Monday, June 25, 2012

Duazohn, Margibi Couty as the New Capital?

Many months after President Sirleaf's announcement of that Liberia's capital would be located to the remote hamlet of Zekepa, a town that even most Liberians had never heard of, suddenly the speculation shifted that Liberia's capital would instead move to the exurban fringe of the Monrovia region: to Duazohn (also spelled Duarzohn, Duazon, etc), a rapidly-populating zone straddling the country's main highway, east of Paynesville and Monrovia on the way to Roberts International Airport. As one of the few districts in the capital region in which lots of land can be readily purchased, Duazohn has been booming with residential construction.

The report below describes a very official-sounding meeting, in which a plan for a 4000-acre city was presented with plans and specifics to an audience including several relevant government ministries and agencies. The presentation was given by ECB Jones, a long-time  high-ranking bureaucrat in the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy. Although not named as such, this is likely the "New Monrovia" plan which has been in development by ECB Jones and partners for years.
From a May 2012 Public Agenda article, speculating on this latest development: 
In the case of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she spoke about relocating the country’s city to Zekepah in Nimba, her five ‘Ws’ and one ‘H’ were truly correct – the who were lawmakers, partners and citizens; where=Zekepah; what=relocating city; when=not defined; why=necessary against climate change and how=not defined. But in any case, the pronouncement was made and hopes were high. Fifteen months later, Nimba lawmaker Tingban suspected the pronouncement was a mere mockery intended to win votes from Nimba. Then two months later,this paper has gathered credible information that instead of Zekepah, Duazon in Margibi seems to be Liberia’s new capital city. Was the lawmaker right that the  President was making mockery of her citizens?
It appears that the Liberian Government is undecided about the exact place or county to relocate the country’s political capital city, which has been a major issue of national debate from regime to regime.  Although the name of Bong County has been in the ears of many, probably due to its central location, latest development coming from government circle suggests otherwise. 
This paper has gathered credible information that plans are already far advanced for Liberia's capital city to be relocated around Duazon in Margibi County, instead Zekepah in Nimba as was pronounced by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Monday, January 24, 2011, when she addressed for the 6th and last time the 52nd National Legislature during her first term.

      But seventeen (17) months after that pronouncement at a special called meeting over the weekend in Duanzon, Mamba Kaba District, eminent citizens of Margibi, including Senior Senator Clarice Jah and Representative Ballah Zayzay among others presented and reviewed an initial blueprint of the planned capital city through a Powerpoint presentation by DU Investment Incorporated.
      According to initial information available, the Liberian government has earmarked 40,000 acres of land for its new capital city; though the weekend presentation elaborated on an initial 25,000 acres.
     During the presentation, the Managing Director of DU Investment, Inc., Mr. E.C.B Jones, showed citizens designs and layout of the proposed city, including roads, train tracks, ministries and agencies of government.
      While government does not intend to build all 40,000 acres with infrastructure, our information says it intends to build and relocate all government ministries and agencies there so as to attract investment and habitation; thereby erasing the hope of relocating the city to Zekepah.
      A train track, according to the presentation, will be built from the Robert's International Airport (RIA) to Juanzon and then to Monrovia. In the same blueprint, present-day Monrovia is referred to as Greater Monrovia when the city is relocated to Duanzon.
      The meeting was attended by representatives from the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, National Housing Authority, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Land Commission.
      This discovery comes at a time when Nimba County District #9 lawmaker Richard Matoneky Tingban has sounded a caveat; fearing and hoping that earlier public pronouncement by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to relocate the country's capital to Zekepah in his county was not a mockery only intended to win votes from Nimba.
     Rep. Tingban, an Engineer by profession, said though he did not have reasons to think that the President's promise was a mockery, reminding her about public pronouncements helps nation building and truth telling. 
    The Nimba lawmaker said he and other Liberians would feel very disappointed if the President had only made the pronouncement to win votes from Nimba during the 2011 presidential election. 
     A 2008 LISGIS census report put the county as the second most populated area in Liberia. Now that discovery shows that plans are already far advanced to relocate the country's city to Margibi, much is unpredictable.
      The comment comes fifteen months after a pronouncement by President to the nation that her government had selected Zekepah, at the meeting between Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa counties, as Liberia's next capital city.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Zekepa Move a Political Ploy?

