The president, his church and the crocodiles

Côte d'Ivoire's Félix Houphouët-Boigny ruled for 33 years, dying with a dream to turn his home villa

Jungle pressed against narrow road as we drove north. Trucks carrying thick hardwood logs hurtled towards us. The only suggestion of life beyond the thick green walls of vegetation was the occasional puff of smoke in the distance or a lone roadside vendor hawking her forest fruits: bananas, avocados, mangoes. We were heading north towards Yamoussoukro, which is about 240 kilometres from the former capital, Abidjan, on the southern coast, with its high-rise buildings, flashing neon signs and human mass.

Yamoussoukro is the birthplace of Côte d'Ivoire's founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and in 1983, in an act of outlandish confidence, he decided to make his birthplace the new capital, replacing Abidjan. At the time, Yamoussoukro was little more than an agricultural village of 15,000 people, and the man the French called "the Sage of Africa" was, by family heritage, its chief.

Houphouët-Boigny was not one for small measures. As surely as he had filled the artificial lake in the grounds of his Yamoussoukro palace with crocodiles, he ordered the construction of monuments, mostly to himself. There was the six-lane highway and the five-star Hôtel Président, the eponymous grandes écoles and marble-floored hilltop convention centre. The 3,000-metre airport runway was one of only two in Africa long enough to land a Concorde. (The other was in Mobutu Sese Seko's ancestral home of Gbadolité, the "Versailles in the Jungle" in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo.) In a country where just a third of the people are Christian, Houphouët-Boigny ordered the construction of the world's largest church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, in Yamoussoukro. Bigger even than St Peter's Basilica in Rome, it stands 158 metres high and the nave can seat 7,000 people, with standing room for a further 11,000. Furnished with Italian-built, air-conditioned pews, it cost $300m (£175m) to build in the late 1980s.

Now I was on my way to discover what had become of the Catholic basilica in the African bush, as well as the rest of Houphouët-Boigny's legacy, reptiles included. In the early 1980s, V S Naipaul came here, a visit that produced his celebrated essay "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro", published in 1987. Naipaul was quite complimentary about Houphouët-Boigny's rule, and thought the crocs seemed to symbolise his mystique and power over his people.

There was another reason for my trip. Even by the time Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, Yamoussoukro remained a capital in name only. None of the government or judicial in stitutions had moved from Abidjan. In the following years, heightened ethnic tensions, a military coup and finally a civil war, which ended formally only in March 2007, appeared to have killed his dream of moving the capital for real.

“The money for the hospital has been in an account in the Vatican for 15 years,” said Inès. “We don’t know why it hasn’t been built”

Although peace has held, the process of remedying the main causes of the conflict, especially the denial of basic rights for descendants of immigrants from neighbouring countries, is proving slow. The economy is struggling to recover, and the country is still split in two, with a government-controlled south and an impoverished, rebel-run north. A potentially divisive presidential election, scheduled for 30 November - already more than three years late - looks certain to be postponed to 2009 because of logistical challenges. But I had heard reports that a multibillion-pound construction spree was under way in the town. Was Houphouët-Boigny's vision of the jungle capital going to be fulfilled after all?

After two and a half hours on the road, the giant dome of the basilica came into view. As we got nearer, the road widened. There were no other cars. The church appeared enormous, even from the distant main gate. Two converging crescents of towering columns, meant to signify a pair of arms, guarded its entrance.

Our guide's name was Inès. Slim and pretty, she was dressed in a grey trouser suit and spoke excellent English. She led us into the church, where, in the front row of pews, a small plaque indicated le vieux's favourite seat. In front of us were fat bronze and copper pillars; a 50-kilogram gold cross hung beneath a glittering chandelier. Huge, hand-blown stained-glass murals, covering an area of more than 7,000 square metres in all and made in 40 different workshops in Bordeaux, sucked in light from all sides of the church. Hidden inside several enormous columns were the lifts. We took one to the first floor.

