Preparing for Independence
As Côte d'Ivoire prepared for independence they considered two possible paths (as offered by Charles de Gualle): as part of a federation of West African colonies combined into a single union, or as internally self-governing country in its own right; either was to have strong ties to France. The alternative was to declare independence and be cut off from French support. The French government wanted the latter option, worried that federations (West Africa and Equatorial Africa) would be too strong politically. Houphouët-Boigny sided with de Gaulle. He was worried that the other colonies included in the West African federation would either be too poor to contribute and need considerable resources to support them, or that they were too strong economically and politically (in particular Senegal) and would try to take control of the region. (Ultimately only Guinea chose to go fully independent, and France was ruthless in cutting off all support for the new administration under Ahmed Sékou Touré.)
Determined to halt the potential hegemony of Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal in a West African Federation, Félix Houphouët boycotted a conference in Dakar in December 1958 which was to set out the federation's framework. At the beginning of 1959 the majority of French West African colonies opted to become semi-autonomous republics within the French community (an attempt to mirror the UK's Commonwealth of Nations). Senegal and Mali, however, went ahead in 1959 and formed the Mali Federation -- Félix Houphouët worked behind the scenes to scupper it, and by 20 August 1960 it had broken apart.
Houphouët-Boigny became prime minister of Côte d'Ivoire on 1 May 1959, and was elected as the first president of the country when it gained independence on 7 August 1960. (He was re-elected unopposed in 1965, 1970, 1975, 1980, and 1985.)
President of Côte d'Ivoire
Houphouët-Boigny ran Côte d'Ivoire as a one-party state. His rule was paternalistic and highly effective, maintaining very close ties with France, he was pro-Western and capitalist, and he welcomed foreign investment. The Ivoirian miracle' which resulted from rapid economic growth lasted for 20 odd years -- at the beginning of the 80s Côte d'Ivoire had one of the highest per capita incomes of any sub-Saharan African country (in fact only those with oil exports had higher). His French contacts allowed him to get preferential deals for Ivoirian cash crops (cocoa, timber, palm oil, pineapples, and coffee) whilst his African neighbors struggled.
Considered by some to have been an archetype dictator, Houphouët-Boigny dealt with political dissent by pulling the opposition into his government (by offering them political positions and a good wage). He rapidly consolidated his power, and rulled relatively unchallenged form the mid 1960s until his death in 1993.
When Kwame Nkrumah called for a United States of Africa Houphouët-Boigny, riding high in an economic powerhouse, expressed his opposition. He was closely following the lead of his French associate, Charles de Gualle, who opposed a similar union for Europe. Houphouët-Boigny recognized Biafra when it attempted secession from Nigeria in 1967, exchanged ambassadors with the Soviet Union, and advocated working with South Africa (to the consternation of southern African states). Côte d'Ivoire was also one of the first African states to restore diplomatic relations with Israel (they had been broken following the Lebanon invasion in 1982).
In the 1970's Félix Houphouët-Boigny started to open up the political process -- developing national 'palavers' based on the traditional African custom of talks with one's chief. One issue which threatened his government was the number of French nationals holding bureaucratic posts in his government -- thousands had been invited into the country to help run things. Educated Ivoirians believed they were being sidelined and Houphouët-Boigny had to institute changes, encouraging indigenous involvement in national government. Despite thses changes, a major inequality remained between the elite and peasant classes. the effects of a booming economy were not trickling down from the rich.
Houphouët-Boigny retained the support of the public, and when he finally allowed opposition parties to enter the national elections in 1990 he maintained his hold on power -- gaining an official tally of 81% of the vote (oppositions estimates put it at 65%, still more than enough to retain the presidency).
The Other Side of Houphouët-Boigny
In his final days, Houphouët-Boigny had a massive catholic basilica built: Our Lady of Peace in Yamousoukro. It cost an estimated $200m, which he claimed came from his own funds, and at the time was the largest Christian church in the world, capable of holding over 7,000 people. (The Pope had demanded that it be smaller than St. Peter's but was ignored, he still came to consecrate it in 1989.) At the same time as the fortune was spent on the basilica, Côte d'Ivoire was forced to suspend its debt payments and introduce austerity legislation. He had an estimated fortune of $10m when he died, including several villas in France.
Houphouët-Boigny died on 7 December 1993, at the time he was Africa's longest serving president. He was honored as France's best friend in Africa, with President François Mitterand and eight other past presidents and premiers from France attending. His declining health had allowed various power brokers to assume much of the day to day control of the country, but the country soon fell into chaos.