Talk of a new capital for Liberia had peaked for a second time when President Sirleaf announced her wish to move the seat of government to Zekepa, Nimba County, in her January 2011 state of the union address. Sooner after, however, the subject had once again disappeared, until earlier this year, when the issue swelled for a third time. From a report in the Public Agenda newspaper from March 2012 of a Nimba County legislator's remarks which publicly questioned the Zekepa plan. New here is mention not of the shameful condition of Monrovia, but of the desperate state of the region around Zekepa itself. Also notable is the speculation that Sirleaf's pronouncement was only to entice the relatively-heavily populated County to vote with the Unity Party in the November, 2011 elections:

In her annual message to the nation addressed before the sixth session of the 52nd national legislature, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Monday, January 24, 2011 received a heavy applause when she disclosed her government's plan to relocate Liberia's capital city from Monrovia to Zekepa in the central of the country. 
Fifteen months [sic?] after the pronouncement, the lawmaker of electoral district #9 in Nimba County, where the town is located, has begun to raise concern; hoping that the President's declaration was not a mockery to the people of Liberia, especially Nimba. 
Rep. Richard Matenokay Tingban, an Engineer by profession, says though he does not have reasons to think that the President's promise was a mockery, reminding the Liberian leader about public pronouncements helps nation building and truth telling. 
He, however, maintains that by now signs of a possible relocation of Liberia's capital could be visible. The Nimba lawmaker said he and other Liberians would feel very disappointed if the President had only made the pronouncement to win votes from Nimba during the 2011 presidential election. A 2008 LISGIS census report put the county as the second most populated area in Liberia.
Although Rep. Tingban says he has reminded the President on some occasions about the pronouncement, nothing seems to be signaling anything in the area.
Zekepa is currently not accessible by roads. “The President herself could not reach in this district and particularly Zekepa during the election when she came here. This was due to road inaccessibility. She knows this of course,” Rep. Tingban told a gathering of citizens in Voipa, Yarmensornor District over the weekend.
The education system in Zekepa remains very deplorable and remains confronted by questionable transfers and rotations of teachers allegedly by Ministry of Education officials. Healthcare delivery, too, is virtually impossible to an extent that some pregnant women are said to have passed away or delivered on the highway while struggling to get them to nearby town.  Information about pregnant women losing their lives or delivering on the highway before reaching a medical canter could not, however, be confirmed by journalists due to road inaccessibility.Rep. Tingban is calling on the President to make real her promise at least by showing signs of a possibility. But it appear that the Liberian leader herself understood that it would never have been an easy task even before she made the pronouncement. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Liberia's Capital from Slum to Forest"

This editorial from the In Profile Daily, which emerged in the week following President Sirleaf's late January 2011 state of the union address, includes much of the same questions about the priorities and practicalities of building a new capital, but also contains the same negative rhetoric about Monrovia's present condition and appearance, and also echoes the President's allusions to climate change and sea erosion [with my emphasis added]:

