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Trust is the Currency of diplomacy

Founder and Chairman of the Brazzaville Foundation Jean-Yves Ollivier discusses his experiences of informal diplomacy and his involvement in peace efforts in Africa over the past 40 years

I am French but born in Algeria – a ‘pied-noir.’ When I was 13, General de Gaulle came to Algiers and famously announced: “Je vous ai compris” (“I have understood you.”) My family and all the French people believed we had de Gaulle’s promise that our future was secure, but four years later in 1962 we were forced to leave when Algeria gained independence. This experience taught me that trust was valuable, hard earned and – once lost – rarely recoverable. Sadly, today, as then, it is often the failure to build and retain trust that is the cause of so many seemingly intractable problems.

Over many years I worked hard to build a reputation for always honouring my word – that if I promised to do something, I would do everything in my power to fulfil that obligation. To begin with, this was the principle that underpinned my business career as a commodity trader, notably in Africa. But later this reputation opened different doors.

I had left Africa an angry teenager, but when I returned there to pursue my business interests, I discovered an extraordinary continent – breath-taking nature and wildlife, fascinating cultures and courageous people – but too often mired in conflict and disarray. The enormous potential of this continent was there for everyone to see, yet the problems it faced often seemed insurmountable.

When I first went to South Africa in 1981 the atmosphere of resentment and fear generated by apartheid reminded me of Algeria in the 1960s. I was convinced that the country faced a similar fate with a descent into racial violence and conflict.

But then I realised that a catastrophe was not inevitable, that a peaceful end to apartheid was not impossible, and that it was my duty as a human being to act. I saw an opportunity to establish a dialogue even between parties who viewed each other as bitter enemies. I was not a professional diplomat or politician but I felt that this could be an advantage. I was an outsider. I had no hidden agenda. I represented only myself and was answerable only to those with whom I dealt. My role was unofficial and always deniable.

My approach has always been to seek to create trust. Starting a dialogue is not about negotiating solutions. Instead, it is about forming relationships and establishing confidence so that the parties have a reason to believe that negotiations might ultimately lead to a settlement. Amidst the conflicts that beset southern Africa, I saw a possibility to build confidence by organising a prisoner swap. After many months of shuttling between the parties, in September 1987 I was finally able to arrange – on the tarmac of Maputo airport – the freeing of 133 Angolan soldiers and 50 SWAPO independence fighters from Namibia in exchange for the release of a South African soldier who had been captured two years earlier in Angola.

A few months later, with my credibility enhanced, I was able to persuade the South African government to reunite the representatives of the key regional actors who had taken part in this prisoner exchange at a hunting camp in the Kalahari Desert. My aim: to allow them to meet in secret and without an agenda in order to give them the chance to get to know each other and begin to establish a degree of trust.

The relationships established there helped prepare the ground for the negotiations which culminated in the Brazzaville Accord in December 1988.  This agreement led to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, secured the independence of Namibia and helped pave the way for an end to the apartheid. It is like a circle of dominoes: you push one and next one falls. But mutual antagonism and suspicion mean that the initial step is often the hardest and trust is vital.

In the years that followed I have continued to be involved in efforts to build dialogue and find peaceful solutions to some of the continent’s many problems. Two years ago I helped to set up the Brazzaville Foundation.  This is named in honour of the Brazzaville Accord and is inspired by remarks made by President of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou N’Guesso, when, at a ceremony to mark its 25th anniversary, he called for “the spirit of the Brazzaville Accord” to be kept alive in responding to today’s conflicts and disputes.

The goal of the Brazzaville Foundation is to work for peace by developing cross border economic and environmental projects that bring countries and peoples together in peaceful cooperation and by establishing dialogue between parties to a conflict through informal or parallel diplomacy. It has the twin aims of peace and conservation because conflicts threaten the environment and are themselves increasingly the result of environmental pressures.

The Foundation brings together some extraordinary people on its Advisory Board – the breadth and depth of their experience opens doors. I am honoured that amongst our advisors we number Kabiné Komara, a highly respected figure in West Africa, Dr Mathews Phosa, who represented Nelson Mandela in his mediation efforts, Dr Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Pär Stenback, a leading figure in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, and Sundeep Waslekar, Chairman of India’s Strategic Foresight Group. We have the knowledge, experience and contacts to make a true difference.

Inevitably we are often obliged to be discreet about our work to build dialogue and prevent or resolve conflict, but this is a key part of the Foundation’s raison d’être. At the same time, we are pursuing economic and environmental initiatives which we believe can contribute to peace and stability by promoting regional cooperation and allowing states to find common ground even if in other, political, arenas they may be at loggerheads

One current initiative is focused on the Congo Basin whose tropical forests, which form a carbon sink second only to the Amazon Basin, have been rapidly disappearing. The time has come for a response that matches the scale of the challenge. The Congo Basin is at the heart of the Africa’s ecological challenge and, at the same time, constitutes its most pressing developmental task. Some innovative donors, like the Norwegian government, have understood that these two issues are really one. We need cooperation to halt deforestation. But we also need cooperation to ensure that local populations have the means to secure a better and more prosperous future.

The Brazzaville Foundation is working on an initiative designed to bring together the countries of the Congo Basin and international donors to create a new sustainable development fund.  Our ambition here is huge, yet already we are making progress – initiating discussions, bringing people together and showing all involved that they have more in common than they realised.







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