In 1997, my uncle told me about a twinkle city, which is described as le petit paris, the most dynamic and beautiful city in sub-Saharan Africa. My arrival in Abidjan is an experience impossible to forget. Coming from a city where the only light I saw was via kerosene lanterns and cooking stoves, but here I was, arriving Ivory Coast at night – the streetlights, the tall buildings in plateau, and the diplomatic residence at Cocody, blew my mind.
I was only 16. But I met a 26-year-old man who was notorious in the eyes of the society, a radical university student leader, a fighter for justice and a defender of equal rights. Who knew that a short coincidence would bring me closer to one of the most powerful men in Ivory Coast, my friend and big brother, Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, former Prime Minister and presently the President of the Senate in Ivory Coast.
It’s 10:45am in Abidjan as I arrived the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport. Straight from the plane, I received the highest level of VIP treatment – from the tarmac to the presidential suite at Africa’s oldest and prestigious Hotel Iviore, now SOFITEL. The protocol officer in his very french accent said ‘’Bienvenue a cote d ivories Monsieur Suji, the President of the National Assembly will receive you in this afternoon. Your luggage would meet you at your hotel. Here is a local mobile phone for you to communicate with your family and business, Abidjan and its people welcome you to our City’
After a little rest, Mr. Cesc, one of Soro’s confidants drove me around the city. I was so moved by the beautiful landscape and the infrastructural development. I was struck by their speed and level of achievements. From Liberia to Sudan and from Libya to Libreville, war had been fought; countries and destinies destroyed. But for the first time, I saw the dividends of war, and how implementations of visions are guaranteed by the right mindset, the WILL to do things and the dedication to achieve greatness. In less than 10 years, a country that had gone through one of the most painful civil wars in modern times had evolved into a beauty, howbeit fragile; 6 new bridges have been built, 8 new shopping malls with top international brands, and a dynamic and functional 6 lane road system. For a second, it didn’t feel like being in Africa.
While the world sleeps, destiny plans the next move to take. Twenty years later, I was summoned to spend the 46th birthday weekend with Africa’s most dynamic leader, young at heart, strong in the mind, and a political maverick who understands the motomatic philosophy of leadership. Success knows no race or colour. It only celebrates excellence and hard work.
Even though the malls are beautiful and the roads are wider, the potential of real estate like Nigeria remains the same; lots of beautiful but dilapidated buildings all around prime locations. I do not understand if it’s an African curse. Why do we have so much under-utilised potentialities? I had a chat with an amazing young Ivorien-Parisien Investment Banker, Bernard Ayitee, who analysed it in simple terms, “Suji, the Ivorien problem is not the lack of financing, it is lack of vision, and deficiency of projects. We in Ivory Coast are not like Nigerians. We need people with bankable projects. This is our major problem: VISION, not the provision of finance. So Suji, when do you want to come and put a Lorenzo in Abidjan?”
I love Abidjan, the vibrancy of the people, and the vision of its leaders. As I always say, the fundamental problem of Africa is not the capacity to develop its nation, but the vision of leadership and the WILL to execute. But this cannot be said about the land of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Cote d’Ivoire is the only country where you cannot say negative things about their Leaders in public without being battled or outed. President Alassane Ouattara with the strong support of Guillaume Soro’s objectives has been very clear – to put the interest of the people first and to bring innovative ideas which would maximise economic efficiency and the success of their nation.
The driver and security protocol picked me and drove me to a prestigious residential area, calm and serene. I was received with a lot of enthusiasm from the young team of dedicated people who surround Soro. They served me the local delicious Bissap juice, and I enjoyed the view of the waiting room where I saw pictures of great leaders like Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Henri Konan Bédié, Alassane Ouattara, and so many beautiful and historical frames which takes one in, into the person Guillaume Soro has become – a disciplined visionary who sets his standards through the achievements of great leaders – a man of the people, and the savior of Ivorian democracy.
Despite the fact he was in a long high profile security meeting, Soro insisted on seeing me immediately. His calmness, humility and humour separate him from his peers.“ – My friend, welcome home. Please meet Asalfo of Magic System music group – my child hood friend, meet Mr. Kone, one of our important ministers, Muktar from Mauritania and other friends and family.” A part of me was perplexed and the other, impressed. I never could have imagined that in almost 20 years, a simple student who grew up in Abidjan’s poorest neighborhood could now eat at the leadership table of his nation. Food was surplus. Guillaume never stopped laughing at me and telling jokes “Suji I hear you are the youngest and richest man in Nigeria, so before you go, you need to give me my share”. The leader joked about himself and everyone else. He never stopped discussing his experiences as a student, his first time in Paris where he didn’t have the money to take the train so he had to walk to the campus, his relationship with francophone Africa’s most celebrated musician, Asalfo Salif Traoré, head of Magic System.
