I was nine when Felix Houphouet-Boigny died. The news fell in the mid-afternoon, and I had gone out to buy sweets at the corner shop. I might have been with my sister; my memory is fuzzy on that point. But I remember that as I turned the corner towards our house, my father was already at the gate, beckoning us to hurry inside.
Why is he moving his hands instead of using his voice? I wondered.
“Houphouet is dead,” he said, when we were safely inside the compound. He bolted the gate. I might have said “Oh.” I can’t remember.
What I remember is the eerie silence, in our household and enveloping the entire neighborhood. The sun would have been at its peak, so there wouldn’t have been many people in the neighborhood anyway. But on that day, there seemed to be no one at all. No one on the road. No one under the mango trees in the open compounds of the houses between the shop and our home behind its walled gate. No women under a tree removing grains of sand from the millet which would be used for the evening porridge. No men drinking tea. Nothing. Just silence.
In my language, Yacouba, when the father breathes his last, his children inform the community thus: Gbli a da! War has broken! The pillar and defender of the family has gone. What happens when a pillar goes? The house no longer holds up. Gbli a da.
Houphouet was dead. Côte d’Ivoire was teetering, but we were careful not to say so. I eavesdropped on adult conversations and his many achievements were extolled on television. But one question was un-asked on everyone’s lips: What is going to happen now?
The bold ones who asked it were quickly and quietly shut down. Five hundred kilometers from Yamoussoukro, where he breathed his last, and eight hundred kilometers from Abidjan, the capital, the death of the man who led Côte d’Ivoire with an iron hand, for thirty years, was being felt, everywhere, in silence.
When does a President become a dictator? Is it as clear-cut as with Charles Taylor or Idi Amin? Or Sékou Touré? Is it when The West says? As with Paul Kagamé’s Rwanda, where the roads might be clean and the security might be high, but The West Says. In our African context, The West always has something to say. Remember Emperor Bokassa I of the Central African Republic, who plundered his country, but his coronation was financed by France? The diamonds must have helped.
I have travelled in many countries in Africa. In Burkina Faso, Maurice Yaméogo is all but forgotten; in Liberia, the task is to move on from Charles Taylor. I’ve never heard of a politician calling themselves an Amin-ist, or a Mobutu-ist or a Habré-ist. Yet in Côte d’Ivoire, a politician who wants to be a big fish in our Ivorian pond will call themselves a Houphouet-ist. There is even a five-party political formation, le Rassemblement des Houphouétistes, uniting his PDCI with the RDR, the party of the current President. Even Laurent Gbagbo, ex-President but now in prison at The Hague for crimes against humanity, was glorified by the Houphouet-ist tag during the 2008 presidential campaign.
When I became an adult, I read that on that December 7th, 1993, Côte d’Ivoire did indeed teeter. Houphouet died at 6:25 am; “Radio Treichville,” or the rumor mill, divulged the news by ten; RFI mentioned it at noon, and at one, then-Prime Minister (and current President of Côte d’Ivoire) Alassane Ouattara confirmed that it was true.
This was all very well. But everyone was waiting for Bédié, then-President of the National Assembly (and the legitimate successor), to speak.
“Mais où est Bédié?” The adults asked, looking around as if anyone knew the answer to that question. Where is he? Bédié was the legitimate successor, according to the constitution, so why the delay?
“On dit que…” a few ventured, quoting Radio Treichville: “people are saying,” a typical Ivorian expression.
As an adult, I learned that after the military ceremony at the Plateau presidential palace in Abidjan, Ouattara had boarded the presidential plane for Yamoussoukro and left Bédié to go by road. Today, a motorway has been built, and it would take some two and half hours; but who knows how long it took Bédié then, on that morning? And despite the clear stipulation of Article 11 of the constitution that the National Assembly president would become the interim president, the Prime Minister was delaying, standing on legality. Houphouet’s death had to be legally confirmed by the president of the Supreme Court, but at that moment, Cote d’Ivoire was without a Supreme Court president (he had been forced to resign over suspicion of embezzling). And so, we waited. Those in the know say it was a typical Franceafrique tactic: remove any form of legality that might delay the process already decided. The rest of us could only wait to see.
We waited as—once he was back from Yamoussoukro—Bédié went to the headquarters of state television to declare himself the new president. When he arrived, he was escorted by the gendarmerie in light-armored vehicles, he was met by the first infantry battalion, who had been ordered by the Prime Minister to close off the entrance. As we waited, the military was forced to capitulate to the demonstrated force by the Gendarmerie. Finally, at 8pm, Bédié spoke, breaking the silence, and ending our wait: In observance of the constitution, he said, he was “accepting” the supreme responsibility.
Even at that age, I could feel the collective sigh of relief that the country breathed because in Abidjan, rumors of a Coup d’Etat had already started to fly.
Two days later, the government of Ouattara resigned. A new government was formed, and the various funerals for Houphouet—religious, traditional, state—all could take place. State TV transmitted the whole ballet of condolences. We thought that the baobab had simply bent down; we didn’t think he had fallen, some said; As soon as we heard that the Supreme Chief was ill, we hurried to come with our best healers only to see that the eagle has remained on the ground.
“Why are they speaking like that?” My father just looked at me in surprise. I knew, and he knew that I knew: no one would ever say that a person has died. But the spectacle was so fascinating and surreal. No one said it, so was it really true that…?