A corridor led out on to a balcony overlooking gardens and two stately villas. One of the villas was used by the Polish clergymen who administer the basilica. The deacon and resident monk are from the Pallottine congregation of the Catholic Church, and were sent out by Pope John Paul II, who consecrated the church amid much controversy in 1990. An ambassador in Abidjan had told me that the second villa was reserved for the sole use of the pope, and that the air-conditioning had been kept on ever since his first and only visit.

Sadly, this was not true. Only one room inside the villa was set aside for the pope, and the air-conditioning was switched off. But another story I had heard was indeed true. One of the pope's conditions for coming to Yamoussoukro to bless what many here and abroad considered to be a vulgar vanity project was that Houphouët-Boigny construct a hospital next to the church. During the papal visit, a foundation stone for the hospital was laid. The stone is still there. "The money for the hospital has been in an account in the Vatican for 15 years," Inès said. "We don't know why it has not been built."

On the way out of the church, she pointed at a stained-glass mural, next to the door, depicting Jesus riding a blue donkey. Kneeling at his feet was a man with a brown face: it was Houphouët-Boigny.

I asked Inès how many people attended a typical Sunday service. "About 350," she said. It was explained to me that, under Houphouët-Boigny's 33-year-rule, most Ivorians lived at a "good level". The cocoa- and coffee-based economy prospered, until the 1980s at least, and immigrants from less fortunate neighbouring countries were welcomed in to seek work. There was no war during Houphouët-Boigny's time, and although he may have exploited his position and power to amass a personal fortune of many billions, my driver Adama, and others like him, did not seem to be concerned. "We can never forget him," Adama said.

The Félix Houphouët-Boigny Foundation is located in a cavernous convention centre perched on a hill overlooking Yamoussoukro. It was built to remind people that the president was, above all, a "tireless advocate of peace". At the main gate, a long way from the building itself, a guard signed us in and then set off on his bicycle, beckoning us to follow.

Konan told me what he had seen the day of Houphouët-Boigny’s funeral. “The man dived into the lake. The crocodiles took him"

In the entrance hall, dozens of photos had been laid out on a table. Most featured Houphouët-Boigny. A single photograph stood out. It showed two beautiful women, one black, one white. The first was Marie-Thérèse, Houphouët-Boigny's second wife, who was included in a 1962 Time magazine feature entitled "Reigning beauties". Next to her was Jackie Onassis.

A sign on a nearby booth advertised telex services. A bored-looking guide took us on a tour of one dreary conference room after another. Finally, we arrived at the picture gallery.

On the walls of a narrow room hung Houphouët-Boigny's wedding photo, as well as pictures of him with Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela, and several group portraits taken at various francophone summits. They featured a smiling Houphouët-Boigny together with his great friend François Mitterrand and other African Big Men of the era, such as Omar Bongo of Gabon, today the world's longest-serving leader, and Mobutu, wearing his leopard-skin hat.

The last exhibit was a bright, New Age-style painting titled Peace Fighters. Gandhi, Mandela, Anwar al-Sadat and Martin Luther King each occupied a corner position. Houphouët-Boigny was in the middle.

Houphouët-Boigny wanted to create a modern, hi-tech capital, yet we drove across Yamoussoukro on potholed roads lined with informal markets and crisscrossed by cows and goats. Two life-sized, gold-plated rams stood outside the presidential palace, in front of which was a murky dam. The Yamoussoukro crocodiles are legendary in Côte d’Ivoire; most people I met had a story about them. Venance Konan, one of the Côte d’Ivoire’s best-known journalists and authors, told me that, as a child, he had been told that the president fed albinos to his crocodiles. Another popular tale was that, on the day of his death, a large crocodile with a cowrie shell atop its head had died, too, as if in sympathy. What is certain is that over the years the crocodiles have consumed many of his subjects. Konan said he was among a large crowd which had seen a man eaten alive on the day of the president’s funeral. “He came running, shouting: ‘Houphouët is dead, why should I live?’ He climbed the fence and dived into the lake. The crocodiles took him.”

