THE NEWS SEEN BY – Still wearing his famous red socks, the Ivorian Stanislas Zézé has patiently imposed himself over the past fifteen years in the closed club of African financial ratings. Twenty states and a hundred companies now use the services of his agency, Bloomfield Investment Corporation, to assess their ability to repay in their own currency. Attentive to African realities and the expectations of the continent’s decision-makers, the entrepreneur nevertheless defends his independence and the rigor of his work.
Great guest of the economy RFI/Young Africa on October 8, Stanislas Zézé delivers his analysis on the recent coup d’état in Burkina Faso, the action of ECOWAS, the perception of France in Africa or even the necessary and long-awaited democratization of political debates on the continent.
Capcov: Burkina Faso has a new soldier at its head. Captain Ibrahim Traoré forced the putschist of the month of January, Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, to resign on October 2. What do these repeated coups in West Africa inspire in you? Aren’t they pulling Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso back?
Stanislas Zeze: Obviously, a coup d’etat is reprehensible. This is no way to transfer power. However, this demonstrates that there is a crisis of political model. It is perhaps time for African leaders to rethink it because, obviously, it no longer works. I am talking about the organization of political governance. Do we need a concentration of powers, a separation of powers, a balance of powers? In the majority of African countries, what on paper appears to be a democratic system is in reality a model where all powers are concentrated. And that creates a lot of frustration.
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Do you see a country in Africa that has managed to distance itself from this trend?
A country like Botswana works very well. I think that generally the English-speaking countries have perhaps better understood this idea of balancing powers. Generally, in Africa, you have very strong presidents and rather fragile institutions. Strong institutions would balance the powers. A strong judicial system, a very strong legislative system and a strong executive also naturally balance each other, regardless of the President of the Republic in office.
the sanctions taken against Mali have not absolutely failed to improve the situation
You work in Mali and Burkina Faso. In what state of mind are the entrepreneurs you meet in these countries?
In African countries, businesses have started to distance themselves from the political sphere. So in reality, coups have very little impact on the private sector. Except of course if there is a situation of rupture which, for security reasons, imposes the cessation of activities. Coups do not necessarily disrupt business or endanger foreign investment, unlike ECOWAS sanctions.
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Do you really find that the sanctions taken by ECOWAS are more harmful for the economy than the coups d’etat themselves?
ECOWAS does not take the time to understand why these coups take place. You have to find the cause of the problem. A sanction is good on paper. But the sanctions imposed on Mali have absolutely not made it possible to improve the situation. This did not prevent other coups. They penalize the people instead of penalizing the perpetrators of the putschs who themselves get 24 or 36 months to carry out the transition.
Over the past three months, Mali has returned to the regional financial market on several occasions, achieving its fundraising objectives. Did that surprise you?
I think today the market has evolved in its perception of risk. Investors will not necessarily focus on the past, but assess the country’s ability to meet its financial obligations. They put themselves in a prospective logic. What is the state’s intrinsic capacity to meet its debt?
All restrictions must be lifted to make Zlecaf a reality.
Regarding Mali, isn’t there real uncertainty about the country’s ability to take advantage of its new alliance with Russia?
It is not this new partner that will repay Mali’s debt. We are in a political game in which people change partners every day. These are the prerogatives of the authorities. What must be assessed is the country’s ability to meet its obligations. And what we see is that as soon as the ECOWAS sanctions were lifted, Mali repaid its installments.
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What do you think of the extremely strong anti-French sentiment that has developed in recent years in Africa, particularly in the countries of the Sahel? Has Paris lost the battle of public opinion?
Honestly, I don’t think there is an anti-French sentiment. Africans don’t hate the French. It is a resentment towards French policy in Africa as it continues to be conducted, unfortunately. France has not understood the historical and cultural advantage it has vis-à-vis the continent. People change. Environments change. Today, young people are uninhibited, their posture is no longer the same as that of their parents and grandparents with regard to France. But the attitude of French politicians has not changed and this causes gnashing of teeth.
When you borrow, you repay, it’s a question of responsibility
In the context of the war in Ukraine, will African countries have to choose sides between Westerners and Russians?