While taking in the beauty of human companionship and long-term friendships, I blurted out the words. “What motivates you, and why are you in politics?” He went calm, fixed his shirt and sat properly. The room adjusted to his demeanour – grave. He looked at me and said, “INJUSTICE, the unjust system of education and my experience during school. The systemic denial of my scholarship was what pushed me to the wall to stand for my right and eventually the right of others. The injustice of medication and unaffordable healthcare system; the discriminatory banking and financial sector that only supports the 1% of our society; the injustice of education; the provision and lack of creation of a level field playing ground where businesses strive and young entrepreneurs can achieve whatever they want, not because their aunty is rich or their uncle is a minister but because they have an inept capacity to be the best.
This injustice is what wakes me up and keeps me awake. Even when I was offered billions and a sweet position in government, I couldn’t accept because it was contrary to my principles and I would be selling the destiny of my people, I REFUSED IT.’’ I was moved. I had never heard someone describe his purpose in such a passionate manner, with history and experience to back it up. He continued. “No one wanted me here. But with the collaboration of common interest, I was able to achieve this and a lot more work needs to be done. So Suji, don’t let me start. I can see Asalfo is hungry and he would finish the acheke, so let’s grab the mutton (goat)’’.
GKS as he is usually called didn’t stop there. As we had dinner, he talked about Nigeria, ‘The America of Africa’. He spoke of his love for General Buhari and wished him good health, his respect for Asiwaju Tinubu and how he thinks he is a great political strategist. I didn’t expect him to know so much about Nigeria, its politics and country. But then, this was GSK. He had been to Kano, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Niger, Lagos, and Ota. He spoke lengthily of his love for his brother nation Nigeria, professing his great admiration and keen observation of Nigeria’s Houses of Assembly and its leaders; their never-give-up characteristics and leadership, and his mentor and political godfather, OBJ. Soro expressed his love for a man who has for most of his life dedicated himself to the service of Africa. He said Obansanjo reminded him of Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast. He envied the likes of Dangote and the Bull, Mike Adenuga, He hopes that one day, the Nigerian and Ivorian societies would have a strong enterprising relationship that would help Ivory Coast create the Adenugas and the Dangotes of Africa.
I had not tasted acheke in the last ten years. But the acheke, fish, lamb and plantain I had just reminded me of those days in Paris at Tanty Alice restaurant in 92 district of Paris. It was 1am and Soro had to continue his meetings. So, we left him and entered the streets of Abidjan. In Ivory Coast, the youth represent about 75% of the population. So, I wanted to see the youth and feel their pulse about their country and leaders.
We went to Lifestar, a beautiful upscale nightclub boasting lovely beauties; some of the most beautiful shapes I’ve seen, I must admit. Think of the perfect Coca – Cola shape and then spice it with the flavour that a mixed-race society such as Ivory Coast can add to the African beauty. Voila! Nigerian music is very much loved in Ivory Coast. Artiste Davido’s IF was repeated three times back to back and shouts of 30 billion for the account o filled the air. No doubt, no one parties like Ivoriens. The drinks were in abundance. So was the speed with which the Ivoriens gulped them. I was astonished when a lady approached me, ”Hey you look like the Nigerian musician Dr. Sid, come to my table and drink champagne”. I had fun, but I wanted to experience something else. I wanted to spend time with the lower middle-class. I was curious to know what an average Ivorien felt about Soro.
Cesc Mark, one of Soro’s confidants took me to a local Beer Parlor and as I got in, the live band called the names of ex-President Gbagbo, the present President Allasane, but when they mentioned GKS, there was an uproar. The room turned to a Gatsby celebration. Never in my life had I seen so much people rejoice over the mere existence of another person. For me, it was a sign that Soro had across the years proven to the average Ivorien that his ultimate dedication was to the wellbeing of his people, and that he was a man to be trusted. I left the Beer Parlour excited and elevated, and thinking to myself, “if only we could have such a leader in Nigeria, who is young at heart, efficient in his doings, genuine in his character, an African Lee Kuan Yew who believes so much in meritocracy, then our society would compete not only regionally, but internationally.”