In a column on the Ivory Coast on Oct. 18, the "not" was inadvertently dropped from this sentence: "A skeptical visitor finds no one, Ivorian or foreign, who will even hint that [President Felix Houphouet-Boigny] is not the paragon of wisdom and humanity he's made out to be."
Africans and Africa hands know the Ivory Coast as a special place. It's a country - some say (occasionally with a slight curl of the lips) the single African country - that works. It received independence 17 years ago no better off than its African brothers. But while most of them are struggling to keep up and some may be falling behind, the Ivory Coast has moved smartly ahead.
The country has experienced none of the political upheaval or tribal violence that has wasted prospects elsewhere. It has expanded and exploited its ties with its former colonial master, France, rather than spend itself in exorcising the devil of neocolonialism. It has at least doubled per capita income in the countryside and has evidently muted the social and moral crisis attending so much of African urbanization. The 2 million foreign workers in a country of 7 million population attest to an African economic "miracle."
The common explanation centers on President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, before and after independence the dominant figure. A skeptical visitor finds no one, Ivorian or foreign, who will even hint that "Houpouet" is the paragon of wisdom and humanity he's made out to be. I didn't meet him. He was up-country at his village of Yamousoukro, which, in a rare excess, he seems to have gilded with public works the way Mendel Rivers adorned Charleston. But his presence is everywhere.
The story is told of Houphouet's independence bet with neighboring Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah bet on politics, tossed out the British, proclaimed self-reliance, strode the African stage and ruined both himself and, one hears, Ghana.
Houphouet bet on economic growth: He tightened links with the French (the number of French technicians, bureaucrats and teachers is up four or five times since independence). He offered hospitality to foreign capital. To slow the flow of peasants to the city and to generate capital for imports of capital and consumer goods, he pointed the Ivory Coast toward agriculture, and especially agricultute for export. To cushion against ups and downs of the world commodity market, he ordained the production of many commodities and, now, a move into processing - cotton into denim, for instance.
Not every African country has the growing conditions, the attitude toward foreigners or the scale to go the Houphouet route, but I couldn't help thinking that his chosen economic strategy represents real political acumen. The is the difference farsighted leadership can make.
The Ivory Coast has problems - public health, for instance, and a heavy debt load. But it has no costly steel-mill-for-prestige. (Ghana's mill meant an absurd production capacity of 25 times its own needs.) It's unusual in having no radio transmitter with which to propagandize its neghbors. For cultivating its own garden, it is often dismissed or abused.It even feels that the United States tends to neglect it for bigger and politically more chic African states.
But as long as Houphouet, in his 70s, around, the Ivory Coast goes his way. Whether economic growth has built in enough of a taste for political stability to outlast him is the question overhanging his mortality.
Houphouet's method of problem-solving, called dialogue, has allowed him to exercise essentially personal rule with a light hand. The fellow who attempted a coup in the 1960s was, after his release from jail, taken back into government and is now a possible successor. A recent protest by students not yet coopted was defused in a long palaver with the president. I find it a fascinating question why this African process works so much better here than elsewhere.
Houphouet's steps to carry dialogue into foreign policy by, for instance, receiving South African Prime Minister John Vorster and (recently in Geneva) Foreign Minister Pik Botha have drawn his fellow Africans' public fury. Yet his advisers insist it's not merely to gain commercial advantage but also to open the possibility for a settlement to South Africa's racial problems by means other than violence. Ivory Coast supports the liberation movements, but it figures its policy of dialogue and its example of successful multiracialism have a merit of their own.
I admired much of what the Ivory Coast is doing. I got the feeling that a lot of other countries would do well to be as attentive to their citizens' needs and to stop boxing neocolonialist shadows. Is that like telling an insomniac to get plenty of sleep?