Initially when invited to speak at this auspicious event, my reaction was what have I done to deserve the honour? In what way have I distinguished myself to officiate at a gathering of some of the most formidable brains in our society? I concluded that the organizers had tired of the usual suspects, and opted for a new face. For their gesture, I am most humbled and promise to be on my best behavior and not ruffle any feathers.
And having established the ground rules let me introduce to you our dinner companion for tonight. The man on the screen is called Tidjane Thiam. I met him two weeks ago. Not in the physical sense, but through the online editions of the international press.
So why is this man being thrust into your collective consciousness tonight; a man you have never heard of? He is not a celebrity, nor a singer or even an international political icon. Well, Mr Thiam is a good African. He is an ethical African. Tidjane Thiam is an African achiever. He is the epitome of what all young Africans should aspire to be.
This man is from the Ivory Coast. At 44 years, he is the first indigenous African to head a FTSE 100 company. Effective 1st October he will be CEO of Prudential PLC based in London. We learn that our companion joined the company in March 2008 after working for Aviva Europe and Mckinsey and Co, respectively. In 1999 he received global recognition at the Davos World Economic Forum when he was named a member of the ‘dream Cabinet’ and invited to join the Commission for Africa. Educated partly in France he joined Mckinsey at the age of 24 as a consultant.
In his early thirties he decided to return to Africa and accept a job as head of the authority in charge of infrastructural development reporting directly to the president of the Ivory Coast. When he was offered a cabinet post he found himself in a bind, pondering whether to come on board because the authorities were rumoured to lock up political opponents. To quote Tidjane Thiam’s exact word’ basically for me in the third world you have two kinds of regimes. You have regimes that kill and you have regimes that don’t kill. And I was very proud to be Ivorian until 1999, because we were in a country where politics don’t kill’.
But ten days after Davos, the Ivory Coast entered the era of the politics of killing. The military seized power, jailed members of the ousted government, including Tidjane Thiam. However owing to his special skills he was released and offered the position of chief of staff in the junta. Always a committed democrat, our companion declined to be of service to the regime and left for France where he rebuilt his career in the corporate sector.
I am waxing lyrical about Tidjane Thiam because the choice he made is illustrative of how all of us have an innate capacity to become achievers without compromising our core beliefs and moral values.
I have chosen this hitherto unsung man as the theme for our evening because to me he represents hope for our continent. Tidjane Thiam is the compass by which young Africans should set their aspirations.
I was in the Czech Republic on the 5th April when President Barack Obama swept into town. In the streets of Prague where twenty years ago the people rose against the tyranny of communism in the Purple Revolution, I saw white people basking in the glow of the astonishing accomplishments of a black man. In the trams and subway in a city where black faces are few and far between, I saw the Obama effect reflected on me in the eyes of the people of Prague. I felt proud and fulfilled that a man who shares half of his heritage with my race had, on a wave of goodwill and excellence, risen to the position of the most powerful personality in the world.
As a mesmerized crowd of thirty thousand stood in front of Prague Castle listening in rapt attention to Obama , I pondered about Africa and its prospects for the future. I cast my mind back to a meeting I attended sometime ago where someone frankly, in fact brutally inquired about the condition of the African. Our interlocutor cited China and India as countries which in the past half century had each lifted half a billion people out of poverty, and wondered why, with Africa, so vastly endowed, the story instead was of misery and gloom.
Though proud of Obama and hoping that the people of Prague would mistake me for one of his newly discovered cousins , upon reflection I had to admit that it was the achievements and ethical posture of Tidjane Thiam which held more resonance with me.
Because for many young Africans, the life of Tidjane Thiam is more realizable than Obama’s. When our diner companion refused to assume a plum post with the military regime, his was an articulate statement of honour and conviction that we can say no to unconstitutional and illegal practices.
The reason our continent is not making progress, and remains the black sheep in the world of nations, is because all too often because our most educated and intelligent lack a moral fiber. They have compromised ethical conduct and principle in pursuit of personal advancement and accumulation. I say this pointedly because the accounting fraternity gathered here constitutes the cr├¿me de la cr├¿me of our country’s finest brains. The reason our continent is in trouble is because we have not groomed enough ethically inclined and civic minded young people. We do not have enough people to tip the scale in favour of the forces of good.
