Friday, June 01, 2007

Sierra Leone makes Blair 'Chief of Peace'

Under the boughs of a baobab tree, Tony Blair sat on a wooden throne as five men bowed at his feet and made him a Paramount Chief of Sierra Leone yesterday.

Tony Blair  is now the Paramount Chief of Kuffa Bulam chieftain

Tony Blair is now the Paramount Chief of Kuffa Bulam chieftain

A ceremonial robe was draped over his shoulders and the Prime Minister, visibly moved, assumed the title of "Chief of Peace".

In theory, this makes Mr Blair entitled to sit in Sierra Leone's parliament. The ceremony confirmed his standing as national hero in the formerly war-torn country.

Seven years ago, Mr Blair sent 1,500 British troops to secure Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, against an advancing rebel army styling itself the Revolutionary United Front.

The British deployment eventually ended Sierra Leone's civil war in 2002 and allowed democracy to return.

Yesterday, before hundreds of onlookers, Mr Blair walked past a row of white clad women singing his praises in Mahera village.

He greeted Sierra Leone's other Paramount Chiefs, all of them clad in flowing robes and seated upon plastic garden chairs.

Mr Blair, looking a little bemused, sat on his throne as five men bowed before him and five women sang: "It is over, it is finished. The chief is crowned."

The robe was draped over Mr Blair's shoulders - although he quickly allowed it to fall back on to his throne - and he entered Sierra Leone's immortal pantheon of heroes.

Mr Blair is now the Paramount Chief of Kuffa Bulam chieftain, with formal power to resolve local land disputes - but not raise taxes. Cherie Blair, who watched the ceremony from the sidelines, is now Ya-bonbosseh, or First Lady of the Chieftain.

President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah welcomed Mr Blair to the chieftaincy. Mohammed Hassan Gangara, the son of a former chief, hailed Mr Blair as a "great leader" and said: "Traditionally [he] who successfully defended a settlement from aggression became a chief.

"The role that Mr Blair played in helping us repel and defeat the rebels entitles him to the chieftaincy."

Mr Blair, with a catch in his voice, replied that he was grateful for an "extraordinary honour" and said Sierra Leone was "an important symbol for the future of our world. Only people who are free, free to choose their government and free to choose their leaders can make the best of their lives."

Earlier, Mr Blair gave a rare insight into the origins of his passion for Sierra Leone. His father, Leo, taught law at a university there in the 1960s.

"I remember my father talking about Freetown and Sierra Leone. I do remember that and it's always lodged in my mind," he said.

As for the consequences of Britain's intervention, Mr Blair said: "Whatever the challenges that remain, the fact is there has been enormous and beneficial change in this country and we are proud to have played our part in this."

The end of Sierra Leone's civil war in 2002 also brought peace to neighbouring Liberia.

Asked about criticism of his visit as a "vanity expedition", Mr Blair replied: "What I would say to cynics about Africa is, just get across the balanced picture. Five years ago this country was being taken over by a gang of gangsters who were killing innocent people, raping women, despoiling the country.

"But today we have a situation where in three months time we will have an election.

'I don't say that is perfection, but I say it's a darned sight better than it was before.

During Mr Blair's Premiership British aid to Africa has trebled.

He described this as an "investment in the future of Africa which, if we are sensible, will repay not just you in Africa but us in the developed world many times over".

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