Tidjane Thiam: ‘African countries must engage in dialogue and define some rules of the game.’

By Julien Clémençot
Posted on Tuesday, 7 December 2021 19:09

Tidjane Thiam, 2 December 2021 in the RFI studios. © FRANÇOIS GRIVELET FOR JA

At 60 years old, and freed from the constraints that big bosses from listed companies usually have, Ivorian-French investor Tidjane Thiam finally feels like he can speak freely.

Crédit Suisse’s former managing director divides his time between heading his investment fund, Freedom, which raised $345m in March, and a number of other commitments, notably aimed at helping the continent.

In 2020, at the request of South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, the African Union (AU) appointed him as a special envoy so that he could help develop a Covid response with other experts.

Thiam, a former minister who may be running for president in 2025, is a guest on the latest episode of our economic programme that we co-host with Radio-France Internationale (RFI).

About a week after the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) was held in Dakar, he reminds us how Beijing’s partnership with the continent is crucial to ensuring its development and the stability of its democratic institutions, at a time when several coups d’état have taken place recently. This economic message is also quite political.

The latest Covid-19 variant, Omicron, has been detected in West Africa. Are you worried?

Tidjane Thiam: Yes, I am. From the beginning, Covid has been a human tragedy for the whole world, but particularly for Africa, because it came at a time when the continent was doing well.

Africa had been experiencing a 10-year period of steady progress and was beginning to emerge, with a rapidly growing GDP, when the pandemic hit. In the first quarter of 2020, Covid broke this momentum, amid a context where our states have relatively few resources. We have all witnessed developed countries flouting financial orthodoxy and developing unprecedented deficits to deal with the crisis. Unfortunately, Africa has not been able to put these same instruments in place.

But the African Union’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says that we shouldn’t panic…

Absolutely. That’s how I try to go about my life in general, because panicking never helps, no matter what challenges we are facing. Researchers know very little about this variant. The most important thing is to understand. It is believed to be more transmissible, perhaps less lethal. How does it react to vaccines?

This issue of vaccination has bothered me from the start. We have seen its positive impact in developed countries. It is a double tragedy that Africa’s vaccination campaign has been slow, as it costs lives and allows variants to emerge. Omicron will not be the last, and Omicron is a threat to the whole world.

Are you optimistic about vaccine production on the continent?

Yes, there is a real desire to develop local production capacity, because this is the only way to provide a vaccine response in Africa. It is delusional to think that other countries will be generous when it comes to vaccines.

Political systems are not built that way. No population will forgive its head of state if the country experiences high death tolls because he/she agreed to give vaccines to another country.

China’s President Xi Jinping promised a billion doses at the Africa-China summit…

Yes, China is in a position to do so because it has vaccinated its population. That’s a very good thing. But the only way to control one’s destiny is to be able to manufacture vaccines. South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda are involved in discussions. It’s a complex issue, because vaccine production is a sophisticated process. From what I hear, it will be possible within 12 to 18 months.

Following the announcement that the variant was discovered in South Africa, many countries suspended flights to southern Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa denounced this as a double punishment for his country. Could we have done otherwise?

We must commend the South Africans for having identified the variant and made it known. They are not naïve, they knew that this could have negative consequences for themselves.

We need to reflect, because there will be other situations like this. African and developed countries must engage in dialogue and define some rules of the game. It’s not fair that South Africa is being punished for doing the right thing.

How long will Africa have to wait before it can benefit from the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), which will give it the means to boost its economies?

I asked the same question during a meeting on 29 November. There are several components. The IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Fund (PRGF) is ready to reallocate SDRs. We are talking about $33bn. There are plans to get more, but $33bn will certainly make a difference to Africa.

All the states have decided to tackle the pandemic by cooperating rather than competing with one another. What do you think of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) project, which can only be implemented if African countries agree to work together?

I personally feel that anything that encourages countries to cooperate is positive. I love history. World War II convinced Europeans of the importance of the Franco-German alliance, which led to the European Coal and Steel Community and then to the European Union (EU).

It will be great if Africa can manage to unite without having suffered from a trauma of this magnitude. Let’s not be harsh on it.

As Focac has just ended, have African leaders and peoples’ relationship towards China changed, now that they realise that it won’t solve all their problems? 

