Félix Houphouët-Boigny

© UNESCO/ Mamadou S. Koné

"Our combat is not over, it will never be over. The real combat, the combat for peace is still going on". Félix Houphouët-Boigny

The General Conference of UNESCO conferred on the Prize the highly symbolic name of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the "Sage of Africa". The Prize is as consonant with UNESCO's first and highest calling as the name of Félix Houphouët-Boigny symbolizes peace and humanism of a legendary African figure who dedicated his entire life to the cause of peace.

 

The Sage of Africa (1905-1993)

Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had been a doctor and a planter, was elected member of the French Constituent Assembly in October 1945. From the very beginning of his term in office his name was associated with the law of 4 April 1946 abolishing forced labour in all the territories of the French colonies of Black Africa.  Speaking before the members gathered in the National Assembly he exclaimed : “I ask you: how can the foundation of the French Union by the National Assembly be reconciled with the disguised slavery of forced labour and its trail of suffering ?”

In October of the same year, he convened the Bamako Congress, which led to the creation of the 'Rassemblement Démocratique Africain' (RDA), the first political movement to militate for the emancipation of the peoples of the countries of Black Africa under French rule.

From 1956 to the proclamation of the independence of his country, Côte d'Ivoire, in 1960, he was a member of all the governments of France's Fourth Republic. In that capacity, he participated in the drafting of the series of acts that, from the model law of June 1956 to the new French Constitution of 4 October 1958, paved the way for the autonomy and subsequent accession to independence of the former French colonies of Black Africa wishing to take that course. Through his patient, dogged efforts in the governments of which he was a member, and the results he obtained for the whole of what used to be French Africa, he penned one of the most exemplary pages in the history of decolonisation.

On accepting the responsibilities vested in him as Minister of State to the Prime Minister's Office, Félix Houphouët-Boigny said to Guy Mollet: “In working with you I shall try to spare you in Black Africa the mistakes and misunderstandings that led France into the notoriously unfortunate situations it found itself in Indochina and North Africa.” All his subsequent work illustrated that commitment of his, based on an increasing quest for dialogue and peace.


On 7 June 1962, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, he set out his political philosophy and expressed his confidence in the 'human spirit': “We have always preferred negotiation in all circumstances, because we are convinced that a compromise acceptable to everybody can emerge from a confrontation of the ideas and interests in question.”

In July 1962, he was already advocating dialogue between Arabs and Israelis. On a visit to Jerusalem, he said to his Israeli hosts: “We do not think there is any problem in the world, no matter how difficult or intractable, that cannot be settled through negotiation.”

© UNESCO/ Mamadou S. Koné
The President of Côte d'Ivoire, surrounded by Mr Frederik W. De Klerk and Mr Nelson Mandela, first laureates of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize.

As a man of peace and a political visionary, Félix Houphouët-Boigny foresaw more than twenty years ago the process  to dismantle apartheid in South Africa: “It is a mistake to think that there is no alternative but war to get rid of apartheid: if peace is to be brought to Africa we can and must engage in dialogue. In any event, dialogue will be essential one day, whether it comes before war or after war. It is infinitely preferable to engage in dialogue as early as possible in order to avoid war, which, and I cannot repeat this often enough, can never settle anything in our day and age.”

The thinking of Félix Houphouët- Boigny and the ideals of UNESCO can plainly be seen to be converging towards the same end. In the speech he made before the United Nations Economic and Social Council on 30 June 1976, President Félix Houphouët-Boigny said: 

Nothing will change as long as statesmen do not make the quest for peace something more than the mere window-dressing of their policy. Everything will change when this quest for peace has become the main and real goal of their concerns and second nature to them. The interests they defended up to that time will then seem to them to have been very mean and perverse. Peace is not an empty word but a form of behaviour.

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