As President Sirleaf mounted the podium at the Capitol Building on January 24, 2011 to give her annual message to the nation as mandated by the constitution, she gave a laundry list of achievements her administration has accomplished thus far and listed several more she needed to accomplish, one of which was laying the groundwork for the construction of a new capitol city as the political seat of the nation. 
While Monrovia rapidly degenerates from city to a slum amidst failures, visionless leaderships from successive governments steeped in corruption, nepotism, cronyism, special interests, compounded with years of senseless warfare; and with the prospect of oil wealth, the effects of global climate change and ever creeping sea erosion, and after five years at the helm of the nation, the President has come to recognize that Monrovia was no longer suitable to be Liberia's nation's capitol. 
The President has just admitted that Monrovia is a slum and that we must move to the forest and build ourselves a new capitol city there. The new capitol, according to the President, would be at the meeting point of Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa counties, the area where Zekepa is the key town. 
Although at the southernmost part of Nimba County, Zekepa is embraced by Bassa and Bong counties, geographically in the heartland of Liberia and central enough to make it an ideal location for the capitol of a country that is so politically charged at all times.
While Liberians do not disagree with the central location of Zekepa, they wonder why the pronouncement now.
These are some of the questions that linger on the lips of critical thinkers: “Why couldn't the President choose the name of a town or village in Bassa or Bong counties adjacent to Zekepa? Was this meant as an indirect campaign strategy in vote-rich Nimba County, where the President has Prince Johnson to contend with? Could it be that the President was sizing up voters in the three counties and pampering them with pipe dreams?” 
Others argue that the thought of a new capitol to be financed in part or whole with income from potential oil wealth will be a waste of resources that will bankroll politicians, their cronies and good-for-nothing international firms at the detriment of Liberians. 
They argue that Monrovia, as is, is far from a true city and therefore should be developed into a metropolitan city from B.F. Goodridge to Cotton Tree and to Kakata, with modern facilities such as electricity, water, trains, water, transportation system, air, land and public transport system that meets international standards, as well as adequate and affordable housing and schools. 
According to Thomas Coleman, a resident of Water Street, 'taking resources to build a new capitol in the middle of nowhere requires a lot of money; much more expensive than government officials breaking Monrovia down and rebuilding it.' 
Emmanuel Kerkula, a University student reading accounting asserted: “many of the properties in Monrovia that need to be demolished belong to people who are politically and socially connected, and demolishing them will not be politically expedient for any leader. Rather, taking it to a place dominated by farmland and people blind to political realities will be much safer for any politician.” 
Ma Finda, a market woman at Ma Juah Market agrees that there is a need for a new capitol where there might be newer markets and modern buildings. 
As the argument continues on the need or not for a new capitol, pundits assert that the fruition of such plan - be it Zekepa or any other town or village for that matter, is many years away. 
More interestingly over the decades, city planning of Monrovia by government through the Ministry of Public Works (MPW) and the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) have failed to produce the anticipated results, having employed the Monrovia Urban Development Project (MUDP) to have largely engaged itself into the construction of sanitary facilities in various communities, while the MPW was preoccupied with re-designing the capital that would have brought to bear the demolition of several homes in the creation of alleys and as well encouraged the construction of modern homes that most of its residents could not and cannot afford.
Of significant feature leading to attempts by governors, including the President of Liberia to relocate Monrovia has been the pervasive number of zinc shacks that continue to dull its outlook, evolving principally from urban migration that has been necessitated by the lack of gainful employment and other cores that are meant to encourage self-generating incomes to avert the continuing dependency on national government for survival.
Quizzically it certainly appears for the current leadership of President Sirleaf to propose a new capital, confusing the site still appears to many Liberians with Zekepa taken for Sekepa as publicly clarified in recent week, harnessing relevant resources proves the fundamental question in the wake of minute financial resources following the waiver of the nation's huge debts by the international community, giving way to external credits that may not necessarily have to be directed at construction of a new capital but improving the livelihood of the vast majority through job creation and ensuring food security.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Zekepa: Liberia's Abuja?

Although the passage of an Act to establish a new capital city for Liberia came and went in late 2009 with plenty of blustering announcements and chatter there followed absolutely no details and even less action for more than a year. Then, during President Sirleaf's annual state of the union address in January 2011, once again the outline of the fabled city appeared on the horizon. From a press report of later that January [emphasis mine]:

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has unveiled plans for the relocation of Liberia’s capital Monrovia to Zekepa where Grand Bassa, Bong and Nimba Counties converge.Delivering her sixth state of the nation address Monday, President Sirleaf said there was need to relocate the capital city due to the effects of climate change and expectation that rising sea levels could threaten coastal cities.She said plans were being concluded for a new capital city at Zekepa, but warned that it would take time to realize this dream.“The vision I have outlined is a collective vision but we should be under no illusions about how difficult this will be to achieve. There is a long road ahead of us, and that road will not be smooth. We will need great courage and determination to get to our destination,” the liberia leader said.Liberia’s 20th President, William R. Tolbert, Jr. who was assassinated during the  1980 military coup d’etat, planned to relocate the Liberian capital to Gbarnga, Bong County in central Liberia.Meanwhile, President Johnson Sirleaf has disclosed that Liberia is on the verge of becoming a petroleum exporting country in the coming decade.She however said that before the country exports a drop of oil, her government will put in place policies that will dictate how oil wealth will be used for development, stability and poverty reduction.She said if properly managed,  resources from oil could be invested to transform Liberia. Currently, oil exploration is taking place off the coast of Liberia.Monday’s state of the nation address to the national legislature was the president’s  last in her first term as president of Liberia.

