The splendor of this African village in the tropical forest leaves many first-time visitors gaping in wonder at the grandeur of its buildings and almost listening for an expected echo across its wide, empty spaces.
From the luxurious red marble lobby of the Hotel President with a rooftop restaurant of "Star Wars" design, to the suspended walkways over the reflecting pools of the national engineering school, to the two gold rams in front of the presidential palace overlooking the artificial lake filled with crocodiles, the scale for everything here is majestic and the landscaping meticulous.
Yamoussoukro is Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet-Boigny's natal village, the gold rams his totem, and the city reflects the powerful vanity that a number of African rulers have invested--in this case hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds--in their birthplaces. Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko has done the same with his isolated northern home village of Gbadolite, the now retired Ahmadou Ahidjo did much in the dusty Cameroon town of Garoua and former Central African Republic emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa followed suit at Berengo. While these are not all of the examples, on the African continent at least, Yamoussoukro stands out as the most sumptuous and elegant.
In March, at the end of what cynical Ivorians have dubbed the "Yamoussoukro symphony," the national assembly acclaimed without a vote that Yamoussoukro was the new capital of the Ivory Coast. The "acclamation" was preceded by three months of "spontaneous" demonstrations and affirmations of support of the new capital nationwide within the tight framework of the Houphouet-Boigny-run Democratic Party, the country's only political party.
A small village of 1,300 at Ivory Coast independence in 1960, Yamoussoukro now has a population estimated at 15,000, although the surrounding metropolitan area has approximately 70,000 people.
The coastal commercial center of the Ivory Coast and its former capital, Abidjan, is 166 miles southeast of Yamoussoukro and has a population of 2 million. But it has a high annual growth rate of 11 percent and proponents of moving the capital stressed that the move would ease urban congestion in Abidjan.
Realistically, with the Ivory Coast in the midst of a recessionary economic crisis, the government's move to Yamoussoukro is still years away. It simply cannot afford to move. Construction of a modern highway from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, for example, was halted two years ago 87 miles short of the new capital because the project ran out of funds.
When the highway ends, the visitor drives along a narrow, winding macadam corridor through tropical forests occasionally interrupted by the open space of small villages. The villages' houses, mixtures of rectangular, roughly cement-plastered unpainted buildings or rounded mud-wall structures with grass thatch roofs, are reflections of what Yamoussoukro would have looked like today if the president of the Ivory Coast had not been born there.
Suddenly the forest canopy disappears as the road widens into an eight-lane divided boulevard at Yamoussoukro's entrance. Down the central boulevard, which is virtually empty of vehicles at any time of day, are modern shops, a movie house and modernistic bank buildings. A lively, traditional open-air African market does function daily where the boulevard runs into the immense, walled-in presidential estate with its artificial lake in front.
East from the boulevard is the Hotel President, where the yearly occupancy rate is generally below 40 percent. Three years ago, former president Richard Nixon inaugurated the hotel's $6 million luxury golf course by opening a major tournament here.
There are hundreds of empty villas throughout the underpopulated Yamoussoukro, which create, at points, the aura of a brand new ghost town.
The city hall has a soccer field-sized conference hall; two prestigious elite national high schools are underenrolled while the modernistic campus of the civil engineering school has a student body of 1,500 instead of the several thousand students it was built for.
Yamoussoukro is a showcase city built before its population arrived, but one source emphasized that the new capital has functioned as a de facto second capital for some years.
It was where former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing touched down in a supersonic Concorde at the spacious airfield during his 1978 visit to the Ivory Coast. Giscard also stayed at the three-story guest house on the presidential estate where a sacred elephant reportedly roams.
"Houphouet-Boigny receives almost all visiting African heads of state in Yamoussoukro," the source said. "All of the Democratic Party's important national meetings have been held there."