Felix Houphouet-Boigny presides over one of West Africa's most prosperous nations with a mixture of astute political maneuvering and stern paternalism that has made him one of Africa's most durable leaders.

After 20 years in power, the 74-year-old Ivory Coast leader still displays independence of mind and almost legendary caution. Both have served him well in leading this former French colony past dangerous shoals and reefs in stormy international waters.

Yet, as observers here are quick to point out, Houphouet-Boigny remains a man who "keeps things very close to his vest," an approach that may account for political stability in a nation with numerous tribal and ethnic differences.

Outside of two tribal uprisings in the 1960s that the French military helped crush, a couple of alleged military coup plots and some student unrest, the Ivory Coast has enjoyed almost two decades of steady economic growth and political peace under Houphouet-Boigny's leadership.

"He has a consensus among the educated [elite] on his rule," said a Western source with long experience in French-speaking Africa. "They are in basic agreement with the route he has taken and have a vested interest in keeping it this way," he said.

Born to a line of chiefs of the Baoule people, Houphouet-Boigny was 4 years old when the French captured his central Ivorian village of Yamoussoukro. The entire country was subjugated in 1917. He attended a colonial school in Dakar, Senegal, and became a rural paramedic in 1925.

As a health aide in the colonial service, Houphouet-Boigney traveled around the interior of the ivory Coast and made contact with the country's numerous ethnic groups, something rare for Africans under colonial administration. It was an experience that would reap him many benefits when he set out to weld his country into a political unit.

In 1940, after inheriting extensive tracts of land from a maternal uncle, he became one of the richest coffee farmers in the country. Four years later, Houphouet-Boigny emerged as the leader of the African Agricultural Trade Union, an association formed to fight preferential trade policies for French coffee planters and the practice of forced African labor on French-owned plantations.

He formed the Democratic Party in 1945 and, using the contacts he had made as a traveling paramedic, forged a federation of the country's various ethnic groups.

After World War Ii, as the Ivory Coast's representative in the French constituent assembly, Houphouet-Boigny in 1946 helped push through a bill outlawing forced labor in the colony, making him a hero back home. For years Ivorians believed that if he did not represent them, forced labor would return.

Houphouet-Boigny remained opposed to outright independence from France through most of the 1950's, preferring instead a federal relationship with limited self-government. The tide of nationalism then sweeping Africa, however, forced him to declare for independence, which was granted in 1960.