Firstly, Zekepa, a place that hardly exists any more than Brasilia did in 1950s Brazil, Abuja did in 1970s Nigeria, or Yamoussoukro did before President Houphouët-Boingy's reign. The Google Earth images above pinpoint Zekepa (not to be confused with the mining site Yekepa) which does indeed rest in a small nook of south-central Nimba County near the border with Bong and Grand Bassa Counties, and as can be seen not particularly far, as the pepperbird flies, from northeasternmost Margibi County nor for that matter Monrovia itself. Yet despite its verdant locale, it is by the few accounts that exist a tiny hamlet, and no matter how geographically proximate it may be, there are no roads to the place, nor really any suitable modern transportation options of any sort nearby.

In placing this proposal in a global context of the the movement of capital cities, this bears resemblance to several, including Brasilia but also Dodoma in Tanzania but most especially Abuja, Nigeria's capital which was explicitly moved away colonial coastal city dominated by one group to more neutral territory near the geographic center of the country and at a intercultural crossroads.

Secondly, its rather remarkable that President Sirleaf's pronouncement listed climate change and sea erosion as the primary drivers behind moving away from the coast. Its on the one hand interesting to see any head of state refer to climate change openly, much less one from a less developed country with a less educated electorate. More curious than that is the idea that the country's current capital, and by far its largest city, with a metropolitan area home to about one in three Liberians, is in danger of being swallowed into the ocean, and therefore the government will vacate the sinking city, leaving the populace behind.

The final aspect of the report to note is the mention of the oil. This is hardly a nonsequitur. From the beginning of the Sirleaf-era talk on capital relocation, the undertaking has been consistently linked to the new revenue stream of oil, often explicitly proposing that a very worthwhile use of the additional funds would be to build a new capital city. This begins to bring to mind Abuja again, which despite the legitimate arguments for its construction in the name of national unity and a break with the past, was without question an orgy of corruption during its establishment, and since that time has served as a comparatively luxurious retreat, hidden away from the teeming cities and the majority of the country's population, where the country's rulers control its revenues and wield power to their own benefit, out of easy reach or sight of much of the population. Its easy to imagine that this has appeal among Liberia's public servants also.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A New Capital for Liberia

In posting on Yamoussoukro, I realized that I've never posted about Liberia's dreams of a planned capital. Although plans are still rather vague, there have been some interesting proposals over the last few years. Rather than one long post, I'll detail the sporadic developments in several shorter posts.

Talk of having the government vacate Monrovia stretch back at least to the Tolbert years, when President Tolbert openly desired to move the capital city from Monrovia to Bensonville, his hometown in north-central Montserrado county, which he had rechristened Bentol. He was not successful in moving the national capital, but he did decree that Montserrado County relocate its administrative center to Bentol, where it is today. He was also mostly able, up until his assassination, to construct a sort of Americo Versailles in Bentol.

President Doe may have talked about moving the Liberian capital, but I have seen no evidence of any plans for this. While Charles Taylor operated the capital of his "Greater Liberia" out of Gbarnga, Bong County for years, Monrovia and its Executive Mansion were always the prize for him (as they have been for every Liberian Presidential hopeful before and since).

But during the recent reconstruction era of the Sirleaf Administration, at least as early as 2009, mention of moving Liberia's capital from Monrovia was made again. The first notice of it that I saw was in the local papers, when the Liberian legislature passed a resolution to move Liberia's capital, much before there had been any public discussion of it (or demand from constituents). From an editorial published in the In Profile Daily on 2 September 2009, titled, A New Capital, Not the Time [bolding is mine]:

The Plenary of the House of Representatives recently passed a bill seeking to create a new political capital in Central Liberia. The Act, according to the Joint Committee’s report, was scrutinized and thoroughly studied before bringing it to plenary for passage. Montserrado County Representative Moses Tandanpolie who crafted the bill cited infrastructural Destruction during the 14 years of civil conflict, in conjunction with population explosion and the influx of people as some underlining reasons for building a new capital. 

