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Ivory Coast: The city of Yamoussoukro in its 40th year as capital

Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro   -  
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ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP or licensors

Ivory Coast

From all four corners of the city, it is impossible to miss it: the immense dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro is the symbol of the excessiveness of this city, which is nevertheless struggling to establish itself, at the dawn of its 40th year, as the true capital of Côte d'Ivoire.

With its wide avenues, its large wooded areas, its 1970s architecture and its fluid road traffic, Yamoussoukro, in the peaceful center of Côte d'Ivoire, is unlike any other city in the country.

It is the fruit of a dream, that of the first president of independent Côte d'Ivoire, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, to make his native village of N'Gokro the capital of his country. This was done on March 21, 1983.

Over the course of the 20th century, the village became a real city and inherited a name in homage to Yamousso, the Baule queen and great-aunt of "FHB".

"Félix Houphouët-Boigny first wanted to correct the colonial legacy we had received to stop everything being concentrated in one city (Abidjan)," Jean-Noël Loucou, secretary general of the Félix Houphouët Boigny Foundation, a research institute on peace issues, explained to AFP.

"In creating this capital, the idea was to show the African genius with a particular architecture, without big buildings with a lot of green spaces," he adds.

Forty years later, the city is very large and has some 300,000 inhabitants. But still very few institutions.

The heart of Ivorian politics still beats in the coastal south, in Abidjan, with only the Senate and the National Chamber of Traditional Kings and Chiefs having moved away.

- Political incantations -

However, there has been no lack of political incantations since the death of the founding father in 1993.

Laurent Gbagbo, president from 2000 to 2011, even launched major construction projects to build a National Assembly and a presidential palace. But the two sites are now abandoned, overgrown with vegetation.

"The will to transfer the capital to Yamoussoukro exists. It is the means that are lacking. As a local authority, we do not have the means to go into international debt, so we are obliged to choose profitable financing that will generate money. But I am hopeful that this will happen one day," the region's governor, Augustin Thiam, told AFP.

"Yamoussoukro is not yet in fact the capital of Côte d'Ivoire. But it is out of the question to create a capital from scratch. There are many things to evaluate, quantify, before moving on to the realization," he adds from the gardens of the residence of President Houphouët, his great uncle.

For the time being, Yamoussoukro remains one of the country's main tourist attractions, thanks in particular to its basilica, inspired by that of St. Peter's in Rome and which is the highest Catholic religious building in the world at 158 meters high.

The Caiman Lake, which borders Houphouët's imposing residence, also attracts the curious who observe the dozens of lizards that bask on the banks, right in the center of town.

- "Crossroads" of the country -

"Houphouët tried to build Yamoussoukro little by little around three pillars, education with great schools, religion with the basilica, and tourism. The position of the city is strategic, it is a great crossroads in the center of the country. Everyone passes through here," says Nanan Kouassi Konan, chief of the neighboring village of Kami, one of the "cradles" of the former president.

The saturation and tumult of Abidjan with its 6 million inhabitants could also push more and more Ivorians to go back to Yamoussoukro.

Serge Pokou, a hotelier and farmer, took the step a few years ago with his family.

"I naturally opted for the calm of Yamoussoukro, which is a mix of modern city and countryside, steeped in a preserved African culture. The geometry of the main roads, the lush green spaces, the surprising buildings maintain the calm, the charm and the splendor of the city", he appreciates.

It also remains to build a real economic fabric around the capital beyond tourism. The future creation of an industrial zone is hopeful in this respect.

"We expect economic benefits because the capital must live, so we need activities. The major schools in Yamoussoukro are having trouble retaining their engineers and technicians because there is no industry here," says Jean-Noël Loucou.

"But we must be careful to safeguard the identity of the city and its tranquility, which remain, above all, the criterion of choice for those who live there or who seek to settle there," warns Serge Pokou.

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