ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — It may have been the worst idea the political leaders of this country have had recently: staging one of their frequent "marches of support" on behalf of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the 89-year-old president.
There had already been signs of public discontent--strikes and student demonstrations. But the authorities could not believe that the president's name was about to lose the magic it had had for 30 years.
They were wrong.
The Marche de Soutien erupted in rock-throwing violence.
For the first time since Houphouet-Boigny rose to power, the streets rang with cries of "Houphouet voleur ! Houphouet menteur !" -- "Houphouet's a thief! Houphouet's a liar!"
The precipitous decline in respect for the leader who brought Ivory Coast its independence from France in 1960 and oversaw impressive economic growth in the ensuing 25 years shows how sharply the economic collapse of this once-thriving country has raised public sensitivity to corruption and mismanagement in the government.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 12, 1990 Home Edition World Report Part H Page 3 Column 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
African geography--In a map illustrating gains and losses in democracy in Africa in last week's World Report, the type identifying Kenya and Uganda was reversed.
But more important, it is a symptom of something that is sweeping Africa: public agitation for the end of one-party rule.
Most dramatic at the moment is the case of Liberia, where President Samuel K. Doe--himself the beneficiary of a military coup--is now threatened by an insurgency that has brought a rebel army to within a few miles of the capital, Monrovia. American ships stand off the Liberian coast ready to evacuate U.S. citizens if necessary.
Doe, who kept opposition parties intimidated by violence for years, asked the United States and other nations late last week to help end his nation's civil war.
In Gabon, too, public unrest has erupted into violence. The oil-producing nation has been ruled by autocratic President Omar Bongo for 22 years. Last week, the government regained control of the country's major oil port from rioters only by sending in hundreds of troops; meanwhile, oil production, the dominant force in the economy, had dropped to 20,000 barrels a day from 270,000.
Although Bongo agreed to restore multi-party democracy to the country, rioting broke out after opposition leader Joseph Redjambe died mysteriously in a hotel room May 23. Redjambe has still not been buried because the government fears the funeral would inspire further unrest.
Political agitation may be bursting Africa's seams because nowhere in the world are genuine electoral contests as scarce: Of sub-Saharan Africa's 44 countries, all but five--among them newly independent Namibia--are ruled by military dictatorships or single-party civilian governments. In some of the apparent exceptions, such as Senegal and Gambia, the dominant party has not lost an election in decades.
Preposterous electoral majorities are so common that when Doe claimed a bare majority in winning what most observers considered a rigged election in Liberia in 1985, the State Department praised his restraint in not claiming the customary 99%.
Steady economic decline has exacerbated the discontent. Most African countries lost ground in the 1980s, when the world prices of such key export commodities as coffee, tea, cotton and cocoa fell and the cost of imported machinery and oil grew.
Meanwhile, the load of foreign debt soared, to $134 billion in 1988 from $6 billion in 1970. That means much less money is available to finance education and health care and to provide cheap food.
But with economic conditions worsening, and word of the democratic upheaval in East Europe being broadcast across Africa, more and more African strongmen are feeling pressure to at least legalize political opposition.
Among them is Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent's enduring one-man symbol of rapacity. A few weeks ago, Mobutu said he would permit the formation of up to three new Zairian political parties--parties have been banned since 1970--and would establish an interim government to prepare for elections within a year.
Mobutu's decision came after a disastrous tour to gauge public opinion. Groups of business people, students, clergy and others assailed him with unprecedentedly harsh criticism of his 24-year regime, in which one of the most naturally rich lands in Africa has wallowed in poverty and despair.
He was only the latest African leader to hear such complaints. Earlier this year, Mathieu Kerekou, the strongman of Benin, capitulated to calls for a multi-party democracy in a tearful appearance before Parliament.
Agitation for multi-party democracy has not been welcomed everywhere. Tanzania's Julius K. Nyerere, architect of the economically debilitating system known as "African socialism," remarked recently that Tanzania may legalize opposition parties but only if they commit themselves to socialism.