A security guard who gave his name as Sergeant Kibré showed us to the far side of the "sacred water". Several crocodiles lurked in the shallows. One had lost part of its nose.

A man named Keïta approached, holding a scraggly chicken by its wing. Waving it over the fence, he shouted "chef du cabinet" several times, then "captaine" and "commandant". These were, apparently, the names of the biggest crocodiles in the lake. Soon afterwards, several fat yellow-bellied beasts emerged from the water and came to lie on a stone bank beneath us, slowly opening and closing their jaws.

For CFA3,000 (£3.60), Keïta said that he would drop the chicken. I paid him CFA2,000 not to.

Houphouët-Boigny's grand ambitions gave Alphonse Noufe his first job. A recently qualified civil engineer, he was sent to Yamoussoukro to work on the basilica in 1985, and spent the next four years on the project. Now he is back in town working on behalf of another Ivorian leader, President Laurent Gbagbo. Noufe is the on-site manager of the Special Programme for the Transfer of the Capital to Yamoussoukro, which seeks to complete Houphouët-Boigny's vision. He listed the structures to be built between now and 2013: the National Assembly, 40 government ministry buildings, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, another presidential palace, the national television and radio headquarters. There would also be a senate - even though the present Ivorian constitution does not allow for senators - an international hospital and an "Olympic Centre", in the style of the Stade de France in Paris. The overall budget for the project is CFA3,000bn (£3.6bn) - an astounding and potentially ruinous figure for a country that only recently emerged from civil war. Two small villages within Yamoussoukro will have to be relocated to accommodate the 6,000-hectare construction site. "It is like we are building a new town," Noufe told me.

Gbagbo's desire for a defining civil works project is no surprise. After all, Henri Konan Bédié, who ruled from 1993-99 (and who is challenging Gbagbo in the forthcoming elections), also followed Houphouët-Boigny's example. In his home department of Daoukro, about 200 kilometres east of Yamoussoukro, with a population of 14,000, Bédié built a mosque, a multimillion-pound conference hall, smooth roads, a hotel and a nightclub. Then he was toppled in a coup.

But what people are asking of Gbagbo is this: why is he spending so much money in Yamoussoukro, far from his own home town and support base? Noufe said that that was a "political question", but to his mind the transfer of the capital made sense. Abidjan was "going down, day by day". There were problems with traffic, security and overcrowding.

In Abidjan, however, the prevailing opinion is that Gbagbo, renowned as a canny politician, is using the project to try to score points with the Baoulés, the largest ethnic group in Côte d'Ivoire, who make up nearly a quarter of the population and mainly inhabit the central region, which includes Yamous soukro. With enough of their votes, he will stay in power.

Following Noufe’s directions, we drove across town to the site of the new project. The beginnings of a processional avenue, the Triumphal Way, had been carved out of the earth and smoothed. Signboards indicated the route to the National Assembly, the presidential palace and the

Hôtel des Parlementaires. Two yellow cranes hovered above the Assembly, which, when completed, will be the biggest – and probably the grandest – parliament building in Africa. Like the presidential palace, it is being constructed by Pierre Fakhoury, the architect who also designed the basilica.

The 300-room, six-storey hotel, commissioned to accommodate MPs when parliament is in session, has been officially open for nearly a year. Perhaps this was due to the efficiency of the Chinese workers (whose government also financed most of the £26.7m cost), but the timing of its completion seemed odd: it is likely to be several years before the Assembly opens and MPs get to spend any length of time here.

The lobby had marble floors; there was a well-equipped business centre and coffee shop, though both were closed. A receptionist kindly offered to give us a tour. On the ground floor were two restaurants and several well-furnished offices for the most senior parliamentarians. There was a swimming pool and a nightclub. The rooms were smart and comfortable; the larger ones had flat-screen televisions. I asked if the hotel was accepting paying customers. Yes, the receptionist said, but only if the guests arrived as part of a large group. And was there anyone booked in at the moment? No.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman and East Africa correspondent of the Guardian