Today, Africans should not be put in this position. They are big boys and big girls, independent. Today, Africa should instead take advantage of this international change and ask itself the fundamental question of its ability to be self-sufficient, so that no one will have to ask it to choose. The question that African leaders should ask themselves is not whether to align themselves to the left or to the right, but what strategy to put in place to be independent.
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By initiating the African Economic Free Trade Area (Zlecaf) project, have the leaders taken the right direction?
This is an excellent initiative, but a number of prerequisites must be met to make Zlecaf a success. Capital markets are still fragmented. There are still many barriers: visas, currencies that are not convertible with each other… All these restrictions must be lifted to make this common market a reality.
A few weeks ago, China announced debt cancellations for a number of African countries. Is this a good thing?
I don’t think that’s necessarily something to wish for. When you borrow, you repay, it’s a question of responsibility. I would not like to infantilize Africans. I am not a supporter of debt cancellation. I think this is creating a very bad reputation for the countries concerned. If China decides to cancel a debt without consideration, why not. But it should not be at the initiative of African countries. If you show that you are not able to meet your obligations, the next time the money will cost much more. Credibility is the fundamental element.
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You have just submitted a report on the country risk of the DRC, which you rate 5.1 out of 10. Why did Kinshasa want to engage in this exercise?
I believe that the Congolese have understood that it is important to show their credentials. What was happening before was that countries were showcasing their potential. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an opportunity. This type of exercise allows investors to have visibility on the credibility of the country, but also on its strengths and weaknesses. Investors aren’t necessarily looking for positive answers, they want the right information and that’s what we try to provide.
Tidjane Thiam is a brilliant character and a very nice person
Bloomfield performs valuations in local currency. Does being closer to local realities systematically result in giving a better rating than those given by international agencies such as Fitch Ratings, S&P or Moody’s? We have the feeling that you are a bit of a good news agency for African countries…
When you note in foreign currency, you assess the ability to repay in dollars. Emphasis is then placed on currency reserves and their transfer policy. Thus, for countries with a cash economy, which collect foreign currencies by selling raw materials and use these same currencies to import finished products, the level of foreign currency reserves is low. This condemns them to have bad grades, regardless of the performance of their economy.
Just because you’re dollar poor doesn’t mean you’re poor. We do not lower the standards of evaluation. The approach is different. It is primarily aimed at African investors, but also international investors who want to know if the borrower is credible, before even talking about his ability to repay in dollars.
Does Africa need a pan-African agency, as Macky Sall wishes, to gain sovereignty?
All the agencies are pan-African when they rate several countries. Now, it is a question of creating a framework which would allow them to have a capacity to cover the whole continent. But there is no need to create a public agency. Europe has tried – and understood – that it is not possible to have an independent public agency.
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In Côte d’Ivoire, the public authorities – through the National Investment Bank and other entities – have announced the acquisition of Bicici, the BNP subsidiary. Is it a good investment for the state?
If this acquisition is made with a view to better financing Ivorian companies so that they control the domestic economy, yes, it is a good thing. Local companies need financing and, unfortunately, they do not necessarily fit into the scheme of foreign banks. If it’s just to make a profit, I would say that’s not the role of the state.
Former minister, banker, now investor, Tidjane Thiam returned to Côte d’Ivoire a few months ago… And he does not hide his political ambitions. What inspires you? Is this a good profile to lead Côte d’Ivoire?
I have a lot of respect for Tidjane Thiam. He is a brilliant character and a very nice person. Beyond technicality, people need a revival in African countries, a new dynamism. I believe that African youth do not always want to see the same people. For a long time, there has been a single thought logic. There needs to be more competition, it needs to be much more open. Even in the parties, there is no debate, no discussion.
Next month, COP27 will be held in Egypt to reflect on new measures to limit climate change and its effects. Do you include these parameters in your work?
We take all these parameters into consideration. We also understand that African countries are in a rather special situation: they are being asked not to really develop so that others can continue to pollute! Today, everyone is aware that it is absolutely necessary to make a climate change effort, but we cannot ignore the fact that African countries need fossil fuels to industrialise. But States must also think carefully before signing agreements by which they renounce the use of fossil fuels and which, subsequently, them engage.