Notre-Dame de la Paix, built in Ivory Coast’s administrative capital Yamoussoukro between 1985 and 1989, is a church of such national pride that, during the country’s decade of periodic civil conflict, citizens often sought refuge within its walls, knowing it would never be attacked.
Bishop Siméon Ahouna recalls one visitor in particular, General Guéï – who fronted the West African country’s first coup in 1999 and then ruled for 10 months – turning up at the basilica late one night. “It was in 2000, and he came to pray. My advice to him was not to cling to power,” says Ahouna, who heads the foundation charged with looking after the world’s largest basilica. “It wasn’t just him, either; whenever there were political crises, people would come and shelter because nobody would ransack here.”
Events surrounding Guéï’s assassination two years later plunged the country into a decade of civil turmoil, the seeds of which had been sown by ageing former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s “founding father” and the man who built Notre-Dame de la Paix.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Houphouët-Boigny was nearing the end of three decades in power. Under his regime, Ivory Coast had grown rich on the back of cocoa exports and soaring world commodity prices. Not one to do things by halves, the leader affectionately known as “The Old Man” lavished much of that money on monuments – mostly in honour of himself.