Honorable Tandanpolie said the influx of people into Monrovia has rendered Monrovia vulnerable to vice and social ills and that the cost of repairing Monrovia will be more costly than initiating a plan to establish a new, well-planned and laid out city. The Montserrado Representative asserted that such city must be centrally located and meets international standards. Representative Tandapolie envisions a Municipal styled government that would consist of a Mayor and a City Council. To all of this, we say bravo to the Honorable for his farsightedness, although this is not a revolutionary thinking, it’s been said before by both Tolbert and Doe. 

What is interesting about this one at this time is the approach and the amount of work and money that needs to go into its planning process alone. 

Liberia is just surfacing from a self imposed civil conflict that left deep scars on everyone and everything. In light of this, there are greater and more pertinent questions that need to be asked; in what should we invest, a new capital city, several school buildings, better salaries for public school teachers, a network of farm to market roads, agriculture projects or better transportation system? While the Honorable Body was thinking in the right direction to have passed the bill as submitted by the plenary, we think they are putting the cart before the horse on this one; We are of the mindset that it should have been the other way around; 

A Technical Committee comprising of Engineers, Aeronautical Planners and Engineers, City Planners, Financial Experts, Environmentalists, Specialists, Legislators, Civic Organizations, International Partners/Donors and others should have preceded the passage of the bill. Such Technical Committee if it were would have done detail feasibility studies of several mitigating factors that go into building a modern city. Now that a bill has been introduced, studied and passed, what would happen if the committee determines that central Liberia as proposed is not ideal or too expensive a location? 

We therefore call on the Senate to do the right thing by putting the horse before the cart and not follow the example of the Lower House when it put the cart before the horse. We think most, if not all Liberians agree that there’s a need for a newer, cleaner, well planned and laid out city that would make us all proud. But doing it the haphazard or LIB way is not the way forward. For once, let’s focus, and do it right this time, maybe for a population of ten million people.

There wasn't much more detail at the time, such as a location, but there did seem to be a number slapped to the project from the only contemporaneous report: US$10 billion, which at the time was easily ten times the country's GDP (and roughly still is).

So it was an astounding, absurd proposal, far outweighing the nation's resources for an entire decade and put forth without public or technical consultation.

Most interestingly, I think are two points: one that Monrovia's post-conflict condition left the government no choice but to flee its putrid streets, deplorable halls of administration, and unsightly, overcrowded slums. This is of course a remarkably self-serving priority. How this phrasing echoes much of the arguments for abandoning America's industrial cities for their suburbs in the mid-20th century is both academically intriguing and pragmatically exasperating.

Its important to underscore that Monrovia's condition in 2009, as detestable a state as it unquestionably was, was much more comfortable than everywhere else in Liberia, and the dire conditions of the city and its people should be a major focus of the public servants' efforts. Instead, the new capital is plainly described as a scheme to abandon the mess of Monrovia for some sort of brand-new Abuja, which would surely include air-conditioned villas and apartments for all the honorables, which despite a lack of plans, drawings, and technical specifications was without a doubt the sugar-plums that were dancing in the legislators' minds when they rushed to passed this meaningless act.

The furtive progress that this quixotic campaign has made since that sudden blip suggests  that, while not the only reason for such an undertaking, the entire plan evinces the deep division between the governing class, who remain in control of the country's few resources, and the governed, who enjoy neither access nor consideration.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


The recent posts about Hophouët-Boigny and his grand architectural project in Abidjan reminded me that I wrote the post below for my architecture blog in April 2011 and never reprinted it on this blog. So here it is: the story of Yamoussoukro.


In the Spring of 2011, numerous reports described increasingly awful fighting in Côte D'Ivoire with forces battling in many parts of the country, including urban warfare in the country's main city, Abidjan. For months, the internationally-recognized winner of last year's election, Alassane Ouattara, tried to begin his term from the confines of a faded luxury hotel at the edge of the city's lagoon. Recently, the other man claiming to have won the election, incumbent strong-man Laurent Gbagbo, is now fortified in a subterranean bunker beneath the Presidential Palace in the plateau section of the city, refusing to accept defeat.

Despite the presence of two presidents in the city, as well the national legislature, ministries, courts, and foreign embassies, Abidjan has not been the capital of Côte D'Ivoire for nearly thirty years. Officially, the capital of the republic has been in the center the country some 250-km to the northwest, in the city of Yamoussoukro.

