Côte d’Ivoire: Is Tidjane Thiam ready for the political arena?

By Aïssatou Diallo
Posted on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 09:15

Tidjane Thiam, then head of Crédit Suisse, 28 April 2017 in Zurich ©MICHAEL BUHOLZER / AFP

Last August, the Franco-Ivorian banker's return to the country after more than two decades was widely followed. Some are now pushing him to run for president in 2025.

“How can we  in Côte d’Ivoire not be proud of Tidjane Thiam’s success? He is one of the biggest financiers on the planet and this skill must serve his country,” says Patrice Kanté Koffi, as if it were obvious.

In November 2021, the member of the Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) created “Rebirth of the Ram”, a movement supporting Thiam, which openly calls on the former Credit Suisse boss to run in the 2025 presidential election.

At a café in the Angré district of Abidjan in late October, Koffi pours himself a cup of tea before continuing: “Tidjane is capable of bringing together many people across party lines. Even if he hasn’t said anything yet, we, members of the PDCI, are working towards it.”

Koffi is quick to praise the man’s career, his rigour, and his achievements when he was Henri Konan Bédié’s minister in the mid-1990s… In recent years, several groups have sprung up to support him, such as Tous en action pour Tidjane Thiam (All in Action for Tidjane Thiam) and Les amis de Tidjane Thiam (Friends of Tidjane Thiam).

Son of the elite

Tall, athletic and a basketball fan, Thiam, who turned 60 on 29 July, can count on several assets to seduce young people in search of role models.

The son of Amadou Thiam, a journalist born in 1923 in Dakar, then the capital of French West Africa, and Mariétou Sow, a niece of former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Tidjane Thiam is a son of the Ivorian elite.

After independence, Thiam’s father, who was French, was naturalised by Houphouët and became information minister.

He and his wife had seven children and named the youngest Tidjane. Over the years, Houphouët held up his grand-nieces and nephews as examples of success. He took them on holidays to his hometown, Yamoussoukro, where he had made the capital, and where he had a house built for his niece. Happy memories for the Thiams.

But in the 1960s, the “false conspiracy” affair broke. Amadou Thiam was one of those targeted by authorities. His name was finally cleared, but he was sent to Morocco in 1966 to become Côte d’Ivoire’s ambassador.

Tidjane was only four years old at the time and grew up in a studious atmosphere, with the elder siblings supervising the younger children’s homework.

Abdel-Aziz, who was in charge of looking after Tidjane, remembers a “brilliant” and hard-working child.

12 years later, the family finally returned to Abidjan. Thiam entered the classical high school, where he confirmed his status as a very strong student: he won all the prizes for excellence before earning his baccalaureate degree in 1980.

He became the first Ivorian to be accepted at Polytechnique and reluctantly agreed to speak on television. The man who confesses to being shy would have been quite happy to skip the media coverage.

Throughout his studies, his path was that of the “best”. In 1986, he graduated at the top of his class and joined McKinsey, one of the most sought-after consulting firms in the world.

‘I didn’t leave Côte d’Ivoire of my own free will’

In 1994, Henri Konan Bédié appointed him to the Direction de contrôle des grands travaux (the directorate for major infrastructure projects) – DCGT, which became the National Bureau of Technical Studies and Development (1994-1999), in a complicated devaluation context.

Then, in 1998, he was asked to become planning minister (1998-1999). Thiam initially thought of refusing, but ceded after talking the matter over with his brothers. His condition: That he remains head of the DCGT.

Thiam surrounded himself with a multidisciplinary team of young people and launched major projects that still structure the Ivorian economy today: the so-called “12 labours of the elephant”, including Abidjan airport, the extension of the economic capital’s port, the Azito power station, etc.

“He managed to detect the potential of the country’s economy, and he was able to make a lot of progress. He was able to detect his collaborators’ potential and use it.

“He also knew how to give them the confidence to express themselves,” recalls Marcel Ezoua, one of his advisors at the time.

The adventure ended in 1999, a few months after the coup d’état that overthrew Henri Konan Bédié. Thiam then decided to leave the country. He would not return for 22 years.

“I did not leave Côte d’Ivoire of my own free will,” he told us last June. “On 24 December 1999, when Henri Konan Bédié was overthrown, I was a minister. At the time, I said that I was totally opposed to this putsch.

“One cannot take up arms every time a president does not suit him or her, otherwise the country will only go backwards. It was not easy to say this, because part of the population was happy about [General Gueï’s] coup d’état, but that’s how it is: I am resolutely against all regime reversals, without exception”.

