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Remembering Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Father of the Ivory Coast's (In)dependence

Unlike many African independence leaders, Houphouët-Boigny's vision was of forging a common fate with ex-colonial masters.
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From left to right: Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny, Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, Paula Ben-Gurion, Israeli minster Golda Meir. Photograph taken in 1962 by Israeli Press Office.

That the child is father of the man may be particularly true for Africa and its ‘fathers of independence’. This is the case not only because half a century after the continent’s accession to sovereignty, Africa still bears scars of its childhood diseases – the lack of institutional capacity, to name but one – but also because the ‘fathers’ didn’t actually sire independence. Rather, they were themselves the progeny of overbearing historical circumstances, and fairly predictable ‘midnight’s children’ to boot.

Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere was keenly aware of his dependency on the masses who were pushing for the end of colonial rule. “Unless I can meet at least some of these aspirations, my head will roll just as surely as the tickbird follows the rhino”, he explained. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah summarised no less crudely the pressure exerted on him by his followers, commenting: “Unless I lead them where they want to go, I shall be killed”.

There is one notable exception: Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first president. Arguably, he led his people where he wanted them to go and, to the extent possible, steered his own course through history. However, though he made history, he did not make it into history, at least not as gloriously as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Sékou Touré or Patrice Lumumba. Houphouët-Boigny is generally overlooked, or else dismissed as ‘a lackey of the French’. Yet, best comparable perhaps to Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Houphouët-Boigny wrote his own ticket and delivered a powerful message that, 50 years later, might still nurture African realpolitik.

Puncturing the dream of a “political kingdom” as the safe haven of sovereignty, or of Pan-Africanism as a panacea for the woes of the continent, he contended that “the dignity of one’s economic condition” was the touchstone of genuine independence.

From Dia to Felix

The child that was to become Félix Houphouët-Boigny was born as Dia Houphouët – officially on 18 October 1905 but more likely five years earlier – in Yamoussoukro, then a small Baoulé village 250 km north of Abidjan. At the age of five, when his uncle died, human sacrifices were celebrated to instate him as the new chief of his ethnic group, which belongs to the larger Akan family of both Ivory Coast and neighbouring Ghana.

Perhaps as a result of this traumatic childhood experience, Houphouët embraced Catholicism in 1915 under the influence of a missionary at the French primary school he attended. He also swapped his tribal first name for a Christian one. In 1945, after his first electoral landslide – in the Abidjan city council elections – he added to his surname ‘Boigny’, meaning the leading ram or bellwether.

Later, colonial administrator Marc Simon would say of Houphouët-Boigny, “he dissembled a steely resolve behind mild manners, his seemingly dreamy mind never parting ways with extreme realism”. This is something the French learned to their cost. Having channelled the young Baoulé chief through their educational system, they had to reign in an aspiring youngster who was challenging the colonial hierarchy. Appointed as an auxiliary medical doctor – the highest level accessible to “natives” – at Abidjan’s main hospital, Houphouët-Boigny undertook to organise the entire African medical personnel as a ‘fraternity’, a trade union in all but name. The French responded by transferring him to Guiglo, an outpost near the Liberian border.

Relocated, but ever resilient and resourceful, the young doctor took advantage of his banishment to set up the first coffee plantation in the far west of Ivory Coast. In 1929, he was brought back into the fold, to Abengourou, 70 km northeast of Abidjan and, then, the centre of the country’s cocoa production.

In the Ivory Coast, natives grew three times more cocoa than their colonial competitors but were paid a significantly lower price for their produce. In addition, the colonialists benefited from forced labour while natives depended on their families or had to hire day labourers from the market.

Economic iniquity became Houphouët-Boigny’s cause. In 1934, he signed with a pseudonym a diatribe in a small anti-colonial newspaper in Dakar, Le Progrès colonial, with the headline “We’ve been robbed overmuch!”. Summoned to the Governor’s office, he readily admitted to the authorship of the article and, to his surprise, was embraced by the head of the colonial administration, which was at loggerheads with abusive French farmers.

Subsequent governors, however, reacted quite differently. In 1939, Houphouët-Boigny was ‘indefinitely suspended’ from civil service. Police reports and the colonial press labelled him an “Anti-French troublemaker” or, a dig at his already considerable personal wealth, “a capitalist-anarchist”. But as soon as freedom of association was conceded in the colonies towards the end of the Second World War, Houphouët-Boigny founded the Syndicat agricole africain, an African agricultural trade union. Within weeks, 12,000 of the roughly 20,000 native farmers in Ivory Coast joined his organisation.