Yamoussoukro may at first appear to be the country's Abuja, its Canberra, its Brasilia--a modern, purpose-built capital near the geographic center of the country. Yet Yamoussoukro was neither chosen to unify a multiethnic nation on neutral turf, nor remove the bureaucrats from a colonial cosmopolis to better administer the people's work.

Distant Yamoussoukro has a far more peculiar origin than any of these cities, with far less democratic intentions behind its transformation from rural village to capital city. In reading a recent summary of the modern history of the Ivory Coast, I was reminded of the country's odd post-independence history, which is in many ways manifested strikingly in this bizarre creation, what has been called an African Versailles.

The Wikipedia entry gives the broad outlines of Yamoussoukro's history. It was an unimportant chieftan's village for most of existence, and was so at the time of the birth of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who would become a member of the French Assembly, and later Cote D'Ivoire's post-colonial president, sometimes referred to as the father of the Ivory Coast.

After several decades of rule from the fast-growing littoral metropolis of Abidjan, its gleaming skyline and clover-leafed expressways a marvel of West Africa, the already long-ruling President declared that he would bequeath his vast plantation holdings in his birthplace to the state, in order to transform his remote home town into a new national capital. Flush coffers of a state-controlled cocoa and coffee commodities boom through the 1970s facilitated the realization of the President's commandments, and the capital officially transferred in 1983.

As with many African countries, Cote D'Ivoire's perennial, systematic problems are rooted not only in its colonial invention as an artificial territory of administration, but also in their post-colonial dysfunction, autocratically governed by a cult of personality, with its rampant, jaw-dropping corruption.

Yamoussoukro is the built embodiment of this monarchical despotism and gentlemanly kleptomania, of which Houphouët-Boigny is not unique and which is not endemic to post-colonial Africa. This phenomenon results in the imperial president, as an absolute ruler over a one-party state, exploiting the entire country as his personal property, not only syphoning the state's resources to his personal comfort, but employing state apparatus to both conceal and facilitate this graft, while undertaking the memorialization his own egoism.

©Google Earth.

A classic example of this, Yamoussoukro is a museum of massive monuments of the state and the glory of its leader, while at the same time well-located and internally arranged to facilitate and conceal the nefarious accumulation of power and resources. In relocating the capital from the colonial port to his ancestral hinterland, Houphouët-Boigny performed a political act of geographic nepotism, as described by the eminent scholar of African architecture, Nnamdi Elleh, in his essay on Yamoussoukro.

Similar to Canberra and Brasilia, Yamoussoukro's center features an artificial lagoon, which makes a peninsula out of the what appears to be the center of the city, separating the market town, called Habitat from the presidential compound.

©Google Earth.

The water feature is shaped like the open jaws of a crocodile, appearing from above to swallow the central market district. In fact, this body of water is known as les Lacs du Caïmans, as the President, perhaps inspired by contemporaneous James Bond villians, had sacred crocodiles bred in the lake--the feeding of which is featured as a major tourist attraction for visitors to the city. Previously, the village neither had a lagoon, nor crocodiles, and there is no specific precedent among the area's traditional beliefs for crocodiles to be considered sacred, or to be captive totems. This carnivorous theater is described at the beginning of a wonderful short story about Yamoussoukro by V.S. Naipaul: The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro.

Foreign tourists viewing the feeding of the sacred crocodiles.

If there is a tourist attraction of truly global renown in Yamoussoukro, inarguably it is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, which is considered to be the largest church in the world. To underscore this: the largest Christian temple on the planet is in the middle of the West African bush, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Image courtesy Matthias Offodile.

This cathedral might be worth a separate essay all on its own, as its Pierre Fakhoury (sounds like fakery) design is reported to have cost US$300million to construct, the impact of this outlay on the Republic's fiscal health has never been officially ascertained. Built in the model of St. Peter's in Rome, only larger in a gesture of scale that would foretell the simulacra of Dubai and China in later decades. The church, visible for many miles in all directions, lies at the far southwestern edge of the capital.

Image courtesy Matthias Offodile

The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro.

