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Ivory Coast's former colonial capital looks to the future on centenary
A man walks past a the colonial-era buildings of the Central African Bank in Grand-Bassam, a former French colonial capital city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, on April 18, 2015. Briefly the first capital of Ivory Coast in the late 19th century, the coastal city some 35km east of Abidjan celebrates 100 years since its obtain the status of "commune", the country's first. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU.

By: Christophe Koffi

GRAND-BASSAM (AFP).- Grand-Bassam's ornate colonial buildings are a striking symbol of France's onetime rule over Ivory Coast, but officials in the former capital say its glory days are yet to come.

While some local architectural treasures have been restored, many of the elegant arched doorways, pillars and verandas of the city's French quarter are crumbling into ruins -- and conserving the colonial facades that won the town UNESCO World Heritage status is a priority in 2015, its centennial year.

But authorities say they're focused on building a future for Grand-Bassam, home to 80,000 people, as well as trying to preserve its past.

A brand new university has sprung up, while the mayor hopes a planned biotechnology centre will bring a touch of Silicon Valley to the sleepy seaside resort.

"For us, the celebration of the centenary signals the renaissance of the historical town," said the king of Grand-Bassam Amon Tanoe. Clad in a multicoloured loincloth with a long golden chain around his neck, the former diplomat holds the city's traditional leadership and presides alongside municipal authorities.

The city is marking its centenary in 2015 -- 100 years after it was declared Ivory Coast's first administrative municipality -- even though it was founded as a trading post on the Gulf of Guinea years earlier.

French rulers turned Grand-Bassam, which lies 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of Ivory Coast's current commercial hub Abidjan, into the capital in the last decade of the 19th century, until an epidemic of yellow fever in 1899 killed two thirds of the colonial settlers.

Bingerville took over as capital in 1900, followed by Abidjan in 1934. Yamoussoukro, a small farming town where founding president Felix Houphouet-Boigny was born, was then named capital and developed in 1983, 23 years after the end of French rule.

These days Grand-Bassam dozes in the sunshine during the week, before livening up at the weekend when city folk come to refresh themselves on the beach and steep themselves in its history.

But change is coming. 

"Today we have large projects to turn Bassam back into a major development centre, just as it was during the start of the building of modern Ivory Coast,"  the king of Grand-Bassam told AFP.

Crying out for conservation
Local authorities have their work cut out.

An enormous mango tree has burst up through the three-storey Hotel de France, where small vendors now spread out their wares on the floor of what was once the lobby.

The country's first courthouse, built in 1893, has fallen into ruin, only sections of its wall remaining, covered in graffiti and fenced off with a view to restoration. 

"We must look after Bassam as a historical monument," said 99-year-old novelist and onetime culture minister Bernard Dadie, who grew up in the former colonial capital and published a novel about it, "Climbie", in 1956.

Some places are crying out for conservation, including a narrow alleyway, brimming with trees and flowers, that snakes between beautiful renovated buildings. The alley opens onto the former vegetable market, an area that now serves as a focus for cultural activities.

In the French quarter, which lies between the sea and an inland stretch of lagoon, some streets are still named after famous colonists. Wide boulevards honour Marcel Treich-Laplene, the town's first administrator, and former governor Gabriel Angoulvant.

"We have to accept the fact that this was the place where the colonial history of our country was anchored," said Grand-Bassam Mayor Georges Philippe Ezaley.

A photo exhibition in honour of the centenary features portraits of long-gone colonial figures, including Treich-Laplene.

Our Silicon Valley
While Grand-Bassam may be a showpiece of the past, most of its inhabitants live outside the historic district and local authorities have ambitious plans for this part too.

A good example is the recently built International University of Grand-Bassam, a privately owned institution with its name signposted in English, an unexpected sight for visitors on the way into town.

Grand-Bassam is also poised to host a Village of Information Technologies and Biotechnology (Vitib), which would be "our Silicon Valley, the technological showcase of west Africa," Mayor Ezaley said enthusiastically.

Former culture minister Dadie is more cautious, who worries that the historic town where he grew up is under attack from "uncontrolled development".

But the town is also under a different threat: rampant erosion that is swiftly eating away at the coastline. National authorities have promised Grand-Bassam a dike in a bid to protect its heritage. 

"This is the price of turning Bassam into a keepsake for Ivory Coast's memories and launching it into the future," the mayor said.

© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

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