After a week with the family in Abidjan, I’m now in Dakar for a workshop. It’s my first proper time in the city; my only previous visit was passing through on the way to cover the Guinea-Bissau presidential elections in 2012 and I didn’t get any further than the airport hotel.
I’ve been here for less than 24 hours, but after dinner last night and a 13km jog this morning (not that I intended it to be that long, but I got completely lost and the Senegalese seem as hopeless as Ivorians in giving directions), I feel I’ve distilled some initial impressions. I’ve definitely seen the more upper class areas of the city so my reflections are slightly skewed.
Abidjan and Dakar are sometimes talked of as West Africa’s great rival francophone cities. The economic stats look similar – Senegal is about half the size of Ivory Coast in terms of population, as is Dakar v Abidjan, but per capita income appears similar. According to locals here, the Ivorian crisis lead to a huge expansion of expats moving to Dakar transforming an otherwise small capital city. Historically, the stereotype was that Dakar was a place of culture, and Abidjan a place for commerce.
Dakar has several advantages that I can see over Abidjan. In part, the city is helped by being a far older trading post, whereas Abidjan was a tiny fishing village a century ago.
– The quality of residential property seems of a far higher quality.
– You sense a higher level of security (as befits a place that has been so stable in its young history). There aren’t guards at every door and many of the homes are surrounded by simple low walls.
– Dakar makes the most of the sea (and has far more coastline). Abidjan does a particularly bad job of profiting from its coastal position, though the Gulf of Guinea coastline is less interesting than around here.
– There are pavements/sidewalks!
– There seem to be a good number of upmarket shops and restaurants. Abidjan has these too, but they aren’t situated in an overall context that’s attractive (cf Zone 4 or Rue des Jardins).
– There are lots of people who seem to be outside enjoying themselves. In Abidjan you get the sense that being outdoors or on the street is just for the poor.
– The weather at this time of year is refreshingly cool.
– You see a more international population here in the streets.
– Along the Corniche there were lots of joggers and others strolling and out on the beach. Ivorians are not really ones to be seen exercising outside.
What can Abidjan do to improve? A long period of peace and security will help. The return of international institutions will be positive too. The AfDB is back, the ILO is returning, and some others will come too; private companies more so, as they tend to more flexible than international institutions, especially to high costs of living in places like Dakar.
For me, there also needs to be more effort put into urban design (developing pleasant urban settings that are enjoyable places to go to). The Cocody Bay redevelopment may help contribute to this, but it’s tricky getting the right solution – the lagoon can’t be smelly, the boulevard can’t be noisy and polluted, it needs to be easy to access and even walk to. Cocody itself needs more specific zones to go do for leisure activities. And is there a way to put more life into Plateau? Quite a lot of people still live there, but it’s still dead outside office hours.
Finally, although Abidjan doesn’t have so much history to go on, more could be done to increase the cultural offerings. Bassam has clear potential to play the same role as Goree Island, but I haven’t seen signs of the required investment and vision yet.