Indeed, all the monumental architecture of Yamoussoukro is on the periphery of the city, surrounded on all other sides by vacant fields, and forest. These acres themselves are often sliced by straight, unpaved tracks and half-finished divided boulevards, interrupted by empty roundabouts, some of which terminate at still more construction sites of undetermined purpose.These are, or were, also the agricultural plantations of the President's family, which, recall, were supposedly donated to the state by the grace of the founding father for the purposes of constructing the new capital. But just like Louis XIV, the Sun King at Versailles, it is difficult to determine the dividing line between Boigny and Core D'Ivoire.

Image courtesy this website.

While many of these imposing landmarks tend to be strictly axial within themselves and their grounds, often with manicured lawns and gardens, they are not arranged together or in relation to each other in any organized visual or symbolic logic that governs Washington, Brasilia, Canberra, or even Abuja or Astana. While beaux-arts alignment of Versailles or the Vatican is alluded to within each construction, there is no larger relationship between these buildings.

Image courtesy this website.

According to Nnamdi Elleh's anaylsis of the capital's formation, Yamoussoukro's plan was intended not to convey democratic unity and balances of institutional power, and was not intended to be urban, but was intended instead to retain the rural character of the original, ancestral village, with the addition of a series of isolated villas, creating a sort of idyllic monumentality that is nearer to a Roman, pre-modern manifestation of imperial power.

It is therefore not the humungous Basilica that is most special, but the Presidential Residence. Surrounded by high walls and guarded by sacred reptiles, the multi-acre presidential compound is on the northwestern edge of the town and is strictly off-limits. The estate has actually swallowed up Houphouët-Boigny's ancestral village itself, architecturally consuming the origins of the state like the crocodiles in the pond. It is unknown if the village has been preserved as a type of historic diorama inside its walls.

A foyer in the Palace of Hosts, the Presidential apartments. ©District of Yamoussoukro

Today the citadel is centered on a modernist block known as the Palais des Hôtes, the grounds of the Présidence is asymmetrial, with the axis of the palace not itself aligned with the half-hearted tapis vert of the lawn down to Les Lacs du Caïmans.

The Western side of the capital, showing the lagoon at center, the Basilica at lower left, and the presidential compound at upper left. This and below ©Google Earth

Neither aligns with any street grid or landmark beyond, and the entrance of the estate is in the rear. Even the Basilica, itself so pristinely arranged, does not relate in any way to the Presidential compound nearby, from which it is visually blocked by a jumbled quadrant of structures on the western auto-route out of town toward the airport.

The Basilica is only the most impressive of the city's monumental edifices. The north side of the city includes the sizable Lyceé Scientifique, and far out of town is yet another astoundingly large university, this of the Institute Nationale Polytechnique Felix Houphouët-Boigny (INP-HB), a futuristic campus which houses a number of former universities which were merged into one under the president's name.

The INP-HB Campus courtesy Google Earth. The rigid plan of the campus's partial octagon is juxtaposed to the informal community on the left-side of the auto-route. Likely home university employees and even some students.

Various details of the massive INP-HB. Images courtesy Matthias Offodile.

Also on the north side of town is a rather tinny, forlorn communications tower, another element to pierce the gently-rolling hillsides of the region.

The forlorn Telecom tower, on the city's northern edge, near the polytechnique.
top ©Google Earth, bottom courtesy Matthias Offodile.

Aside from these religious, presidential, and educational constructions, the southeastern quadrant of the city, where the auto-route from Abidjan enters the capital, has been more recently arranged with a number of grands projets, which together seek to position the city not as the national capital but as an international conference destination.

The City's Southeast, showing the Golf Course, the Hotel Président, the Fondation FHB,
the Palais du Congrès and the auto-route to Abidjan, right.
Map and Satellite ©Google Earth.

Coming into town on this road, visitors will see on a golf course to the left, with a luxurious club house, and the sprawling complex of the Hôtel Président, which seems to have its own multi-winged conference center.

The Hotel Président complex. Image Courtesy This Website.

Across a large lagoon piscine sits the accommodation itself: a 14-story tower of 250-rooms, capped by an oversized, flying-saucer panoramic restaurant, undoubtedly serving French cuisine and forming the third element of the city's skyline. This hospitality compound was according to Naipaul at least for a time operated by the French Sofitel group.

Le Hotel Président, formerly a Sofitel. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Far more opulent and imposing is the nearby Fondation Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in which the assets of the citizenry have constructed an institution to remember the President as a great statesman. Referred to as 'peace research' house, it seems to be mostly a marble-clad conference center.