Houphouët-Boigny, the bellwether

Forced labour was the next target. Under geopolitical pressure to loosen its colonial grip, France – liberated from German occupation with the help of 250,000 African soldiers – allowed for full representation of colonial natives in its own Constituent Assembly. Against the local colonial establishment, Houphouët-Boigny was elected. In the spring of 1946, he tabled a bill, which was adopted without debate, abolishing forced labour in the colonies.

Overnight, he and his Senegalese colleague Lamine Guèye, who had put his name to the law bestowing citizenship upon former colonial “subjects”, became immensely popular across francophone Africa. But with the onset of the Cold War, the old order in the colonies returned with a vengeance. Under the guise of fighting communism, the colonial establishment repressed any expression of dissent. In the Ivory Coast, protesters were shot by police. The blame for the unrest was put on “Mao Tsé Houphouët”, also called “the Stalinist billionaire”. In January 1950, an arrest warrant was issued against him, though no action followed for fear of riots in the colony.

Houphouët-Boigny paid the price for a political ruse. While most African members of parliament had wanted to join the French Socialist Party as a bulk to bring to bear their full weight, he had advocated in favour of them subdividing and affiliating all three of France’s major political groups so as to parlay their leverage. As a result, he was obliged to side with the Communist Party (PCF), a grouping none of his colleagues had been willing to choose. “You’re more of a tsar, you haven’t got much to do with Lenin”, Lamine Guèye put to him. “True”, Houphouët-Boigny replied, “but I need a lot of soldiers”.

After the war, the PCF was France’s most important party. But by the early 1950s, shifting coalitions were built against the Communists leading typically to short-lived governments and institutional instability. Houphouët-Boigny ended up on the sidelines of French politics, and altogether off-side geopolitically; still worse, in his home country, he laid himself open to accusations of being a ‘subversive’.

Only in 1951 did Houphouët-Boigny succeed in jumping the Communist ship. After protracted behind-the-scenes negotiations, he joined a small political party of former resistance fighters, the USDR, which had become the fulcrum of incessant alliance-building to form new governments. For the decisive meeting with the then head of the executive, René Pleven, the Ivorian MP arrived aboard an American limousine, driven by a white chauffeur in impeccable livery. “All is still possible”, Houphouët-Boigny declared. “Contesting colonialists is not contesting France. Under the right conditions, i.e. equality, we can live together in perfect harmony.”

Houphouët-Boigny had staunchly opposed colonial inequality. Now that he was convinced that France and its sub-Saharan colonies were en route for a common future, he coined the neologism la Françafrique and vowed to serve the cause of a “Franco-African community” with unsparing loyalty. Neither the Franco-British attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956, nor the colonial war in Algeria and hijacking of a plane to arrest the leadership of the Algerian liberation movement altered his public support of the French authorities. He was paid back in kind: in 1957, he became the first African ever to reach full ministerial rank. At one point, he was France’s Minister of Health, pushing through parliament a reform of the medical system.

In 1957, Houphouët-Boigny headed the French delegation sent to New York to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations. Much criticism was levelled against him. He replied: “What lessons could be given to me by states that are legally and nominally independent but incapable of improving the standard of living of their populations? We’re perfectly legitimate in saying that, for us, there is no secure future without France…As for the United States, what can they tell me worth while listening to while I see in Harlem bevies of resigned Blacks who’re separated from the rest of the population and dealt with as outcasts?” Houphouët-Boigny felt vindicated when his French chief of staff, Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet, caused a scandal by taking to the dance floor at the Waldorf Astoria with his minister’s wife, Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny, a famous Ivorian beauty.

The wager

From an African point of view, what Houphouët-Boigny stood for came to a head in his famous “wager” with Kwame Nkrumah. In April, 1957, Nkrumah visited his Ivorian neighbour, who only a month previously had declined to attend the ceremony in which the Black Star had replaced the Union Jack and Nkrumah had proclaimed his country “forever free”. During three days in Abidjan, the Ghanaian hailed the “political kingdom” – i.e. independence – as the sine qua non of Africa’s emancipation, freedom and prosperity. Wherever he appeared, he was frantically acclaimed.

