Felix Houphouët-Boigny (1905-1993), president of the Ivory Coast, was one of the first leaders of a successful nationalist movement in the French West African Federation. His policy was based on cooperation with France and moderation in domestic affairs.
Felix Houphouët was born in October 1905 in the village of Yamoussokro to an important Baoule family on the Ivory Coast. In 1946 he added Boigny to his family name. Houphouët attended schools at Bingerville and in 1918 entered medical school at Dakar. He qualified as a medical assistant in 1925 and practiced medicine in the Ivory Coast for more than 15 years, also becoming a successful planter.
In 1940 Houphouët was selected chief of his district. His first political activity was in reaction to the Vichy regime’s policies which discriminated against African planters. In 1944, he helped organize the Syndicat Agricole Africain. It was the only large organization to protest against favoritism for Europeans at the expense of African producers. By 1945, the organization had branches throughout the country and served as the base for the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), the first effective party in the Ivory Coast, whose leadership was greatly influenced by Marxism.
Houphouët was elected in 1945 to the French Constituent Assembly. Disappointed over the restrictions on colonies contained in the second constitution of the Fourth Republic, he met with other African deputies at Bamako in October 1946 to form a new inter-territorial party, the Rassemblement Démocratique African (RDA), and he was elected president. In November 1946 Houphouët was elected to the French National Assembly. The RDA and its Ivory Coast base, the PDCI, were supported by the Metropolitan Communist party. In the latter 1940s the RDA organized strikes and boycotts of European imports.
Government reaction, particularly in the Ivory Coast, was severe. Hundreds were arrested, and in January 1950 one police action resulted in the death of 13 Africans. Control of a much-weakened RDA thus fell to Houphouët, who had parliamentary immunity from arrest. Houphouët decided that continued cooperation with the French Communists was a dead end, and he broke irrevocably with them in late 1950. The elections to the National Assembly in 1951 were the low point for the RDA, when it won only three seats.
The five years before the National Assembly elections of January 1956 was a period of rebuilding for the RDA, which had initiated its new policy of close cooperation with France. The elections vindicated Houphouët’s decision, since the RDA won nine seats. Houphouët became mayor of Abidjan and later in the year was appointed a minister in the French government. In this influential position he was largely responsible for drafting the loi cadre of 1956, which devolved more authority to the territorial assemblies. The RDA dominated the 1957 elections for these assemblies in all but a few segments of the federation, and the PDCI had almost no opposition in the Ivory Coast.
Failure of Federation
The issue of federation or autonomous development divided the RDA. Some of its leaders agreed with Senegal’s Léopold Senghor that the future of West Africa lay in a continued large federation. Houphouët, whose rich Ivory Coast provided a large portion of the federation’s budget, wanted political evolvement to take place on the territorial level. The De Gaulle referendum of 1958 concerning association with the revised community was the turning point for French Africa and the RDA.
Guinea, the only territory to vote no, was given immediate independence. In early 1959, attempts to create a strong Mali Federation threatened Houphouët’s plans. Bringing economic pressure to bear upon Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) and Dahomey (Benin), he caused their defection from Mali and later associated them and the Ivory Coast with the weak Conseil de l’Entente. These events lessened the RDA’s influence in the federation, and Houphouët decided to concentrate upon the PDCI and the Ivory Coast. He resigned as a minister in the French government in April 1959.
De Gaulle’s decision to grant independence to the Mali Federation within the French community so angered Houphouët that he demanded independence for the Ivory Coast. French acquiescence to requests for independence ended any chance for a meaningful federation. The Ivory Coast became independent in August 1960, and in November Houphouët was elected president. The legislature, chosen from a single list, were all PDCI members.
Felix Houphouët-Boigny as a Pan-African Leader
Houphouët had a great impact upon pan-Africanism. In 1960 he proposed a meeting of French African leaders to help end the Algerian War, and in October 1960 representatives of 12 states met at Brazzaville. These states soon became known for their pro-Western ideas of gradualism and their opposition to the Ghana-dominated Casablanca powers. Houphouët’s opposition to immediate political federation became the attitude not only of the Brazzaville powers but also of other states which were not members of the Brazzaville group.
Houphouët’s control of the PDCI and the Ivory Coast did not lessen after independence. There were no serious challenges to his leadership, and the country’s prosperity minimized unrest. In foreign affairs he continued to support moves toward greater economic cooperation between states such as the Organization Common Africaine et Malagache (OCAM). While opposing any political unification which would submerge the sovereignty of the Ivory Coast, Houphouët supported the Organization for African Unity (OAU) created in 1963.
The cornerstone of Houphouët’s policy was close cooperation with France. His attitudes disturbed the radical bloc, and both Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Touré accused him continuously of advancing neo-imperialism. Houphouët responded by organizing opposition against the expansionist dreams of Ghana and the leftist regime in Guinea. He was instrumental in denying Nkrumah a much-needed triumph during the 1965 OAU meeting at Accra.
After Nkrumah’s overthrow Houphouët was ready to call for French military aid against Guinea’s threat to restore the Ghanaian leader by force. Houphouët braved the opposition of other states during the Nigerian civil war and recognized Biafra, thus alienating temporarily the victorious military leaders of Nigeria. Houphouët’s policies, however they are criticized by some African leaders, have given the Ivory Coast, since its independence, one of the most stable
The Legacy of Felix Houphouët-Boigny
While in office, Houphouët built the world’s largest basilica in the jungle near his home village, Yamoussoukro, at a cost of approximately $300-million. He convinced Pope John Paul II to appear and bless the marble and glass cathedral with the gold dome.
At the outset of the 1980s, commodity prices of cocoa and coffee plummeted. Economic strife caused a public outcry that resulted in demands for Houphouët-Boigny’s resignation. He fled to France where he spent most of his time.
Through most of his time in office, however, the Ivorians were happy with their one-party system, believing it a fair exchange for a time of prosperity. In 1990, pro-democracy protesters forced multi-party elections. Houphouët won with more than 90% of the vote.
Suffering with prostate cancer, Houphouët had arranged for his life support systems to be turned off at dawn on December 7, 1993—the 33rd anniversary of independence from France—the Ivory Coast’s National Day. When Houphouët died, he had been president of the Ivory Coast since its 1960 independence, his 33 year reign the longest of any African leader. While he was officially 88 years old at death, many believed he was actually much older than that.
Further Reading on Felix Houphouët-Boigny
No biographies of Houphouët-Boigny are available in English. An understanding of the man and his policies can be gained only by reading a number of general works that deal with various aspects of modern West African politics and the Ivory Coast. For general background see Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa (1964), and John Charles Hatch, A History of Postwar Africa (1965). A fine detailed review of politics is Edwin Munger’s “The Ivory Coast” in his African Field Reports, 1952-1961 (1961), and in Aristide R. Zolberg, One-party Government in the Ivory Coast (1964; rev. ed. 1969). See also Ronald Segal, Political Africa: A Who’s Who of Personalities and Parties (1961).
Much of the information updating the life of Houphouët-Boigny comes from the Web site of the Electric Library. These include a transcript of All Things Considered from December 7, 1993, Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1995, Time International, November 6, 1995.
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