Indeed the challenge facing educated young people on this continent is to use their privilege for the betterment of their countries and for the upliftment of the life conditions of their fellow citizens. Our young people must reject the notion that the rest of the world operates according to a different set of rules to which Africans are not entitled.
I am one of those who have consistently rejected this notion. For me human rights, civil liberties, rule of law, democracy, accountability, equal opportunity and free enterprise are indivisible and non negotiable in any society; they are universal values to which everyone is entitled. Africans do not deserve any less.
My visit to Prague was to attend a meeting of the African Caribbean Pacific and European parliament. I happen to be our country’s representative to this forum which convenes legislators from diverse parts of the world to discuss matters of common interest and concern, with a bias towards developmental issues.
For all their faults, real and imagined, our European counterparts tend to show concern about the state of affairs in the less developed parts of the world. They have committed themselves to utilizing the taxes of their citizens, otherwise known as development aid to address the myriad socio economic challenges confronting us.
As we discussed the question of meaningful aid, we were also afforded the platform to give country briefings. In very frank terms, my compatriots and I outlined how the financial crises has affected our economies. I however could not, but wonder about the incongruity of such honesty with the siege mentality exhibited by the same compatriots when it came to issues of political accountability.
It need be noted that not only do we discuss matters of socio economic development at the ACP-EU, but also the politics of our countries. I was pained by the manifest lack of shame when many within our ranks argued against President Omar al Bashir of the Sudan appearing before the International Criminal Court to answer charges of war crimes. It did not escape my notice it was the educated and most talented who deployed intellectual but sterile grounds why a man who has no compunction killing his fellow citizens to preserve his stay in power, must not face justice and accountability.
In my take, the fact that we still have such leaders is because we have not groomed enough Tidjane Thiam’s without whose active support none of these regimes would survive a single day in office. I could not understand why a coup against a democratically elected government in Mauritania could be deemed by others as justifiable.
At the ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly some thought it was not such a bad idea. I am thirty eight years old, and I go out to nightclubs. Just how a night club deejay can seize power in Madagascar and stroll around in the fawning company of grown up men and women, who see absolutely nothing wrong with a coup, would be a source of great mirth were it not so tragic.
Right next door we witnessed a country that held so much promise, run down by a single individual. That in the space of a decade, a country could be so thoroughly destroyed would of course, not have been possible without the intellectual resources and talents of the professional class. They are complicit in the meltdown of Zimbabwe because educated and brainy as they are they choose to reject the ethics and principles espoused by Tidjane Thiam.
When in the same Zimbabwe and Kenya losers in a flawed electoral process cling onto power by imposing their will on the citizenry by concocting so called inclusive governments of national unity, it is the educated and the learned who play mastermind. They and not the citizenry are the final arbiter.
Surely it will be revealed that some among the educated and the talented were behind the assassination attempt yesterday on the democratically elected Prime Minister of Lesotho.
We fail in Africa because our most educated, gifted and talented reject the positive values of Tidjane Thiam. They fail our continent and its less privileged because they cannot live up to the litmus test of good citizenship.
This evening is meant to be celebratory. It is not a time for a gnashing of teeth. My message is that we live in a continent grappling with serious challenges of accountable leadership and good governance. Consequently we look up to the young, educated and gifted to provide hope and inspiration for Africa. If we opt for self interest and adopt an ostrich policy of see no evil, hear no evil this continent will forever sing songs of lamentation.
Like Tidjane Thiam, our young people must embrace excellence, ethics, principle, conviction, and the vigilance to choose between right and wrong. We must choose good citizenship. Only good citizenship can win the fight against poverty and underdevelopment. Yes, only good citizenship can lead us to prosperity and social justice.
That, good ladies and gentlemen is my humble vision and wish for my country and Africa. Let me tender my most profuse apologies for the incoherent rambling you have so politely sat through. My apologies accepted I wish you all a good evening. And I say good night to our dinner companion Tidjane Thiam, an exemplar of principle, ethics and good citizenship.
*Hon. Ntuane presented this speech at the 18th Annual Dinner Dance of the Botswana Institute of Accountants in Gaborone