s neighbours.

This was the cheerful narrative that Houphouët wanted the Hotel Ivoîre to tell. Many would argue that the truth is more ambiguous than that. Houphouët’s enlightened policies came at a cost to democracy: he banned opposition parties until almost thirty years into his presidency. Indeed, it has been said that Houphouët’s increasing autocracy and paranoia in old age incited the civil war that followed his death. If he was generous to the nation he was also generous to himself, his personal fortune amounting to $9 billion. His “economic miracle” was soured by his sycophancy towards foreign corporations: they were allowed to send 90% of their profits home and pay a pittance for Côte d’Ivoîre’s exports. His penchant for peace rings less true when we consider how he aided brutal right-wing coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso. He may have been a fan of science and technology, but he was also a deeply superstitious man who performed pagan rituals and consulted feticheurs (clairvoyants). The Ivoîrian writer Venance Konan tells of a rumour that Houphouët used to feed albinos to his pet crocodiles. Albinos have long been persecuted in Africa due to their perceived association with witchcraft. Another rumour is that Houphouët drank albinos’ blood in the hope that he would acquire some of their spiritual puissance. If any of this is true, it would seem that Houphouët was a little selective in his definition of discrimination.

The rationalist soothsayer. The social democratic dictator. The anti-albino anti-racist. The pacifist who fought proxy wars. These may seem like epic, insoluble contradictions to Westerners, though not so often to Africans. Besides, we are often more shocked by the contradictions of other cultures than we are by the contradictions of our own. As my friend Jacques, an Ivoîrian scientist who lived in the UK for sixteen years, says, ‘Tony Blair said he was a man of God, peace and unity. Then he started an illegal war that killed many more people than Houphouët ever did.’

Zaid leads me to the reception over which silver lamps hang, their images mirrored in the sparkling marble floors. We flick through the Hôtel Ivoîre’s bulky guestbook and spot some famous African names: Nelson Mandela, the first recipient of the Houphouët Peace Prize; Winnie Mandela; Léopold Senghor, the great poet-president of Senegal; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shaka Zulu. There is also the lavish, looping signature of Michael Jackson, who stayed here while visiting his ancestral village on the Ghana-Côte d’Ivoîre border. While there, he offended Ivoîrians by wearing a mask over his nose. They thought he objected to the smell of the place, but Jackson insisted that the mask alleviated an illness. Although I don’t see their signatures, Zaid assures me that Jackson’s musical confrѐres Barry White and Stevie Wonder also stayed here.

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Perhaps the most important figure in the history of Ivoîrian music, Lougah François, moved into a luxury suite in the Hotel Ivoîre when he made it big in the 1980s. He soon blew his fortune on high living and natty leather suits. The latter vice is common amongst Francophone Africans, particularly certain Congolese who spend so much on clothes that they end up hungry and homeless, yet remain dapper. François’ profligacy was so legendary that you now sometimes hear one Ivoîrian warn another: ‘You’re spending your money like Lougah François.’ Similar to Houphouët, François was affectionately known as ‘Papa National’ (‘Father of the Nation’) so it may be appropriate that he died in 1997 just as Côte d’Ivoîre’s belle époque was giving way to civil war.

The Hôtel Ivoîre found itself in the middle of the fighting and fast went out of business. It quickly fell into decay, and the fairground became a junkyard. The ciphers for a bright future were replaced by the dystopian images of a JG Ballard novel: drained swimming pools, graffiti-stained walls, dishevelled prostitutes. In 2003 the hotel was taken over by Kalashnikov-toting supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, a jingoistic demagogue who is now on trial for war crimes at the Hague.

We take the elevator up to the Presidential Suite, which is filled with black leather furniture, and go on to the balcony. Under a smear of fog, a funeral procession winds past lean-to shops and two-storey shacks. This is Blokosso, a village believed to be overseen by a supernatural king who lives in a nearby tree. Anyone who threatens Blokosso risks provoking the wrath of the king. For this reason, both sides in the civil war gave it a wide berth. While all around the rockets were falling and the soldiers were looting homes, Blokosso remained untouched.

