YAMOUSSOUKRO, IVORY COAST -- Gnonson D. Vincent, a young cab driver, was within a few miles of this little town in central Ivory Coast when he was flagged down by two policemen. They asked him to step out of the car.
Forty minutes later, a crestfallen Vincent returned and apologetically explained that he had to pay a bribe of about $18.
He said the policemen told him his fares -- a couple of foreigners -- were obviously tourists traveling to Yamoussoukro's newest and greatest attraction, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. If they ever wanted to see it, Vincent was told, he had best pay a cut of whatever cash the foreigners had paid him.
While it is doubtful Pope John Paul II will encounter such activities when he comes to Yamoussoukro in September to consecrate the cathedral, it seems clear that more and more people in this impoverished West African country are finding ways to reap some earthly value from one of this continent's most unusual and questionable new monuments.
This is an amazing place. Like a gigantic white parachute, the brilliant dome of the basilica looms over a clearing in the forest, the peak of a colossal structure of marble, stained glass and bronze that dominates this city of 50,000 inhabitants.
Three years ago, President Felix Houphouet-Boigny had a dream: Why not build a majestic cathedral for Roman Catholic worship in the sleepy place of his birth that would be the envy not only of Africa, but all the world? The fanciful inspiration reportedly cost $180 million of what the 85-year-old ruler calls his "personal fortune."
In many ways his dream has come true.
The basilica is the biggest church ever built, 525 feet tall, with acres of hardwood pews, a marble plaza big enough to accommodate 300,000 worshipers, a dome that is higher and wider than St. Peter's in Rome and a golden canopy of brocade that reaches nine stories above the central altar.
Built by some of Europe's finest artisans and craftsmen, the basilica boasts a separate 40-room mansion with a swimming pool. It is intended for the pope's use only.
Houphouet-Boigny, who wants to have his body lie in state beneath the basilica's grand cupola when he dies, offered to make a gift of his church to the Vatican upon its completion.
Last month, after nearly a year of hesitation over whether to accept and sanction this extraordinary edifice, John Paul agreed to take it and preside over the official opening in the fall.
Certainly, the basilica represents an exceptional expression of religious faith by a Roman Catholic leader. His French-speaking country consists of a population that is about 10 percent Catholic. Houphouet-Boigny hopes the cathedral will serve as a place of pilgrimage for Africa's 75 million Catholics.
But at a time of unprecedented crisis in Ivory Coast, when public servants regularly strike and protesters demand greater political openness and economic redistribution, this preeminent symbol of faith has become something closer to a mark of monumental folly.
Two months ago, during street protests in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's biggest city -- an act of civil defiance against his rule that had been unheard of in Houphouet-Boigny's strict 30 years in power -- demonstrators calling for more political parties demanded the president's resignation and specifically derided the basilica as a paramount example of his failed leadership. Many protesters chanted, "Houphouet-Boigny is a thief!" and accused the ruler of misappropriating public funds to construct the basilica, a charge the government has denied.
Indeed, to many disenchanted Ivorians, the basilica appears to represent another chapter in a long saga of extravagances by African leaders that has included such hallmarks of garish excess as the Gbadolite palace of President Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire, modeled on the French palace of Versailles.
The Vatican, pressed to defend its acceptance of Houphouet-Boigny's gift in the face of criticism that it comes at the expense of West Africa's poor, justifies the cathedral by pointing to the example of King Hassan II of Morocco, who recently funded the construction of a mosque costing nearly $300 million.
Church officials also have pointed out that many of the finest and oldest cathedrals in Europe were erected during eras of terrible austerity and want. Other defenders of the basilica note that material extravagance by political leaders certainly has not been limited to Africa.
To deflect criticism further, the pope has mandated that portions of the basilica grounds be used for aiding the poor in health and educational projects.
Still, the ridicule and protests continue. The completion of the basilica comes when the fortunes of the Houphouet-Boigny government and the nation's economy have never been lower. As recently as a decade ago, Ivory Coast was considered by many the showcase of West Africa and a model of Third World economic development, riding a wave of plenty provided by the nation's profitable cocoa and coffee industries.
At one time, more than a third of the world's supply of internationally marketed cocoa originated here. Per capita income reached $1,400, the highest of any country in black Africa except those exporting oil.
Indeed, life was considered so good here, from the modern skyscrapers and freeways of the capital to the palatial spreads of the nation's cocoa kings, that immigrants from the five countries bordering Ivory Coast came here by the millions seeking work. Nearly a third of Ivory Coast's 11 million people hail from other countries.
But with the crash in the world cocoa and coffee markets during the last decade, real incomes have been halved, and the government has been involved in a monthly struggle to avoid bankruptcy. The country has racked up an external debt of $14.5 billion and, perhaps more importantly, an internal debt of $2 billion to restive suppliers of services and goods such as gasoline and cooking oil.
"Every month, I keep waiting for a big bang," says a Western analyst based in Abidjan. "But every month, the government seems to shake a money tree and come up with barely enough to pay its workers."
As the economy continues to teeter, political unrest spreads. After running this one-party state for three decades "as if he were the patron of a large family," said one diplomat, Houphouet-Boigny agreed to popular demands in April to permit 14 new political parties to operate.
This came after student riots and a bewildering succession of strikes for better working conditions and higher pay by firefighters, police, school teachers, customs workers, army commanders, taxi drivers, hospital nurses and prison guards. Many of his opponents clamored for Houphouet-Boigny's resignation and a greater share of power.
In such an atmosphere, the Ivorian ruler's pride and joy -- his basilica -- seems an anachronism, a monument harking back to a time and way of life when an African leader could spend virtually as much as he wanted for a caprice.
This little city, in fact, was chosen by the leader as Ivory Coast's official capital five years ago just because it is the president's birthplace. Yet most of the functions of government remain in Abidjan, leaving Yamoussoukro with several impressive but deserted college campuses, a new 18-hole golf course, a nearly empty four-star hotel and thousands of impoverished local citizens.
Houphouet-Boigny's country residence is here, too. It is a huge palace surrounded by granite walls a half-mile long and a moat filled with stagnant green water. The other day, a dozen or so barefoot children stood outside the wall, breathlessly looking on as the moat's crocodiles dozed in the heat.