Ivorian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, a teetotaler and nonsmoker, sipped a first glass of champagne two years ago in celebration of an oil find off the coast of this thriving West African nation.
Although the pool of low-sulfur "sweet crude" turned out to be a modest one, capable of supplying only about a third of the Ivory Coast's domestic consumption, officials say it will reduce dramatically this country's dependence on costly petroleum imports.
Oil production, slated to begin next year, is just another bonus for what Western bankers have dubbed "the Ivorian miracle," pushing this country of 7.5 million people even further ahead of its struggling black African neighbors.
When the Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960 it had a marginal communications system and a primitive road network.
Today, the Ivory Coast has the best roads in Africa, the most reliable source of electricity, the best communications and the most equitable distribution of personal annual income -- about $1,100 per capita.
Most impressively, it has the highest rate of economic growth in black Africa, a phenomenal 7 percent a year for the past 19 years.
Houphouet-Boigny, 74, a wealthy coffee farmer under French colonial rule, has created this "miracle" by emphasizing the development of the country's rich agricultural potential and exports of cash crops.
In 1960, Houphouet-Boigny, relying on his personal experiences as a reader of commodity markets, ignored Western financiers' advice against developing agriculture at a time when commodity prices were low and other African leaders were emphasizing industrialization.
Houphouet-Boigny put of his faith in the development of cocoa production, even though there was little of it in the Ivory Coast at the time.
"He knew, of course, that by the time the crops reached production the prices would be back up," said one Western diplomat, "and that is what happened."
At its current rate of growth, the Ivory Coast is expected to be the world's single largest exporter of cocoa in the 1980s. It is already the largest exporter in Africa.
It is also Africa's largest exporter of coffee. Americans are likely to drink $5 million worth of Ivorian coffee this year.
Taken together, the export of cocoa, coffee and tropical hardwoods provides 70 percent of the country's revenues.
But cocoa prices have plunged again since 1977, from a high of $1.77 a pound down to around $1.40 a pound.
In a Dec. 7 independence day speech, Houphouet-Boigny blamed the Western consumer nations for this decline because they have been unwilling to pay higher prices for Third World commodities.
The downhill situation could change in the near future, according to Mathieu Ekra, a close political associate of the Ivorian president, "if we could fix the prices of coffee and cocoa."
The Ivory Coast, which produces 20 percent of the world's cocoa, has kept its product off the international market since October in an effort to drive up prices. Earlier this month, it hosted a meeting of the 10-nation OPEC-like Alliance of Cocoa Producing Countries that is trying to raise prices and urged them to do the same.
After the meeting, Beny Amany, the Ivorian official in charge of marketing the country's coffee and cocoa, said the group decided to fix the world price of cocoa "immediately," but did not announce at what level.
Besides the Ivory Coast, the members of the alliance are Brazil, Ecuador, Trinidad, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Mexico is expected to join in March.
"It's about time we started flexing our muscle," said the African commodities broker who declined to be identified. "If the Arabs can do it with oil, then we should do it with our products."
The Ivory Coast's success story is largely attributable to its pragmatic mixture of capitalist economy and state-run enterprises, a liberal "open-door" policy toward overseas investors, financial subsidies for its farmers and sophisticated development planning.
The country's 65 government-owned companies are all running tremendous financial losses and will be reduced to 20, according to Houphouet-Boigny's political trouble-shooter, Ekra.
"We're pulling out of the hotel industry and [house] building trades," said Ekra, who is also minister of state for the reform of state-owned companies. "We tried these and failed. They're being sold to private concerns."
Although Ivorians control the largest growth area of their economy -- agriculture -- critics point to their low participation in the country's commerce, which is largely in the hands of French and Lebanese businessmen.
The 60,000-member French community and the numerous Lebanese merchants are becoming an increasing source of friction in the country, Ivorians said. It is estimated that the French alone return some $200 million a year to France is salaries.
"Ivorians are behind in commerce, we know that," Ekra continued. Some have tried and failed, he said, making other reluctant to follow. "We still need outsiders to run businesses the Ivorians are not ready to take over. But it will pick up."
Ivorian planners also made a blunder, critics say, by putting $12 billion in the development of six sugar refineries in the northern, economically depressed region of the country. The refineries, all of which will be operational next year will produce sugar well above the market retail price, forcing the government to subsidize the price.
"Some say it was a mistake," said an Ivorian economist, "and others say it is not. It was a political decision, if you want the truth. The sugar plantations and the refineries provide employment where there was none before." p
Developmnt spending overheated the Ivorian economy in 1978, and foreign debt payments to finance the projects rose to an economically dangerous level. This year the government, which has enjoyed a favorable balance of trade every year since independence, has cut development spending by 7 percent and trimmed its administrative by 5 percent. The cuts dropped the inflation rate from 23 percent to 13 percent. Overseas borrowing has also been cut back.
"Generally, they are very prudent, very conservative in their economic policies," said American Export-Import Bank President John Moore during a recent stopover here.
Moore said that the Ivory Coast has one of the best credit ratings in Africa and the Export-Import Bank would be willing to extend almost "unlimited credit" to American businessmen wanting to invest here.
France has been the Ivory Coast's major market and source of development aid, investment funds and imports but it is being edged out by the European Economic Community and Japan. American investment to date is a small $250 million, according to Moore.