Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Blair makes farewell trip to Africa

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tony Blair makes a farewell trip to Africa this week, after using his decade in power to try to rally the world's richest countries to help ease the plight of the world's poorest.

The governments of Sierra Leone and South Africa have announced Blair will visit this week on one of his last overseas trips before he resigns on June 27 and hands over power to Chancellor Gordon Brown.

In Sierra Leone he is expected to be praised for sending British troops to the country in 2000 to help shore up the United Nations peacekeeping operation there and hasten the end of a civil war marked by atrocities against civilians.

The South African government said Blair would hold talks with President Thabo Mbeki and deliver a major policy speech on Africa during a visit on Thursday and Friday.

The visit is significant because it takes place on the eve of the Group of Eight Summit scheduled for Germany during which Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to press rich nations to fulfil aid pledges to Africa under a 2005 Blair initiative.

The British-hosted G8 summit in July of that year produced Blair's most vaunted achievements on Africa. Under Britain's presidency, the leading industrialised countries promised to double aid to Africa by 2010 and wipe out more than $40 billion (20.2 billion pounds) of poor nations' debt.

"By setting up the Africa Commission and using his presidency of the European Union and G8 in 2005 as leverage, Tony Blair helped to create an unprecedented global focus on Africa and poverty," Barbara Stocking, director of aid agency Oxfam, said in a statement this month.


Blair famously declared in October 2001: "The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But if the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it."

He raised Britain's spending on international aid and in 2004 set up an international commission to propose solutions to Africa's problems such as poverty, a falling share of world trade and a high death toll from conflict, famine and disease.

He also tried to reach out to African nations with a history of strained relations with the West.

In 2004, Blair became the first British leader in 60 years to visit Libya, sealing Tripoli's return to the international fold after it abandoned efforts to acquire banned weapons and agreed to pay damages for a 1988 airliner bombing over Scotland.

But critics questioned the focus and his success record.

Ishbel Matheson, of Minority Rights Group International, which works for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, said Blair had focused too much on "Western charity, rather than tackling corruption and supporting African democracy."

"From Zimbabwe to Eritrea, from Sudan to Somalia, the West's disingenuous approach to Africa's governance issues is bearing a bitter fruit," she wrote in The Times newspaper on Monday.

Aid organisations say some G8 nations are lagging far behind on their commitments.

Blair tried to use Britain's diplomatic muscle in Africa, pushing for tough action against Sudan over the Darfur crisis and urging African leaders to pressure Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.

Despite the pressure, the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Darfur has not eased and Zimbabwe's economic freefall has worsened with inflation now at more than 3,7000 percent.

British newspapers say he may make another attempt to press Mbeki on Zimbabwe this week. His efforts so far have earned him the wrath of Mugabe who said in April he had beaten off an attempt by Blair to "get Zimbabwe to collapse".

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