This departure marked the beginning of Thiam’s many years in the private sector. First, he returned to McKinsey in France, then to Aviva, and finally to Prudential, which he headed for six years.

In taking over the insurer, he became the first Black boss of a FTSE 100 company, and thus a source of pride for his country.

In 2015, he took a further step forward by taking the helm of Credit Suisse, which he left in 2020, forced out due to a case of insider trading.

He is a respected boss with recognised expertise and does not hold back from making a public stand, regularly denouncing the glass ceiling and the racism to which Black people are subjected even at the highest levels.

These days he chairs the board of Rwanda Finance Limited, a Rwandan government agency. In 2020 he was also appointed as an African Union special envoy to mobilise resources to help the continent re-boost its economy after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unifier

What does Thiam plan to do next? For the time being, he has refused to comment on the presidential ambitions being attributed to him.

“There are a thousand ways to contribute to society,” he replied when we interviewed him last June. This was shortly before his visit to Côte d’Ivoire, which was slightly postponed and finally took place in early August.

For the first time since 1999, Thiam set foot on the soil of Yamoussoukro, his family’s terrain which his brother, Augustin, runs as governor.

Traditional Baoulé chiefs welcomed him to the residence of his great-uncle, former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It was also there, before the family vault, that he bowed to the grave of his mother, Mariétou Sow.

He also met with his former classmates from Abidjan Classical High School, including Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Adama Diawara.

Thiam is working on his image as a “unifier” and claims to be willing to speak with every one of the country’s political camps.

“I have always had the same convictions,” he says. During his stay, he met with Alassane Ouattara at his residence in La Riviera. His ties with the president have strengthened in recent months, but Thiam also saw the two former heads of state turned Outtara opponents, Laurent Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bédié.

No hard feelings

Thiam has always had a good relationship with Laurent Gbagbo, which began when he was a member of the government. “When I was minister, I organised a day of dialogue with the Front populaire ivoirien [FPI, then led by Gbagbo] and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation [foundation of German social democrats]. Gbagbo and his teams were very appreciative,” he says.

But it is Henri Konan Bédié, whom he calls “my father”, to whom Thiam naturally feels closest.

One cannot take up arms every time a president does not suit him or her, otherwise the country will only go backwards. It was not easy to say this, because part of the population was happy about [General Gueï’s] coup d’état, but that’s how it is ….

When Bédié was president, there were rumours that he wanted to make the young Thiam his prime minister. Even today, they speak regularly.

“I have never left the PDCI-RDA [party]. On each side of my family, you’ll find the PDCI. President Houphouët’s history is well known but less known is that of my maternal grandfather, who was one of the signatories of the founding act of the PDCI at the Southern Cross. We are a PDCI family and we will remain PDCI,” he said in Daoukro.

This is a way of silencing the rumours that arose after the slight postponement of his return to Côte d’Ivoire. It was justified by security problems due to the presence of Henri Konan Bédié not far from the residence to be occupied by Thiam, which had raised questions about a possible falling out between the two men.

Presidential?

Bédié’s support is a prerequisite to fulfil any PDCI-related ambition. If Thiam can count on some support, including that of his brother and former minister Abdel-Aziz, he may also face rivals.

Some party cadres, who have been chomping at the bit for many years, would not look kindly on a too-sweet promotion for the Franco-Ivorian banker.

Some are quick to point out that the nomination of Thiam as party vice-president, presented as a given, has still not been acted upon.

The fault lies in an internal problem, some sources say, while the party is cleaning up its political bureau. But Bédié does not seem eager to speed things up…

Thiam is not made up of assets alone, either. Although no one disputes his stature as a serious and efficient leader, his years spent abroad have made him a man far from the playing field and from the daily reality of many Ivorians.

He has never taken part in a campaign, never been elected.

Today, Tidjane Thiam has fans on social networks, but that doesn’t add up to votes.

“He is often compared to Ouattara because of his international career. But the two men and their two trajectories have nothing in common. One year after its creation, in 1994, the Rassemblement des républicains won important cities in the 1995 municipal elections. Ouattara already had very important supporters on the political scene at the time.

“Mayors, deputies, were with him. Today, Tidjane Thiam has fans on social networks, but that doesn’t add up to votes,” says a heavyweight in the Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (party gathering Houphouët supporters for democracy and peace) – RHDP.

Securing party loyalty, travelling around the country, developing local networks… If he wants to be a providential man, Tidjane Thiam will still have to carve out a place for himself on the Ivorian political chess board.

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