Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The legacy of Felix Houphouet-Boigny

A good article from ThinkAfrica on the legacy of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, father of independence in the Cote d'Ivoire: 
(Africa's) fathers’ didn’t actually sire independence. Rather, they were themselves the progeny of overbearing historical circumstances, and fairly predictable ‘midnight’s children’ to boot...
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... 
Really interesting stuff throughout.  I'd always wondered about the disconnect between his communist background and capitalist policies implemented while in office.  I had no idea that he hadn't actually been a communist, but rather had joined the party as a part of a strategic plan to build a broader coalition for independence.  Economic and social ideology, unsurprisingly, were quite secondary to the goal of independence at this point.  

His pro-French attitude is very interesting as well, particularly for the contrast with so many post-independence leaders: 
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 neologismla 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. 
 And here's some interesting analysis of "the wager" between Houphouet-Boigny and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah: 
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. 
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. 

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