Paul Vallely: Smooth? Yes, but Tidjane is also a passionate fighter

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For Tidjane Thiam, the subject of peace and security was not just a brief he had been handed as a member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. It was a passion which grew out of personal experience, because in 1999 he was ousted as Minister of Planning and Development of the Ivory Coast in a coup which confined him briefly to an African jail.

That taught him, he said, that there could be no development without peace. "The right to live is the most basic of all human rights," he said, yet "in too many parts of the continent, this right is still very much theoretical." If the commission did not acknowledge that, he warned, it would seem "detached from many Africans' day-to-day realities" and be dismissed as "experts talking to experts".

Anyone encountering this tall, quietly-spoken man – always clad in an elegant dark suit – could be forgiven for thinking him a cosmopolitan European. He was that, for he had fled Africa with his family at the age of four and had been schooled in France's most elite academic establishments. But beneath his urbane exterior and his powerful intellect lay a passion which made him one of the most independent-minded commissioners.

When No 10 wanted to shift the emphasis of the commission's recommendations on security into the more conventional territory of reactive peacekeeping, he insisted that it should focus primarily on preventive work. When other commissioners called for increases in aid, he insisted they must be accompanied by equally strong arguments on how to improve its use.

He demanded the spotlight be turned on bad governments in Africa, insisting that most Africans now realise that the primary responsibility for their lack of development lies within their countries, rather than with the trade policies of rich countries.

There was a personal toughness about him. When he was told in France that he would be given a top job were it not for the fact that he was black, he responded by walking out of the company. But he has a tenderness too, as was evident from the charm with which he handled US Senator Nancy Baker, who was George Bush's representative on the commission. He could never be a politician, he once said, because he wanted to "keep some faith in human nature".

Paul Vallely was a co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa