« To the well-born souls, value does not wait for the number of years », Businessman, magnanimous, meticulous, humanist with a high sense of investment espoused the Central African Republic as his second homeland. CEO of the NIEL Group and Chairman of the Board of Directors of TELECEL Centrafrique. Your Journal in search of information perfection will get in touch with this high open personality who will graciously respond to our various concerns.
We wanted to know more, so much your personality intrigues, and sometimes disturbs.
Too many things are said about you without being checked. We wished to collect from the principal interested his own version, which we can face the test of facts.
LF: Good morning. I am sensitive to your approach and I understand your questions. I am, through my activities, brought to the front of the scene. We also know that businessmen often arouse many fantasies, especially when they operate in Africa. It is therefore logical to answer questions from the press. I accepted this interview because you assured me of your will to overcome the clichés and the lies that I sometimes see circulating on the internet or in some blogs. Are these bloggers guided by unscrupulous individuals? Sometimes I get the impression.
We will come back to this later. We interviewed many personalities who know you or have crossed your path. All are unanimous: you are a great connoisseur of Africa and your love and interest in this continent are not new. We have learned that you have been very close to many people on the continent, such as the former Senegalese president, Abdou Diouf, or the current president of Angola, Eduardo Dos Santos. But we also talk about your family’s ties with that of the former French president, François Mitterrand, or your close contacts with other people from different backgrounds in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. All this brings us to a question: Who are you?
LF: (smile) I will allow myself to answer you by telling you what I am not. Africa has been passionate about me for over 35 years. For me, it is first of all a continent of natural and human beauties. I have found in Africa a number of values which our Western civilization has forgotten for ages. All that I have done in Africa, I have always done with men and women who loved their countries, and made me also loved them.
This link has been woven through experiences, successes and failures, but together, with these partners become friends and close friends.
So much so that today there are few African countries that are inaccessible to me. I have actually come across the personalities you mention. For some of them, they have the honor to trust me. But I have never abused this situation. I take care of my affairs in the hope that they have proposed, and bring to the countries where we are established economic activity beneficial to all. I do not have a hidden agenda. My societies are not pharmacies destined to serve any particular interest or clan. I aspire to be judged on my investments, on their results, and on what they bring to the community.
We understand that you are trying to differentiate yourself from this « Françafrique » so much decried today for its evil and its interference on the continent. Yet we also talk about your links with the former French interior minister, Claude Gueant, himself marked by this legacy that you criticize.
LF: I do not have much to say about this inheritance because, frankly, this expression, the « Françafrique », invented by the late President Houphouët-Boigny, who saw in it the quality and the unfailing connection between France and its Former colonies, does not belong to me and I have never been either the pedlar or the promoter. That said, La Françafrique is not a sin. It is also an economic reality. There are, between France and Africa, privileged business ties. The question is whether, in this context, we can be a serious entrepreneur, a good partner of governments, and a driver of economic growth. If so, then I accept this label. Francafrica needs to be rid of politics and rumors that go with it.
Mr. Guéant is a politician and a lover of Africa. I know little about him, but what I know about this man, many people should be inspired by it, it probably would grow.
LF: For many years, the investments of my partner Nicolas Bourg and myself have been trying to meet the opportunities. We have moved from natural energies to services, from telecoms to sport financing, a prism that is very varied and without synergy at first glance. We are present today in Congo Brazzaville, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon, Sudan, South Africa and the Central African Republic. This year we plan to settle in Burundi and Sierra Leone. And in 2018, in Uganda and Rwanda.
This is a lot of activity in many countries.
How do you manage this growth? This appetite is not out of dimension for you?
LF: In each of these countries, our activities are often under development. I would also like to remind you that we share this heavy task with our local partners who are real operators, miners when talking about mines, telecom people when talking about telecoms, and so on. Africa is an invitation to those who take the time to understand and love it. You find competences in all sectors, financing through the development of transcontinental banks, administrative authorities increasingly concerned and competent.
We have partners and collaborators from more than 15 countries. But we lack European skills, it’s a shame, because all this is such a beautiful life to share! (Smiles)
LF: You take me by the feelings … (laughs)
My preamble is that we are and will remain strangers, although we do; We are invited to your home. This implies mutual respect, but on our side, we also have a moral duty to adapt. I have chosen to invest and carry out important commercial operations in the Central African Republic because I believe in your country. I believe because, despite the dramas you have just lived, Central African society remains dynamic, open, resolved to get out. There is a will to move forward that honors you. It does not prevent abuses and problems. They are numerous. But as partners, the Central Africans have never hitherto disappointed me.
A moral duty?
LF: Let me explain. When I come to the Central African Republic, a few days before the overthrow of President Bozizé by the Seleka rebellion in March 2013, there is no mention of any investment in a country where the situation is at zero. Nevertheless, I discover an incredible country and a population of extraordinary humanity despite extremely precarious life circumstances. I came back regularly to maintain a connection with this country that has become dear to my heart until a legitimate government takes over.
