This weekend I finally had the opportunity to get out of Abidjan and explore Yamoussoukro. Despite Abidjan being the main venue and biggest city of Cote d’Ivoire with a population of almost 5 million, Yamoussoukro with just about 250.000 people is the political capital of the nation. It is located 230km North of Abidjan, and easily reached via a recently completed, modern highway.
Beware, there is only one single gas station between the two cities. Concerning food, it’s easier, as the nearby villages are selling their goods like fruit and vegetables and also water and soft drinks right at the curb. We took the car, which is much faster than public transport. The official speed limit is 120km/h, but there are barely any speed controls. 😉
Here we just passed the entrance to Yamoussoukro. Left and right of this majestic street you can see the city.
After we arrived at our Hotel, “Concorde”, we met with our local friend, Roger, who took me on a tour on his motorbike. We stopped at the side of the road. We were in the city centre. Here we have the town’s hall, the prefecture, and, just around the corner, the engineering universities.
I asked him where all the people were… and the cars, and buildings. I felt like the young boy exposing the Emperor’s New Clothes. He responded they were there, everywhere.
Here we are in front of La Basilique, said to be the largest church building in the world. We got a tour by a friendly guide who kept saying, “Now please excuse me, let’s continue there…” when he was moving on to the next point of information. I don’t know if I can trust the measures he was explaining, for example the cross in the middle of the altar being 2.5 metres when it was clearly shorter than I.
We passed the main spots of the city: The Hotel President, Maison Houphouet, the town’s hall, the Peace Foundation, and the prefect’s office. Roger and Mr. Doumbia know the prefect very well, so we visited him at home to present Abraham, the birthday boy.
If you’re up for it, watch the video of the crocodile: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXNuYyYV_X4
When we passed by the Hotel President, we happened to bump into the Minister of Construction (Amon Tanoh) with his police escort. Roger knows him, so we also just shook hands and went our ways.
On top of the Hotel you have a nice view of the whole place.
In the far back you can see the Hotel Parliamentaire, and new government building, plus a road in the making. It was decided by parliament in 1983 to relocate the entire administration plus embassies and therefore also UN offices to Yamoussoukro. Seems like bit by bit it’s even happening, with 21 years delay…
So… what’s the deal? Why is there this skeleton of a city, with 6 lane streets, a Basilica bigger than Vatican’s St. Peter, and more trees than people? Well, I was told that Yamoussoukro was the home village of the late president Felix Houphouet Boigny. He is affectionately referred to as “Pere de la nation”, the father of the nation. His vision was to create a city in the center of the country. He himself created the design of the street system, with Washington D.C. as a point of orientation. He, being the heir of a family of Kings, also had the Basilica built by 11.000 workers in just three years. When asked about the building expenses, Houphouet responded, “If heaven gives you something, you don’t ask for how much it had cost.” Estimates are around $300 million.
President Boigny had a vision for Cote d’Ivoire. He built three engineering schools and universities in Yamoussoukro to improve the agricultural sector. Yamoussoukro was to become the new center of the country, and attract people from the villages and Abidjan to move there. But that just never happened. While Abidjan and Bouaké are growing and industrializing, Yamoussoukro merely carries a title without much meaning.
Can it be that, despite their love for Boigny, his people could not catch his vision?