The central axis of the Fondation's pile oozes out into a wide frontal parking lot, which is then picked up by a minor residential street, only to die unceremoniously at the block containing the city's tourist office, which bars this axial connect to the main autoroute at an account angle. Nearby, the parallel central axis of the Palais du Congrès is likewise blocked from meeting the auto-route by an unkempt field.

Fondation Felix Houphouët-Boigny, a peace research institute. ©2003 District de Yamoussoukro.

Adjacent to this is the Palais de Congrès, which was originally built as thMaison du PDCI-RDA, the headquarters of the President's political party, the only one legal in the country during his reign. Lest it be misconstrued by name or function to have any democratic legislative purpose, the Congrès in the name seems to refer to its function largely as an additional conference facility.

Some distance northeast of here, across the auto-route's bend into the city, is one of the more recent constructions, La Maison des Députés, an impressively hulking pink pyramid, surrounded by several acres of gardens and swimming pools. This was built by the Chinese in 2006 to house delegates to the Group of 77 meeting, which includes 300 rooms, including ten presidential suites. It seems it may be intended to, in the future, serve as extended-stay hotel for the country's representatives.

Maison des Députés, Yamoussoukro's most recent monument.
Purpose-built to house international delegates to the Group of 77 meeting.
Images courtesy Matthias Offodile.

Its quite amazing to note the priority here, in that it seems that an international convention was provided with luxurious hotel rooms before any dedicated building for the Assemblé Nationale was constructed (or converted from the city's several immense conference halls).

There is no legislative house in the city at present, just as there is nothing housing or representing the judiciary, no diplomatic representation, and not even ministerial buildings of the executive branch. There is only the Presidency, its assets and its memorials, and indeed the website of the City celebrates the southwestern zone of the city as a full-service destination for G-level international summits.

This would be astonishing for the capital of any country purporting democratic ideals. It is all the more shocking to consider that these half-dozen underused or vacant edifices sit in the center of a country and region with massive poverty and unmet housing demand.

The architect credited with this creation is the Tunisian-French Olivier Clément Cacoub, who made a career of almost exclusively realizing the derangement of African despots, as a sort of African Albert Speer. This oeuvre includes an exercise quite similar to that of Yamoussoukro: the transformation of Zairian kleptocrat Mobutu Sésé-Seko's riverside home village of Gbadolite into a sort of despotic Disneyland, with multiple palaces and a private airport, famously designed to accept the Concorde, which the dictator liked to charter. This Versailles of the Jungle, as it was named, is now sinking back into a forlorn forest carrefour, Mobutu's palaces looted and burned, being swallowed up by the swamps.

Yamoussoukro's airport was likewise said to be built with this specification, although this may be apocryphal, as lots of African airports could have accommodated the supersonic airliner. At present, there is not even scheduled commercial service within the country, due to the decade-0ld civil war. However, it does seem that when the Basilica was consecrated, Pope John Paul II flew from Rome to perform the ceremony. Naturally, a multi-story, largely windowless palace was built to host him, in an event that must have seen the city at near capacity. That event was followed less than five years later by the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1994, an event reportedly attended by at least 27 heads of state, including François Mitterand.

The House of the Pope. Image Courtesy Matthias Offodile.

The airport likely saw a flurry of activity again in 2006, during the Group of 77 meeting, when landing strip thick with the private jets of foreign dignitaries, and the whole city was bustling with the various delegations. This institution is dominated by the Chinese, who, its safe to speculate, built the Maison des Députés for the meeting. This took place during a lull in the civil war, which saw the country effectively divided into two zones, with the frontier not far north of Yamoussoukro.

Since the conflict heated up again in 2011, the focus of the action has entirely been on Abidjan, where all political and government activity takes place. In trying to legitimize their respective claims to power, neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara attempted to occupy any buildings in Yamoussoukro or administer the country from there. Instead, the pair played a chess match from across a coastal lagoon. When fighting broke out, Pro-Ouattara rebels quickly moved from the far west across the country, easily occupying towns. On March 30th, forces loyal to Ouattara marched into Yamoussoukro, effortlessly capturing the capital, but pausing only a short time on their march southeast to the main prize: Abidjan, the center of power.
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