Speaking Out


Ambassador Mohamed Lessir: Acting on information



A former ambassador to London, Ambassador Mohamed Lessir was the first newly-arrived envoy to present his credentials to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer a full five years ago. His country, Tunisia, straddles Africa and the Middle East, yet lies only 140 kilometres across the Mediterranean from Europe. Famous for its oranges, olive oil and dates, it is today heavily engaged in the digital revolution and the future of Africa



1. Bilateral relations


Turkey and Tunisia have always had good relations. Aside from the long Ottoman presence in Tunisia, there are certain moments in our common history which cannot be forgotten. Almost 2,200 years ago, the great strategist and warrior, Hannibal of Carthage, finally poisoned himself in Gebze, near Istanbul. We are grateful to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for ordering a modest mausoleum to be built for him. A second link was forged between Turkey and Tunisia when Tunisia sent 12,000 soldiers to fight against the Russians in the Crimean War. Some of the survivors later settled in Kastamonu. When I visited Kastamonu, I met many people who said they were of Tunisian origin.


Thirdly, there is the great nineteenth century reformer Hayreddin Pasha, who imported many reforms from the West to Tunisia, and later continued his reforms as sadrazam in Istanbul. Turkey and Tunisia have continued to see eye-to-eye on social reforms. You can see in both countries how adamant we have been in women’s liberation. It is the magic of the alphabet that we also sit by side in the list of nations.


Politically relations are excellent. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali visited Turkey in March 2001, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer reciprocated in May 2003, and in March 2005 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdođan visited Tunisia. Foreign Minister Abdelbaki Hermassi was here in February. In April we had a very, very successful film festival, which I inaugurated together with Minister of State Kürţad Tüzmen. What we need now is the cement of economic relations and trade. The signing of a Free Trade Agreement in November 2004 marks a milestone in our economic relations. Now the ball is in the court of the businessmen.


We have a deficit in our trade with Turkey. On the other hand, there are about fifteen projects, joint ventures and direct investments by Turkish companies in Tunisia. There is room for more. With the aid of generous incentives, Tunisia obtains close to US$1bn per year in foreign investment - a high figure for a country of ten million people. There are 62 industrial zones, two free zones – and 2,532 foreign companies. Tunisia provides the stability which investors need. It’s an excellent base from which to enter Africa.


Given our common heritage we should be exchanging more tourists. There are already ten flights a week between the two countries. About 50,000 Tunisians visit Turkey each year. Most go to Istanbul on shopping trips. Many of them are traders who spend money and then pay Tunis Air and Turkish Airlines for excess baggage. But in return only 12-13,000 Turks visit Tunisia.


The textiles industry is very important for both countries. Tunisia, for example, is the leading exporter of trousers to France. Chinese products are very competitive. We are having contacts about this, but the answer won’t be to bring back quotas. So we envisage some co-operation schemes to lower costs and make us more competitive.


2. Africa’s agenda


People tend to see Africa as a disease- and conflict-ridden continent with no prospects for peace and security. At the moment there are troubles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast and Sudan. We are hoping that the African Union will do better in the future in terms of establishing stability. But other continents have gone through much strife and revolution as well. In time, I think, given a bit of stability, if African countries can put their act together, they can enjoy good prospects. There are numerous African countries which are stable and which you don’t hear about because they are making progress. And of course Africa is well endowed with natural resources to exploit.


Africans believe in elections and transparent government. This is not dictated by foreign powers. There is a scheme within the Union for monitoring human rights, good governance and fair elections. There is also an African Commission on Human Rights. And there are innumerable African NGOs dealing with development, education, the treatment of children and women and many other issues. Hope can spring afresh, and a new day can dawn.


The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is an initiative of the Union to provide an integrated socio-economic development framework for Africa. It is also seeking to determine how the G-8 and other countries could help the Continent to emerge through more democracy, more transparency, the elimination of corruption and the promotion of health and education. Why not consider a Marshall Plan for Africa, since Africa is so important for the big powers, so that Africa does not get marginalised again?


The eight African countries represented in Ankara – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Tunisia - have formed a small group to speak in the name of Africa. I am the dean of the African ambassadors because I have been here the longest. We were very much encouraged when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdođan’s government declared 2005 the “Year of Afrýca”. Turkey has not shown a great interest in Africa in the past, but Mr Erdođan has travelled to Ethiopia and South Africa and recently visited Tunisia and Morocco. A visit to Kenya and a couple of other visits are in the pipeline.


In May we organised a series of Africa Day events in order to increase our visibility. We think Turkey and Africa can do a lot of things together. Turkey has very powerful companies in the field of infrastructure. We would like to form partnerships and take advantage of that know-how. The technical cooperation agency TICA, heavily present in Central Asia, is moving into Africa too. Tunisia has a similar agency. I think there is work for everyone. We could work together to carry out education, health and women’s programmes and to build bridges, roads and schools.


3. Information summit


Phase Two of the World Summit on the Information Society is to be held in Tunis on November 16-18, 2005. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is very interested in technology. At the International Telecommunication Union summit in Minneapolis in 1998, the President proposed a summit on the information society. The first phase took place in December 2003 in Geneva. Intensive preparations are now under way for the second phase.


The developing countries want to bridge the digital divide from the beginning. You do not have to have had an agricultural revolution or an industrial revolution to do well in this field. It doesn’t take a lot of investment. It’s a question of education and science. Tunisia exports a lot of produits de l’intelligence. So do countries like Bangladesh, not to speak of India.


The Third World has been marginalised before, and in many countries there is disease, violence and conflict, which poses a threat to World stability. A repetition is not in the interests of the developed countries. Spreading the information society can make the world a more peaceful place. I am not being romantic – merely logical. We must not give arguments to those who would like to blow up the world and all civilisation for the sake of an idea in the back of their heads.


In 1993, Tunisia set up a National Solidarity Fund (NSF). It attracts large donations on December 7 every year, and has reduced poverty to just 4%. There are now similar funds in many African countries. Some years ago, we suggested a World Solidarity Fund, and the UN has passed a resolution on the subject. At Geneva, we proposed a “Digital Solidarity Fund” This has now been established and will be discussed further at November’s summit.


Another important topic is the governance of the Internet. People are aware that you can’t really control the Internet. Nevertheless, it is being used by criminal organisations and pornography rings. This is recognised as a problem in the developed countries as well as the Third World and the Islamic world. Some rules – for want of a better word –need to be laid down. But agreement will have to be reached not just with governments but also with civil society, which is very concerned about the freedom of the Internet.


I must emphasise that the summit is not intended only for heads of state, government officials and international organisations. NGOs, the media and the business community will also have a major presence. Parallel activities include a major exhibition, workshops and a partnership area. We hope that the summit will act as a magnet to attract big names to Tunisia and to Africa. We would like to see a high level of business participation as well as a sizeable contribution from the developed world to do something to bridge the gap. I think it’s going to be a very big event.




(DIPLOMAT  -  June 2005  -  Ankara)