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President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Côte d'Ivoire

President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Côte d'Ivoire
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The President who embraced France and Agriculture

“You go your way, I'll go mine with the ‘old colonialists.’ In 10 years we shall see who has done the most for his country.” Côte d'Ivoire’s founding President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, reportedly told Ghana’s founding president Kwame Nkrumah after the pan-African icon accused him of being too cozy with the French. This exchange shows how these two leaders’ governing philosophies differed sharply.

While Nkrumah sought a fully independent, truly united Africa, Houpliouet-Boigny envisioned a Franco-African federal community of free and equal members. Although this vision never materialized, Houphouët-Boigny, savvy politician that he was, played the colonial game like a virtuoso. In 1956, he had become the first African appointed into the French cabinet. In the run-up to Côte d'Ivoire’s independence, he unsurprisingly, he negotiated a peaceful transition, preserved French ties for economic advantage, and pursued agriculture with laser-like focus. Despite his diminutive stature and gentle albeit authoritative demeanor, Houphouet-Boigny's sharp political skills, gift for communication, and air of quiet command allowed him to navigate the treacherous waters of post-colonial Africa, largely bypassing the violent conflicts and political upheaval that plagued many other nations.

Footprint to emulate: political realism can deliver tangible results. Be a political realist but don’t sell your soul.

Born into a wealthy Ivorian family in 1905, Houphouet-Boigny inherited both a tribal chieftainship and a cocoa plantation at a young age. After primary and secondary education, he proceeded to Senegal for higher education then became a medical assistant, practicing in Ivory Coast until 1940. Within twenty years, he had risen to become a consequential leader in Côte d'Ivoire and across Francophone West Africa. Under Houphouet-Boigny's 33-year rule, the Ivory Coast underwent a remarkable economic transformation. Once a struggling French colony, it became one of the most prosperous nations in sub-Saharan Africa, boasting a tenfold increase in average income during his presidency.

He prioritized agriculture, believing it would pave the way for later industrial success. He welcomed foreign investors by making it easy for them to move money in and out. By the early 1980s, Côte d'Ivoire had undergone a remarkable agricultural transformation. A meteoric rise in coffee production propelled it to third place globally, behind Brazil and Colombia. It seized the crown as the leading cocoa producer globally and established itself as Africa's dominant exporter of pineapples and palm oil.

Footprint to emulate: In a heavily capitalistic world, economies cannot flourish without capital. Do whatever it takes to secure capital. But don’t sell your soul.

Houphouet-Boigny was a political tactician par excellence. The hand of fate isn’t the only responsible for his long 33-year old reign. His own hand played a large part too. He believed in keeping his enemies close, preferably on the government payroll and not in prison. Evidently, money and power perks keep people in line. With virtually no domestic opposition, Houphouet-Boigny grew so confident of his popularity and absolute control that every year, he indulged in lengthy European getaways, some stretching to half a year. Unsurprisingly, this unbridled power drove Houphouet-Boigny to reckless behavior. His administration declared his birthplace, Yamoussoukro, the new capital, to thank him for his service as the ‘father of the nation.’ Since it was only the fifth largest urban center in the country, the only special thing about Yamoussoukro was its status as the President’s birthplace. Thanks to this status, it eventually became home to Our Lady of Peace, a colossal $200 million Roman Catholic basilica that is said to be the largest church in the world.

Footprint to avoid: Leaders should never become powers unto themselves. Citizenry must never allow this to happen.

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