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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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