15 July 2008

A lower-case capital

It’s not uncommon for countries to relocate their capital city: sometimes to an existing town or city, sometimes to a greenfield site. The cities thus created are as diverse as the reasons for creating them. At best, a new capital combines the vitality of any big city with a certain spacious self-confidence. Some of the world’s greatest cities (St Petersburg, Beijing) were designed as capitals, fully formed in the central planner’s (or emperor’s) mind. Washington DC may not have the lively churn of New York or Chicago, but its neoclassical grandeur sets it apart from other US cities. I have not visited Brasilia or Abuja: but whether you see these cities as bold visions of the future or a colossal waste of money, they are undoubtedly fully functioning capitals.

Other capital cities are still-born, capitals in name only. Tanzania’s parliament meets in Dodoma from time to time, but no ministries or embassies do. Burma’s junta recently relocated from chaotic, coastal Yangon (Rangoon) to a mountain village called Napyidaw, apparently at the suggestion of a fortune-teller. Strangest of all, perhaps, is Yamoussoukro, nominal capital of the Ivory Coast. 20 years after its designation, this bizarre city-village is a living monument to its creator and not much else.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny was certainly a master statesman. From the mid-1940s to his death in 1993, he was synonymous with Côte d’Ivoire, piloting his country from palm-fringed obscurity to the economic powerhouse of West Africa. The first African ever to sit in a French cabinet, Houphoët’s genius was to simultaneously convince the Ivoiriens that they were independent and the French that they were not. While Algeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe had to fight for their independence, Côte d’Ivoire was born without bloodshed. When neighbouring Ghana was convulsed by coups and economic collapse, the Ivorians took over as number one in cocoa. The national motto is hard-nosed: ‘Unité, discipline, travail.’

Houphouët ruled supreme for 33 years, buying off his opponents with cocoa farms and contracts. After he died, the falling price of cocoa and ever-growing corruption brought the Ivory Coast economic stagnation, political turmoil and eventually, tragically, civil war. But one aspect of ‘Le Vieux’s’ legacy is preserved: the largest cathedral in Africa and perhaps the world, rising out of the African bush in the middle of nowhere.

Yamoussoukro is a small village 200km north-west of Abidjan. It’s centrally located, on a main road, running through rolling hills with a pleasant climate. Houphouët was born near here in 1905 and that was why he designated this place to be capital. Nominally, it still is: the current government has no interest in the place but doesn’t want to touch his legacy. My bus from Abidjan suddenly burst onto a six-lane highway, completely empty apart from an army checkpoint, streetlights guarding both sides like silent sentinels. Outside the bus station, children and chickens played on a road as wide as the Champs-Elysées. Trucks laden with teak rumbled through on their way to the coast, lost in a vast expanse of concrete. Vast boulevards stretched in all directions, a few concrete bungalows stranded on the sides.

I saw a vast dome rising a mile away. My host, a local student and cousin of a friend in Abidjan, led me down the deserted avenue, past a mosque and a swampy lake where a teenage boy shook a single wriggling fish out of his net. As we crested the hill, the basilica loomed in front of us like a neo-Renaissance visitor from outer space. The guards were most welcoming: tour’s about to begin, they said.

The Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix is the largest building in Africa and one of the hugest in the world. Its pews can accommodate 7,000 people, another 7,000 fit in standing. It has been full to capacity twice. The first was in 1989, when Pope John Paul II came to bless it. (At his request, the dome was made a few feet shorter than that of St Peter’s). The second was in 1993, at the funeral of its creator. On that occasion, over 200,000 people stood patiently in the grounds, which are beautifully maintained to this day. Only the Vatican and maybe Maracana stadium can compare.

The mind boggles at the megalomania that inspired this basilica in the bush and the sang-froid that permitted its financing. A simple plaque in the front pew commemorates President Houphoët ‘who gave this building to the nation’. God only knows what the nation gave him to build it. Our guide proudly recounted the details of its design (by a Lebanese) and construction (in three years, by French engineers). He did not tell us the price tag. In the past, I have marvelled at how much of Tibet’s GDP is tied up in temples or mediaeval France spent on cathedrals. But those monuments are alive: they are still at the heart of their cities, visited by the faithful as well as tourists. Save for a few weekenders from Abidjan, two young Germans (aid-workers?) and a French priest, the Basilique was empty. My friend had been a number of times; but he was Catholic. Most local people, he told me, ignored it completely.

And yet it’s staggeringly beautiful. Some dictators build mass graves or châteaux in France. This one at least gave the country something it can be proud of. Indeed, though Yamoussoukro was at the front line of Côte d’Ivoire’s ‘crise’ for 5 years, it was spared the shelling, rioting and looting. A battalion of Bangladeshi blue helmets live opposite; they didn’t look busy. Buses and trucks are running to the north again. The Hotel Président, a vast concrete pile on the edge of town, had a scattering of SUVs parked outside it. The market in the city centre was full of students eating at roadside stands. When I glanced up from my fried chicken and chips, the dome of the basilica stood in vast relief against the greying sky.

While the building may be unique, the ‘Big Man’ spirit that inspired it is not. When Houphouët died, his funeral was delayed by President Mitterrand, who reportedly had his Concorde circle above the airport for hours to make sure he was the last to arrive. Last week, President Kofuor hosted a sparkling awards ceremony for Ghana’s National Day, creating a brand-new ‘Medal of the Star of Ghana’. The first recipient: himself. As I write this in my hotel, Radio Télévision Ivoire has just devoted 30 minutes to what President Gbagbo did this weekend.

On the way back to Abidjan, my bus suddenly lurched to the side of the road. As we ground to a halt, I heard a wail of sirens and seconds later, a series of police cars flashed by at incredible speed, followed by three or four black S-Class Mercedes and a bunch of SUVs, indicators flashing. His Excellency on a visit to the North, or maybe his Prime Minister, the former rebel chief? The TV news confirmed it was the President on a 200km/h ‘peace-building’ tour. I wonder if he stopped at Yamoussoukro to pay his respects to Houphouët, who is buried in his palace, surrounded by a perimeter wall and moat. Once a day, a palace guard throws some fresh meat to the crocodiles who live in the moat. The Big Men continue eating, even after they die.

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