Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the first President of independent Cote d'Ivoire, doubtless would have agreed. How else to explain one of the modern wonders of the world?
On approaching the small city of Yamoussoukro , some 250 km north of Abidjan, there is no indication that anything remarkable lies in wait, until the great dome of the Basilica appears on the horizon. At first, I assumed that the Basilica lay on our side of Yamoussoukro, but to my astonishment, after another 10 minutes' drive, the city itself came into view, between us and the Basilica, revealing the astonishing size and dimensions of the largest church in the world.
Houphouët-Boigny was originally chief of Yamoussoukro in the 1930s, when it was no more than a village. After qualifying as a doctor, he became a union leader, and was then, in common with some other future West African leaders, elected to the French Parliament and held several ministerial positions in De Gaulle's government. He also played a leading role in Africa's decolonisation.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Côte d'Ivoire economy did well under his leadership. The country's success became known as the "Ivorian miracle" and was due to a combination of sound planning, competent administration, a strong relationship with France and considerable investment in the Ivorian coffee, cocoa and rubber industries. However, the economy worsened dramatically in the 1980s, principally due to falls in international commodity prices alongside a simultaneous rise in oil prices. This decline coincided with Houphouët-Boigny adopting an increasingly autocratic and capricious leadership style, best exemplified by his decision first to relocate the Ivorian capital from Abidjan to his hometown of Yamoussoukro and his decision to go ahead with the construction of the church (to give it its proper name the Basilica of our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro) at the estimated and eye-watering cost of US$ 300 million.
The French have an expression for this: folie de grandeur. Houphouët-Boigny would have approved of the expression, if not its application. In a developing country, struggling under a mountain of foreign debt, with huge infrastructural and social needs, the Basilica can hardly be described as an effective and utilitarian investment.
It’s easy to be holier-than-thou. Of course the money could have been used on other projects of greater social value. But it’s worth remembering Lunarcharsky’s words, and reflecting that very few of the world’s great architectural monuments could have been justified on economic and social grounds. After all, Africans, too, have the right to colonnades.