/ 16 May 2019

The Bell Pottinger-linked ‘charity’ advised by ANC bigwigs

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe.
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe. (Gallo)

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe and former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa are on the advisory board of the Brazzaville Foundation, which has been accused of laundering the reputation of one of Africa’s most corrupt presidents.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe and former ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa are on the advisory board of a charity that stands accused of laundering the reputation of one of Africa’s most authoritarian and kleptocratic countries. The charity is closely linked to Tim Bell, the founder of PR firm Bell Pottinger; and Jean-Yves Ollivier, a controversial ‘middleman’ who has brokered multiple natural resource contracts in central Africa.

The Brazzaville Foundation has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

When asked for comment on Wednesday evening, Phosa — now a partner in Paramount Group — declined to address questions directly, but said: “Really be careful about what you are saying, I think you know who you are dealing with here.”

The Brazzaville Foundation, founded in 2014, was ostensibly established to build peace and tackle conservation challenges in Africa. But in an investigation published this week, the UK-based investigative journalism outfit Finance Uncovered outlines the charity’s questionable links to the government of the Republic of Congo, and its president Denis Sassou-Nguessou, who leads one of the most corrupt administrations in Africa.

As Finance Uncovered’s Lionel Faull reports: “But some Congolese experts and opposition activists exiled in Europe have viewed the charity with suspicion, believing some of its activities to be reputation-laundering vehicles for their country’s authoritarian president, Denis Sassou-Nguessou. Indeed, an early version of the charity’s website – since removed – described him as its ‘inspiration’.”

The Brazzaville Foundation was set up by Jean-Yves Ollivier, a French commodities trader and friend of Sassou-Nguessou. It was set up shortly after Ollivier’s company received a $60 million windfall from an oil deal he brokered with Sassou-Nguessou, according to Finance Uncovered. Some of that money was later used as seed funding for the charity.

Ollivier was advised in setting up the charity by the now-defunct and disgraced PR firm Bell Pottinger. Until last year, Lord Tim Bell, the firm’s founding partner, was a trustee for the charity.

South African readers will be very familiar with the firm, given its role in pushing a hate-filled propaganda campaign on behalf of the Gupta family — a campaign which would ultimately lead to the firm’s collapse. But in 2014 Bell Pottinger was still going strong, and Lord Bell’s proximity to Sassou-Nguessou appeared to be good for business. According to Finance Uncovered, Bell Pottinger provided polling and messaging advice to the Congolese president ahead of a 2015 Constitutional referendum which allowed him to extend his time in power. The conduct of the referendum was widely criticised by opposition groups and international human rights advocates at the time.

The Brazzaville Foundation has strongly denied any accusations of wrongdoing, telling Finance Uncovered that any suggestion it is “a tool to promote President Sassou-Nguesso’s interests is factually wrong and completely unfounded”.

In addition to Phosa and Motlanthe, who both declined to respond directly to questions from the Mail & Guardian, the charity’s advisory board includes several of Africa’s ‘elder statesmen’, such as former Nigerian President Olusegun Obsasanjo and former Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.

Phosa joined the advisory board in 2015, while Motlanthe was appointed in March last year. According to the Brazzaville Foundation’s website, the international advisory board is “made up highly distinguished individuals assists its work [sic]”. It is unclear to what extent the board is involved in the operations of the charity, or are aware of the alleged links with Sassou-Nguessou and Bell Pottinger.