Houphouët-Boigny waited until the last day of Nkrumah’s visit to respond in public. His falsetto jarred with Nkrumah’s sonorous voice as much as the message he carried. “Your experience is rather impressive”, he declared. “But on account of the human relationship between the French and the Africans, and because in the 20th century people have become interdependent, we consider that it would perhaps be more interesting to try a new and different experience than yours, and unique in itself – one of a Franco-African community based on equality and fraternity.”

This was to be called “the wager”, as Houphouët-Boigny went on to conclude: “So let us meet up again in ten years to see who among us has chosen the best approach for his people.”

Ten years later, toppled by a coup d’état, Nkrumah was living in exile in Guinea, the state run by his francophone alter ego, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who had said no to Charles de Gaulle’s proposal of a Franco-African community, preferring “freedom in poverty to riches in slavery”.

For his part, Houphouët-Boigny had become, at Ivory Coast’s independence in 1960, the president of a country well on its way to superseding Ghana as the world’s most important cocoa producer – and overall to turning into an economic “miracle” – while Ghana sank amid instability and mismanagement. Houphouët-Boigny’s warning against merely “nominal independence” – that is, a political flag of convenience flying proudly above a poorer-than-ever land – had been vindicated.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the 50,000 French expatriates running the Ivorian state and economy – five times more than under colonial rule – gave the “miracle” a hollow ring. The dependence on France, arguably a neo- rather than ex-colonial power, was there for all to see. In its own way, Ivory Coast’s independence was as nominal as the beggar’s choice next door.

Who won the wager? Strictly speaking, within the bet’s ten-year limit, Houphouët-Boigny carried the day. Yet, inasmuch as the only way to learn how to play the harp is to play the harp, Ghana at least made its own mistakes and, since the 1990s, seems to have learned from them. This is small comfort for the generation of Ghanaians after independence which grew up in misery and chaos, without much schooling and healthcare or a functioning state.

But it is also little comfort for the Ivorian youth of the past 20 years – years marred by a putsch, a civil war, and an outbreak of xenophobia in the name of ivoirité (“Ivorianness”) – to know that their parents had enjoyed a better life before. Houphouët-Boigny’s state was eviscerated by corruption abetted by the president himself (“when you’re roasting peanuts for others, no-one should look into your mouth”); land tenure was a mess he had created (“the land belongs to who is tilling it”); and his generous open-door immigration policy left almost a third of the population in doubt as to whether they were still immigrants or already Ivorian citizens.

In fact, perhaps the sole and unexpected winner of the wager is the analyst, who keeps moving the time horizon and asking the same question. Not only will s/he understand historical truth as a dependent variable; s/he will also realise that the Franco-African relationship has never been, simplistically, the association of a French rider and his African horses. Though in varying and mostly unequal proportions, there has always been agency on either side. La Françafrique – since the late 1990s a polemical term to revile the French presence in Africa via a pun (la France à fric, ‘corruptible and corrupting France’) – was initially Houphouët-Boigny’s political project. During the three decades of his rule – from 1960 until his death in 1993 – the first Ivorian president co-managed with Jacques Foccart, the Gaullist “African hand” of similar longevity (1960-1996), what the French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon has more aptly called the postcolonial “Franco-African state”: an intricate web of institutionalised interdependence based on elite connivance between Paris and the capitals of francophone Africa.

The “Franco-African state” is no more. Demography, democracy and globalisation have worn thin the ties between France and its former sub-Saharan colonies – thin, that is, by comparison to what it used to be.

Broadly speaking, Houphouët-Boigny is remembered as a mildly authoritarian ‘father of independence’ who, in an onset of senility, erected a Pharaonic cathedral in his village, Yamoussoukro, which he also turned into the country’s capital under his reign. Yet, political projects need to be replaced, and judged, on a timeline. In 1959, on the eve of independence, Houphouët-Boigny told de Gaulle: “We have twenty lawyers, ten medical doctors and two engineers in Ivory Coast. Do you really believe we can fend for ourselves?” It was a legitimate question that, half a century later, resonates differently than in the heady days of imminent African sovereignty.

In the end, was what followed a genuine partnership? Or was it, as Senegal’s poet-president Léopold Senghor once claimed in a spark of ire, “Kollaboration” (i.e. working with French neocolonialism the way the Vichy regime had worked with the Nazi occupiers)?

There is room for debate. However, if the lot of ordinary Africans is accepted as a yardstick for competitive claims, it is not a foregone conclusion that Ghanaians under Kwame Nkrumah, or Guineans under Sékou Touré, were sold down the river less than Ivorians under Houphouët-Boigny.

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