This is a complex issue. I first went to China in 1984. I have dedicated a large portion of my career towards studying their economy. At about $15tn, their GDP is comparable to that of the EU and half of the US. That puts things in perspective. However way you look at it, China is an absolutely key player in the global economy.

The idea that Africans have an anti-democratic gene is insulting and unacceptable. However, violence must be eradicated.

It has been thinking about its strategy for a very long time and has targeted Africa. Trade has grown from almost zero in 2000 to around $200bn today. Beijing is now the continent’s largest trading partner. So the question of whether to deal with China has been answered. Now we have to answer the how.

Everyone is learning. The Western powers themselves have learned a lot. It is easy to point the finger at China. It is in the process of acquiring knowledge. Nobody comes in knowing everything. I have noticed that they are flexible. Under a G20-led debt standstill scheme, Beijing managed to strike deals with several low-income nations. The Chad dossier is underway, and the Ethiopia and Angola ones will be next.

China is willing to help develop Africa because it is thinking about the long-term benefits of such a collaboration. The way they do things gives me confidence. It is a rational approach. Many were surprised that the Chinese were willing to restructure debt. Until now, they hadn’t wanted to. I believe in competition. Having choices when it comes to how projects are funded is good for African development.

Many of the continent’s observers feel that a country’s level of debt is a clear indicator of how healthy its economy is. When it exceeds a certain level – 60, 70, 80% of GDP – it means that the country is sick. Do you agree with this analysis?

We are too focused on the issue of debt and not enough on growth. Debt is neither good nor bad. It all depends on what you do with it. Debt is bad for consumption, but it’s good for investment.

There is a lot to say. But first, there is the issue of mobilising internal resources. Technology makes it possible to do things today that were unthinkable yesterday. Mexico now collects its taxes digitally, which has enabled the Ministry of Finance to reduce tax evasion by 60%. This is a way to increase government revenues without increasing taxes. Benin is in the process of implementing this system, while both Morocco and South Africa are considering it.

The second issue is to use demography in a positive way. This is what the UK is doing by using pension funds to mobilise capital and invest for the long term.

At the end of 1999, General Gueï’s coup d’état forced you to leave Côte d’Ivoire. This has left scars. How do you feel about the coups in Mali, Guinea and Sudan? What is the impact of these episodes, which each time seem to take Africa backwards?

I am hesitant. We can certainly talk about this. I am firmly opposed to violence. Was the regime I belonged to in 1999 perfect? No. I said to our Western partners, who recognised the regime behind the coup, that “if we used force every time there was a head of government in a developed country who didn’t fit in or wasn’t competent enough, there would be chronic instability everywhere.”

I am very attached to Côte d’Ivoire. I am in daily contact with people from all walks of life, from all regions. Throughout my career, I have always done everything I can to help my native country.

The strength of democracy is tested whenever the leader of a regime is not perfect. How do we stay within the rule of law and replace them with an alternative using democratic means?

I don’t think that coups d’état are a good thing. Unfortunately, they are caused by extreme circumstances. In the long term, this leads to setbacks. One of the reasons why I withdrew from politics in Côte d’Ivoire is because I noticed that many of the incoming actors feel that violence is a legitimate means of political action.

Can democracy work in Africa?

The idea that Africans have an anti-democratic gene is insulting and unacceptable. However, violence must be eradicated. People used to say that Côte d’Ivoire was the home of dialogue. I believe that. I have never refused to talk to anyone. This requires strength. The easiest solution is to use violence and kill innocent people.

In 2025, there will be an important deadline in Côte d’Ivoire. Are you interested in running for president? After all, you have many supporters, whom you talk to on social media. 

I am very attached to Côte d’Ivoire. I am in daily contact with people from all walks of life, from all regions. Throughout my career, I have always done everything I can to help my native country. I will continue to do so. I deeply care about what affects Ivorians. The only time I spoke out last year was when I was worried that there might be a loss of life. I do not tolerate violence. It is morally wrong and does not work. That is my fight.

As for the rest, I do what I can within my sphere of competence, which is the economy, to make things happen. But, to answer your question, ask me again in 2025.

Do you think France has the right policy when it comes to Africa? 

In my answer, I will stick to principles. Africa has real intellectual and human capabilities. If you want to work with it, you have to listen to Africans and see how you can help them achieve the goals they have set for themselves. I would say the same thing to the US and China. Africans are just like everyone else. I don’t agree with theories about African specificity.

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