Sunday, June 03, 2007

A white man’s burden

“A SCAR on the conscience of the world” is how Tony Blair, Britain’s departing prime minister, once described Africa. In an attempt, perhaps, to remind people that there is more to his legacy than Iraq, this week he returned to the continent that has given him some of his greatest foreign-policy successes. Mr Blair can certainly claim that he has done more than any other leader to make the world aware of that scar. But doing somehting about it has proved trickier. For Mr Blair’s relationship with Africa has been one of vaulting ambition, dashed hopes and modest success.

The three countries that he dropped in on before returning to Britain on Friday June 1st are richly illustrative. Sierra Leone is where his African adventure began in 2000 with a British military intervention to restore the elected president, Ahmad Kabbah, to power after a rebellion. A former British colony, Sierra Leone was a classic failed African state: years of civil war fuelled by “blood diamonds” had ripped the country apart. But Britain’s successful military strike, combined with dollops of post-conflict aid to rebuild the country, showed Mr Blair that Africa was an arena where Britain, with its strong historical ties to the continent, could make an impact.

Today Sierra Leone is visibly a better place. In the streets of its capital, Freetown, Mr Blair was greeted almost like a returning messiah; once he must have hoped for something similar in Baghdad. Sierra Leone showed Mr Blair how he could fuse his evangelising morality with practical politics. He began to argue that the rich world now had the means to cure poverty and disease, if only it could find the will.

But Mr Blair also went to South Africa, where the limits of his power have been starkly revealed. Despite his supposedly close relationship with Thabo Mbeki, its president, Mr Blair has failed to convince him to take a tougher stand against Robert Mugabe, the president of another former colony gone disastrously wrong, Zimbabwe. Appeals to human rights and democracy have fallen on deaf ears; Zimbabwe’s neighbours have preferred the solidarity of the liberation struggle against what they still tout as white imperialism.

Zimbabwe is one case where Mr Blair’s brand of easy Western morality has come up short against the realities of African big-man politics. Sudan is another, though it has not been a total failure for the West. America and Britain did force the Sudanese government to sign a peace agreement with its rebellious south in 2004. But the Sudanese have run rings around both for years over getting a UN force into the Darfur region to stop a murderous government counter-insurgency campaign that has so far cost the lives of about 300,000 people.

Mr Blair also invested too much in leaders who he hoped would lead an “African renaissance” but turned out to be more old school than Blairite. If he had left office a couple of years ago, his farewell safari might well have included Ethiopia. Meles Zenawi, the country’s president, was the most prominent African member of Mr Blair’s Commission for Africa but he repaid the compliment by allowing his police to shoot scores of protesters dead and arrest hundreds more in the wake of flawed elections in 2005. So now it is back to the old game of figuring out how to help people whose leaders are mainly interested in helping themselves.

Although African politics have proved messier than Mr Blair must have hoped, his famous charm nonetheless worked on some of its leaders. His tour began in Libya, where he led the way in persuading President Muammar Qaddafi to give up his nuclear programme in exchange for the resumption of ties with the West. And if all the “scaling up” of aid agreed at G8 summits does eventually help to reduce poverty and disease on the continent, Mr Blair’s African legacy might yet turn out to have been important.

At the least Mr Blair can be sure that Africa was good for his government. New Labour’s technocratic approach at home never satisfied the old yearning to build a New Jerusalem that lurks in the breast of every Labour activist. Africa gave them a “great cause” to rally round, and helped Mr Blair through some of his worst patches over Iraq. Furthermore, scaling up and debt relief are among the few issues on which Mr Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, are in absolute harmony. So as Mr Blair goes, expect more of the same from the new government on Africa.

Link to The Economist