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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

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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