A massive new American embassy compound has opened in Ivory Coast, despite an ongoing civil war there. But many Ivorians welcome the event, and some say it could also signal an end to the prevalence of the former colonial power France.
Four armed Marines marched toward U.S. Ambassador Aubrey Hooks and Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo at the start of the dedication ceremony on Tuesday.
Mr. Hooks was the first to speak, saying the 35,000-square-meter site with a view on Abidjan's lagoon was the realization of a dream. The day's press release says a pattern of African fabric inspired the exterior gray and white granite facade of the new building.
Ambassador Hooks told a VOA reporter he should not be surprised this would be West Africa's biggest American embassy compound, even though it is in a country divided by a brutal civil war. Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer, was once the region's economic engine, but now nearly three years into a northern-rebel insurgency, many Ivorians fear it could disintegrate even further due to growing ethnic animosity.
"The decision to make this building was made almost ten years ago and reflected the growing needs of the United States government and our activities throughout the region and therefore this decision dates back from quite some time and what it really represents here is our commitment and partnership with Cote d'Ivoire and the countries of the region. It is an investment in the future of Cote d'Ivoire and of the region," Mr. Hooks says.
Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo applauded this decision, saying construction started when there was peace, but that he was proud Americans persevered despite war.
He said it shows Ivory Coast is still standing and has bright days ahead with new and better partnerships.
Other embassies in Abidjan have recently shut down, while many international institutions have moved regional headquarters, further depleting the struggling Ivorian economy.
Among the many political dignitaries, the head of Mr. Gbagbo's party, Pascal Affi Nguessan said the opening of the new American compound was in contrast a symbol of confidence, and that it should allow more diversification of the Ivorian economy, long dominated by French interests.
A civil society leader, who was not present at the ceremony but still closely followed the day's events, Gome Gnohite Hilaire, told VOA many Ivorians are tired of French influence.
"We have (a) lot of problems with the French people, and the European Union (does) not believe again in Cote d'Ivoire, and its very important to see in this time the American government build a good and very big embassy to prove to the other countries that Ivory Coast is back and this is very important to us," Mr. Hilaire said.
But last year, Ivory Coast was dropped from the U.S African Growth and Opportunity Act, while Burkina Faso, which Mr. Gbagbo accuses of supporting the rebels was added. The act gives advantages to certain countries to expand trade and investment.
Abidjan still has what many consider to be the best infrastructure in a region which interests the United States, primarily for oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea.
But many U.S. embassy employees are currently without their families in Ivory Coast, and some have commented off-hand that the embassy is so big for current needs, they might as well turn an entire floor into a golf course.
The new compound will be the workplace for U.S government personnel from six agencies, as well as several hundred Ivorian staff.