Ambassador’s Speech on Independence Day

Distinguished guests in your respective ranks, functions- gender, age, confessions, hometowns, political leaning and aspirations-

My fellow Americans,

Ramadan Kareem,

On this Fourth of July marking the 240th anniversary of my country’s birth, please allow me for a moment to reflect on what we, the American people, believe in and the values that we share with the citizens of Burkina Faso.

Our country was founded by men who started with an idea, which was a government that would respond to its people. It was the idea that personal freedom and the freedom of religion and speech were sacred. It was also the idea that a government’s institutions would always be greater than any individual.

Many of our founding fathers were well-established leaders.  Others, like Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was just 26 years old. But together they shared a common vision of the birth of a new country.

We can draw a parallel with the current situation in Burkina Faso. Yes, you have been independent as a nation for more than 55 years. But between the false starts, the coups and counter-coups, the revolutions, the corrections, the stadiums filled top to bottom,  this land of the upright people has struggled to create the foundation of a real democracy. The success of your recent elections makes me believe that there has been a “Tekre,” or a change or, simply an attitude that “things will never be the same again.”

In the United States we penned a constitution “by and for the people.” Here in Burkina Faso you drafted a Charter of the Transition “by and for the people.”

Building our nation? That took decades. It took election after election, every four years, for the last 228 years. We haven’t missed one yet.

The United States commends Burkina Faso for what it has accomplished since 2014. We also want to congratulate the leaders of political parties for their democratic comportment after the 2015 elections. Now is the time to look toward the future and turn toward this country’s youth.

In a country where more than 70 per cent of the population is less than 30 years old, youth has to be part of the answer to confronting today’s challenges. Modernizing the government, creating jobs, building a human capital all require a new way of thinking.

I have heard some people mentioned it when referring to “Yam Pukri” or “awareness” or “Now we can see! /our eyes are now opened.” Reaching development goals requires that each and every country to relies on its most valuable resource—its youth.

Young people have triggered the most transformative changes in the history of my own country:

The women’s suffrage movement in 1948 was led by Ms. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 33-year-old mother.

The civil rights movement in the sixties was led by men and women in their early 30s like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was 34 when he delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream.”

President Obama was elected by the millennial generation.

And as succeeding generations have gone into politics, they have injected vitality into our government’s institutions. We have tried to take that into account in tonight’s decorations.

These young people have dared to imagine the world not as it was, but as it should be. At the same time, the energy and motivation of young people had to be channeled into policy that was motivated by a sense of citizenship. We need a win/win partnership between youthful idealism and the political experience or wisdom that comes with age.

This has been a recurrent theme throughout our history. Our political leaders have been at their best when they embraced that power comes from the bottom-up or from the grassroots. A government must not only invest in its youth, but it should listen to it as well. As “Mbah” Michel  (readers note: reference to former President Michel Kafando) put it so well in 2015, “with youth, yes, everything is possible; without youth, look out.”

Look out for youth like our guest speaker, Gildas from Ouaga Lab:

Tonight, we have all listened to this young Burkinabe entrepreneur talk about his hopes for Burkina Faso and the challenges in valuing the country’s human capital. Together we celebrate his ingenuity. Gildas shows what we can do when patriotism and innovation meet.

One of the most visible aspects of our cooperation, and of which we are very proud, is the presence and awesome work of the 135 Peace Corps volunteers in the country. These are largely young people, who came to Burkina Faso to spend two years working in local communities.

But our cooperation does not stop there. In security, for example, we work closely with Burkina Faso’s defense forces to make this country a pillar of peace in a tough neighborhood.

Next year I will not be here to deliver the Fourth of July speech. Yes, you got it right! There is no ‘lenga’(gift) for me either.

But I can tell you one thing: The United States Embassy will still stand by your side with a new Ambassador, a few new staff members, but the job will remain the same because the institution will remain. We will continue to move forward in our partnership with the people of Burkina Faso.

Looking back over my last  three years in the country of the upright people, I thought it would be good to take a moment and share with you the lessons learned in 240 years of democracy, and what it might mean for Burkina Faso, which is at a turning point in its history.

First of all, institutions matter. Countries will always need strong men and women, but they will need strong institutions more.

Second, strengthening institutions is not just limited to the government. It means creating a strong private sector and strong political parties and private companies as well. Political parties should be more than a vessel for a single person’s ambition.  Strong political parties outlast their founders. These are institutions shaped by the ideals of everyday activists and voters.

Third, never forget the importance of reconciliation. When a country goes through difficult times, the trend is to look backward rather than look ahead. The grievances of the past need to be acknowledged, sentences should be meted out based on a fair and independent judiciary, but reconciliation among all should be the end goal.

When I visited all 13 regions in the countries during the last three years, I have been impressed so many times by the youth.

Young people are yearning for a world that they can shape. They have an entrepreneurial spirit ready to be tapped. They have a commitment to this country and the legacy of those who came before them. Youth is indeed Burkina Faso’s most valuable renewable resource, and the country should continue to invest in it because its return on investment will benefit the whole nation.

For the young people here tonight, I know you are here:

Don’t wait for someone else to do what you can do yourself.

As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

If you want to see your country become the best version of itself, think about how you can invest in your community.

If you see a school which does not serve its students, ask yourself how you can volunteer to tutor students there.

If you see a community with no access to water or sanitation, think about how you can bring together the community to address it.

If you see other young people who lack the basic skills to get a job, think about how you can help them.

A country’s strength lies in the cohesion of its people. I could borrow a Mooré proverb which says “nug bi yend ka wukd zom ye” or in English “you cannot use one finger to collect flour.” The message seems simple, but it is profound.

Any government comes from and represents the people. An election’s significant doesn’t come from what one can be gained from leading the country but what can be added to it.

One thing is certain: presidents, ministers, leaders and even ambassadors, come and go, but the people remain. It is a country’s strong institutions, generation after generation, that ensure the next chapter is better than what came before.

May God Bless the United States of America!

May God Bless Burkina Faso!

Long live the cooperation between the people of Burkina Faso and the American people!