‘So you see,’ says Zaid, ‘a kind of magic was at work after all.’

‘Or rather,’ I reply, ‘enough people believed Blokosso was magical and left it alone. A self-fulfilling prophecy.’

‘Maybe,’ she smiles.

We crane our necks and look down into the hotel grounds. Here an incident took place ensuring that the 9th November 2004 would be remembered as the worst day of the Hôtel Ivoîre’s life. A crowd was gathering, angry about the destruction of Côte d’Ivoîre’s tiny air force by the French contingent of the UN mission in the country. Exactly what happened next remains contentious to this day. An Ivoîrian eyewitness, Colonel Guiai Bi Poin, claims that French soldiers stationed on a balcony fired on the unarmed protestors without warning. The French say they acted in self-defence against armed militants. That seven people – all Ivoîrians – were killed is perhaps the only point everyone can agree on. Some commentators raised doubts about the French version of events when their general in charge of the operation was quietly suspended some months after the fracas.

What the journalists Stéphane Haumant and Jérome Pin have described as “Black Tuesday” was the nadir in France’s convoluted relationship with Côte d’Ivoîre, likened by my friend Jacques to a mother who cannot accept that her child has grown up and left home. Fifty years after independence, France still exerts huge influence over so many aspects of Ivoîrian life. Restaurants everywhere – including the Hôtel Ivoîre’s – serve brochettes, poisson braisé, saucisson and jus d’orange. Most TV channels you watch are run by Canal Plus, the French national broadcaster. Any mall you go to is packed with quintessentially French brands. Many Ivoîrians – C.A.R. included – are so committed to French that they have never learned a native African language. They holiday in Paris and copy the latest Parisian fashions. As children they read Asterix and Lucky Luke comics, and grow up into Balzac, Proust and Gide. Côte d’Ivoîre’s political, legal and educational systems are high-resolution copies of the Gallic originals. I have travelled all over the postcolonial world and no nation in it – not even India, which was dominated by a foreign empire for five times as long as Côte d’Ivoîre was – retains such a close bond with its former master. That is not to say Côte d’Ivoîre doesn’t have its own vivaciously indigenous culture – especially with regard to food, literature, music, art – it is just that France’s shadow, like the Hôtel Ivoîre’s, is long and conspicuous.

As the three of us pass a framed photo of Charles De Gaulle in the corridor, I ask C.A.R. why the French are so embedded in her country.

‘You white men want to control everything,’ she winks.

The British historian Basil Davidson concurs. After the horror of the Algerian War of Independence during which over a million mostly Algerians were killed, the French public had little appetite for more of the same. Thus, as the clamour for freedom in French West Africa grew, De Gaulle visited Côte d’Ivoîre and offered independence with a great many strings attached. This way, according to Davidson, “France was able to retain a tight financial and even military control, a control that was going to endure for many years into the future.” Houphouët was France’s man to lead this transition because he’d been a member of the French parliament and broadly supported French interests in Africa. The French didn’t seem to mind that, earlier on in his career, he’d led an anti-colonialist farm workers’ union, been hated by landowners for his “un-French” attitudes and campaigned energetically against la corvée, the system of forced labour that was abolished as late as 1946. But two decades on Houphouët was content to hand over Côte d’Ivoîre’s security to French troops and much of its economy to French companies. He even went as far as to construct an emergency tunnel between his palace and the French Embassy.

An ironic outcome of Côte d’Ivoîre’s unconditional love for Maman Francaise was that a number of young Ivoîrian men – amongst them Jacques’ father – signed up to fight for the French Army as it tried to suppress liberation movements elsewhere in the empire. By the time he retired, Silue Sr had seen action against revolutionary nationalists in Algeria and Vietnam. His reward for such loyal service was French citizenship.