The transitional government led by Prime Minister Kamoun under the authority of President Samba Panza was for us investors, exemplary of efficiency and devotion to the best interests of the country.
I would also like to highlight here the extraordinary work of the chancelleries during this period which I experienced from the inside. The French Embassy was particularly effective, which only history, read with a little more distance, will know how to grant. We were far from this « Françafrique », so many of us were able to admire the devotion to his mission of the former ambassador in office, His Excellency Charles Malinas.
It is fair to say that the acts of these personalities were often hailed. But how does this relate to any moral duty?
I want to go back to your question, but I did not get so far away.
The question that arises for us as of 2014, is where to invest in a country, that all flee apart from a few satraps and other mercenaries? A lesson from my experience is that we must stay away from the sectors of activity causing trouble and conflict, regardless of the financial interest. In the Central African Republic, the sectors targeted are mines, with diamonds in the main, and oil, which for me has little future in your country.
It was and will always be out of the question to be interested in these activities at home.
In my view, the sectors of the future for the Central African Republic were, are and will be, agriculture and services. Agriculture because you were an agricultural country and you will become it again!
Who supplied the tobacco leaf to Cuba for the manufacture of his famous cigars? The Central African Republic. On the other hand, the geographical situation of your country, offers air links of less than 1h1 / 2 to more than 10 capitals from Bangui! Bangui, city Hub air? Yes ! With hotel infrastructure and services of any kind! In support of an agricultural production processed on the spot and exported by the airways developed by this new Hub situation? I do not invent it, it results from an analysis of common sense, developed especially by Mrs Koyara, former Minister of Agriculture and first agricultural engineer graduate of Central Africa!
LF: Good. In summary, I will never invest in activities that generate human devastation and armed conflict. It is fashionable to accuse businessmen of not having morals, or of being ready to do anything to win the contracts. It can happen to us to fight, indeed, to obtain the best commercial performance possible. It’s normal. Our teams are proud of that. But to believe that an activity like ours can be reliable and sustainable without worrying about the moral and political environment of the country is an illusion. We do not live in a vacuum. We do not invest above-ground. The development of the Central African Republic is a condition for a lasting economic success for the entrepreneurs we are.
So that’s why your first investment in the Central African Republic was the takeover of the Telecel mobile phone network?
LF: We did not take over a company, we took over an « institution »
Everyone knows Telecel. It has become a generic term for « mobile phone »
We worked for 2 years and are still working to put this flagship of the Central African industry back on track. That will be done this year. And the coming years will project this « already No. 1 Telecom » in a development cycle far ahead of competition, Orange and Moov in the first place.
Our duty as investors will stop there.
But our moral duty goes far beyond that.
We have managed this « institution » taking into account the current context. In particular, we have refused any dismissal. In addition, for three years we have financed all the works and actions intended for the population and the return to peace.
We recognize that the list of your social actions is long, and they are often generously covered by our colleagues.
LF: The formation of the mobile gendarmes, the funding of the hospitals, the Bangui orphanage, the Mother and Child House, the 3 Churches with another extraordinary man from your country, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga …
And your « dada », the funding of the national federation of Central African boxing …
LF: I love and practice boxing for over thirty years. Everywhere I am, I box in my own, as figuratively. (Smiles)
More seriously, I strongly defend sport as a social ferment, as a factor of cohesion. So many values to share in these moments of pain … We funded a boxing tournament at KM5 about 18 months ago, in the middle of a crisis; I was able to appreciate the symbolic dimension of this event organized by President Roger Loutomo Junior and the office of the National Boxing Federation. Evidence that sport brings together and unites.
We come to the end of this interview. You have not mentioned your relations with the current political authorities, and especially your ties with the President of the Republic, His Excellency Faustin-Archange Touadéra … A word to say?
LF: Indeed … But do not we keep the best for the end?
I am not a citizen of your country and I am free from my statements. I must confess that President Touadera is a character who will obviously mark your country. The personalities of this quality in Africa today are counted on the fingers of a hand. I say this all the more freely because I am only one economic operator among others and I do not claim any privileged connection with the President of the Republic. I say just that exceptional situation, exceptional man, and in my opinion, you have it today.
Your last word?
I told you earlier that I am not a citizen of the Central African Republic. It is just and at the same time, I do not feel foreign to your country. The way we have traveled together, alongside the Central Africans, in the most difficult moments, will not dissipate like that. A high-ranking Central African personality, to whom I said recently that I will soon be going to Bangui, replied: « Welcome to you! », And that, believe me, is worth more than any other consideration that comes from a powerful Or a humble one.
Interview by Yann Williamson KOGALAMA
And Landry Ulrich NGUEMA NGOKPELE from LQB