Every once in a while, my father would whisper, “My God, Houphouet is really gone. Ah!”
After Yamoussoukro, his body was taken to Abidjan where it was laid in a glass coffin for diplomats, politicians, religious leaders or anyone who so desired, to pay their respects to the Supreme Chief. On the streets of Abidjan, photos of Houphouet in his glass coffin were sold for 500 CFA Francs each. We knew about this because my mother, who’d come in the meantime to Abidjan on a business trip, bought one such picture. (Back at home in Odienné, we felt that this was a souvenir too far.) On the fifth of February, the funeral cortege returned to Yamoussoukro. Ivorians were invited to accompany it, on foot, and so they went: 7,000 people in the Basilica and another thousands upon thousands of mourners on the esplanade. Representatives from 120 countries were also there. France was the biggest contingent, by far.
Was he a francophile or a political strategist? Only he could say with certainty. During a speech at the United Nations in 1957, while many African countries were demanding independence, he declared, “Nous avons parfaitement le droit de dire que nous n’avons aucun avenir sans la France.” We are well within our rights to say that without France, we have no future. During the inauguration of the bridge bearing his name in Abidjan, in 1958, he called it “un nouveau pont entre l’Afrique d’une part, la France et l’Europe de l’autre.” A new bridge between Africa on the one hand and France and Europe on the other.
Houphouet gave us “Francafrique,” what Houphouet called “France-Afrique” in 1955 to describe good relations between French-speaking Africa and France. At independence, he decided to formalize what he understood such a relationship to be, signing a defense agreement between Côte d’Ivoire and France in 1961, in which, at his behest (or of any president since), French troops could intervene in situations of “unrest” in the country. This included when French interests were threatened, and though the agreement was amended in 2012, removing the law didn’t remove French military bases in Côte d’Ivoire.
In Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote—a satire of an African dictatorship in an unnamed African country—Ahmadou Kourouma gave his protagonist the nickname “Tiékoroni,” or “The Old Man in Malinké,” one of the many affectionate nicknames Ivorians gave Houphouet. For Kourouma, there wasn’t the shadow of a doubt: Le Vieux was a dictator.
But France-Afrique would come in handy for Kourouma, ironically: in 1963, the old man accused a group of intellectuals of instigating opposition to him, naming Kourouma among the plotters. But the writer escaped the torture chambers of Assabou in Houphouet’s village of Yamoussoukro—which had not yet been made the political capital—because he was married to a French woman, and Houphouet didn’t want trouble with France. The first coup d’etat in francophone Africa had just taken place, with Gnassingbé Eyadema removing Sylvanus Olympio in Togo. 1963 was not the year where one put their biggest (and only) support’s nose out of joint. And so, until Houphouet’s death, Kourouma lived in exile, in Algeria, in Cameroon, and in Togo.
Many others were not so lucky. Ernest Boka died in those torture chambers, though he had been president of the Supreme Court when he was arrested, in 1964. He was not alone. In the years following independence, Houphouet consolidated his power by violently reprimanding any sniff of disagreement. In 1970, he sent the army, the police, and the gendarmerie to repress a political party threatening to secede from Côte d’Ivoire in the western region of the country. Four thousand people died, according to Houphouet himself; Prof. Samba Diarra, one of the prisoners of 1963 and author of Les faux complots d’Houphouet (“The False Plots of Houphouet”) put the number at six thousand. That repression opened up an uneasy quietude in Côte d’Ivoire; Houphouet has achieved his goal, and ruled freely.
In 1971, he officially turned on the charm, declaring from the esplanade of his presidential palace in Yamoussoukro that he’d been lied to. “D’habitude, c’est à moi qu’on demande pardon. Pour une fois, c’est moi qui demande pardon. Vous avez été emprisonnés pendant des années; vous avez souffert. Pour rien! Car il n’y a jamais eu de complots en Côte d’Ivoire.”
I’m usually the one to whom people apologize. For once, I will be the one to say sorry. For years, you were imprisoned. For nothing! Because there has never been a plot in Côte d’Ivoire.
When there were accusations of corruption, he responded that you don’t look inside the mouth of the one in charge of sorting through the peanuts. Between injustice and disorder, he famously said, I choose injustice.
And there it was: case closed. All the torture. The loss of family life. Of an income. No legal pursuit, no justice. Daddy had spoken.
“Le vrai bonheur, on ne l’apprécie que lorsqu’on l’a perdu.”
True happiness is only appreciated once it is lost… One of Houphouet’s many sayings, it gets trotted out by Ivorians today, as they struggle with the high cost of living and appreciate what they’ve lost; as they struggle for employment, they long for the days of the old man. It gets trotted out when the country is shaken by a coup and coup attempts, by rebellion, secession, and war. True happiness is only appreciated once it is lost. For so many Ivorians, true happiness was the thirty years of relative peace in which Côte d’Ivoire swam, when Houphouet built his country.
Of the cost of that building, they forget the unrest that broke out in Côte d’Ivoire when the poverty threshold went from 11% to close to 30% in the 1990’s, in the last years of his reign; they forget that the army mutinied in 1990 and 1992, and that political pluralism was imposed on The Wise Old Man of Africa. They forget the silences. And as they appreciate the true happiness they lost, only Radio Treichville remembers otherwise.