But while Jacques’ father may have been invited to the new multicultural France, such generosity hasn’t always been extended to Jacques himself, even though he holds a French passport. After he started working for the EU as an adviser on pollution, he went into his bank one day and found that he couldn’t access his first month’s pay. When he asked for an explanation, his bank manager had assumed that any black man earning 4000 Euros a month had to be a drug dealer or worse.

When I tell C.A.R. about this, she isn’t as shocked as I expect her to be. Her mother suffered from the same kind of prejudice when she visited Paris and tried to convert her hard-earned West African Francs into Euros.

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Our tour ends in the lobby lounge. C.A.R. and I cross the velvet carpets and sit down on holy-white chairs. Zaid points to a psychedelic photo of smiling tribespeople taken by Paul Sika, a local boy who trained in London and now exhibits in New York’s most prestigious galleries. A well-groomed Malagasy barman brings us rich macaroons and drinking chocolate: the tastiest by-products of cocoa, which remains Côte d’Ivoîre’s main resource. I feel as if we are in the eye of the PR storm Sofitel has conjured up to sell the assets of both the hotel and of the country. ‘We are just trying to carry on with Houphouët’s vision,’ says Zaid in parting. I wonder if Côte d’Ivoîre’s next fifty years will be as lively as its last, and what fate has in store for the Fairground of Abidjan.

(Originally published in New African, December 2013)

Upcoming feature in the New African

9 Dec

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Just heard that my feature, ‘The Fairground of Abidjan’, about the Hotel Ivoire, the Ivoirian civil war and the power of symbolism, will be appearing in the next issue of New African Magazine. It is available only in print format so do try and grab yourself (or better still, buy) a copy when it appears in newsagents on Wednesday 18th December.

The Pristine Village (Cote d’Ivoire, 06/07/13)

6 Jul

Greetings from the Hotel Ivoire, one of the grand projects of Cote d’Ivoire’s 1960s coffee-and-cocoa boom. I am on the balcony of our red-and-white minimalist room looking out over the lights of Blockauss, a village on the southern bank of Abidjan’s great lagoon. Blockauss is popularly believed to be sacred territory, protected by a magical tree that was once the property of an ancient king. In the recent civil war, neither side dared go near the village for fear of enraging a higher force. While all around it buildings were levelled or looted, Blockauss remained pristine.

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A belief in a different kind of magic – the power of symbolism – is evident in almost every corner of the Hotel Ivoire. A tortoise-shaped building reflects the slow but sure progress of the nation since independence. A giant sculpture of a telephone is supposed to help Ivorians “contact” and understand the future when the present seems uncertain, such was the claim of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first president of the nation who, since his death in 1993, has attained demigod status in the eyes of most Ivorians. In and around the hotel are tribal masks from every region of the country, representing the ethnic and cultural diversity that was also part of Boigny’s vision.

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Forty-eight hours earlier, my thoughts had been far from Boigny and magic symbols. I was sat in the back of an old Citroen taxi, C-A by my side (laughing at my pidgin French), trying to decide what kind of city – socially, economically, aesthetically – Abidjan was. While its barefoot street vendors and houses wrapped in barbed wire remind me of Southeast Asia, its relatively sane traffic and jungley tendrils creeping over all the roofs do not.

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The French influence is obvious enough from the Canal + billboards, hypermarches and patisseries on almost every main street, although I was surprised to find that such influence runs so deep that many Ivorians (especially middle-class ones) speak French fluently but have never learned any indigenous African language. For similar reasons it has been hard to find African food, though not impossible: at a maquis (open-air restaurant) last night, during a power cut, we ate attieke (cassava couscous), alloco (fried plantains) and – falling partly under the Gallic shadow – snail kebabs. And very nice it was too.

Tomorrow we are off to Grand Bassam, the beach where I am to teach.

(Photos by C.A.R.)