Gives new meaning to getting a house "on time"

ABIDJAN Mon Oct 8, 2007 11:05am EDT

Legal adviser Narcisse Aka holds his trophy at ''Punctuality Night'' in Abidjan October 6, 2007. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Legal adviser Narcisse Aka holds his trophy at ''Punctuality Night'' in Abidjan October 6, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Poor punctuality is such a brake on Ivory Coast's economic development that the West African country has come up with a novel way to combat tardiness: win a house if you demonstrate you can turn up on time.

Backed by President Laurent Gbagbo and devised by a local public relations firm, "Punctuality Night" kicked off at eight o'clock sharp Saturday night, rewarding business people and civil servants for exceptional timekeeping.

Pitched with the slogan "'African time' is killing Africa, let's fight it," its organizers hope to heighten awareness of how missed appointments, meetings or even late buses cut productivity in a region where languid tardiness is the norm.

Legal adviser Narcisse Aka, winner of what the organizers hope will be an annual event, is so unusually good at being punctual that his colleagues call him "Mr White Man's Time."

"You have the impression of being an extra-terrestrial because you are with people who consider that being late is quite normal," said Aka, who clinched the top of the nine prizes awarded, a $60,000 villa.

"It's hard to quantify but it's sure that (tardiness) costs money ... We shouldn't use our under-development as a pretext to accept not being punctual," he told Reuters after the ceremony.

Organizers made unannounced spot checks at the workplaces of 30 shortlisted nominees in the run-up to the event to check their punctuality credentials and will soon offer a Web page on which people can name and shame tardy public servants.

"Being on time here is rare. The problem is it's such a habit, we're used to it," said Abou Zounglas, waiting for customers at his roadside watch repair stall in Abidjan.

More than a decade after he left office, people still talk with awe of how former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara would make early morning checks in civil servants' offices to catch late comers, making him both friends and foes.

But if anyone truly is conscious of the idea that time is money, it is surely Abidjan's impatient, horn-honking taxi drivers trying to cram as many trips as possible into a shift.

"We're in a hurry to drop one customer off and pick up another to make money," said Adama Sangare at the wheel of one of the city's thousands of orange cabs, ushering his next customer to get in quickly.

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