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POLITICS: Blair Bids Farewell to Africa

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 2 2007 (IPS) - Opinions appear divided about outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s legacy concerning Africa – this as the leader ended his last official visit to the continent Friday. The five-day trip took him to Libya, Sierra Leone and South Africa.

Blair is popular in Sierra Leone for his decision in 2000 to send 800 British troops to stabilise the West African country, then under threat from Revolutionary United Front rebels.

“When I visited five years ago, Sierra Leone was a failed state, emerging from horrific conflict which saw 60,000 killed; 10,000 child soldiers; a quarter million women and girls raped; others brutally maimed, hands cut off – a war fuelled by the fight for diamonds and other commodities. We all felt despair at the wickedness that a small group of people could inflict on their compatriots,” Blair said in a speech delivered at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in the capital, Pretoria, Thursday.

“Visiting again, I was again struck by the beauty of Sierra Leone and also its enormous potential of human, mineral and agricultural resources, among the richest in Africa.”

But, certain analysts have questioned the extent of Britain’s role in helping to end Sierra Leone’s conflict.

“I think whether Blair was there or not, Sierra Leone was moving towards resolution. The West African bloc ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) was already working on Sierra Leone and Liberia,” Korwa Adar, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Africa Institute of South Africa, a think tank, told IPS.

“Blair’s legacy is in tatters in Africa. He will be remembered as someone who has done worse than any British leader in history – this in terms of making the world, including Africa, unsafe by assisting Bush in the war on terror,” he added, in reference to U.S. President George Bush.

Richard Kamidza of the African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes, a non-governmental organisation based in the coastal city of Durban, sees the situation differently.

“If we insist on Blair’s role in Iraq, we’ll miss the purpose of his Africa trip,” he told IPS.

“Blair has come to say goodbye to his friends in Africa…(He) is also trying to get leaders around resolving the Zimbabwe and Sudan crises,” said Kamidza.

Political and economic difficulties have plagued Zimbabwe over recent years.

At a news conference held in Pretoria, Friday, Blair endorsed the widely criticised policy of “quiet diplomacy” that South African President Thabo Mbeki is pursuing towards Zimbabwe. Opponents of the strategy claim it has had little effect on the Harare government, held responsible widespread human rights abuses in the Southern African country, and for impoverishing its people.

“The solution ultimately will come from this part of Africa. We’ll have to support the process Mbeki has put in motion,” Blair said.

He also tackled the issue of Zimbabwe in his UNISA address: “The world is waiting, wanting to re-engage with a reforming Zimbabwe government…Change before the 2008 elections (is) essential. The international community must be prepared to help build the shattered economy.”

“In Zimbabwe, decades of repression have forced up to one third of the country to flee. Life expectancy has dropped from 60 in 1990 to 37. And South Africa’s economy loses three percent of GDP (gross domestic product) thanks to Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown.”

Zimbabwe, a former colony of Britain, gained independence in 1980. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has accused Blair and other Western leaders of responsibility for the problems in his country, saying they wish to topple its government.

The western Sudanese region of Darfur, for its part, is embroiled in civil war that broke out in 2003 – and in a vast humanitarian crisis involving tens of thousands of displaced people and refugees. Britain has been campaigning with the United States to increase the number of African Union (AU) peacekeepers deployed there from 7,000 to about 20,000.

“No conflict demonstrates the need for action more than Darfur: 200,000 dead; four million dependent on food aid; 2.1 million displaced persons within Sudan – but also over 230,000 refugees (who) have fled into Chad, joining 140,000 internally displaced Chadians, and almost 50,000 refugees from CAR (Central African Republic) fleeing the fighting in their own country,” Blair said during the UNISA speech.

“It is wrong that President Bashir, intent on bombing his way to a solution, is determined to obstruct any effort made to reinforce the AU’s ability to improve security and stability,” he noted, in reference to Sudan’s leader, Omar al Bashir. “We must offer President Bashir a choice. Engage with us on a solution. Or, if you reject responsibility for the people of Darfur, then we will table and put to a vote sanctions against the regime.”

Adar believes that Blair’s trip was motivated more by commercial considerations than humanitarian intent. The premier was paving the way for British multinationals to enter Libya’s lucrative oil sector, acquire mineral rights in Sierra Leone, and clinch business opportunities in South Africa, he claimed.

“Libya kicked out all those multinationals five years after Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969. Blair now wants British multinationals to revisit Libya’s oil industry,” he noted.

While in Libya, Blair did announce a 900-million-dollar contract that will return British Petroleum (BP), Britain’s largest oil firm, to Libya.

Blair will step down Jun. 27, and be replaced by Gordon Brown – Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer.

When the outgoing leader and his wife, Cherie, met former South African president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg this week, the latter described Blair as “a good friend of South Africa”.

On a more humorous note, the 88-year-old also welcomed Blair – 54, and described by Mandela as “a young man” – to “the retired club of former presidents”.

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