Africa Stirred Blair's Conscience. He Still Failed It.
With his passionate denunciation of Africa's impoverishment in Africa as "a stain on the conscience of the world" right after September 11, 2001, Mr. Blair gave voice to one of the key strains in the global response to those awful attacks. Many were convinced then that despite the trauma and anger unleashed by the terrorists, the United States and its allies would recognize the need to propel the issue of mass poverty and injustice to the top of the international agenda in the interest of a more stable world.
Because Mr. Blair was the Labour party leader, and had followed up on his stirring language with numerous high-level campaigns, including with G8, to get the powerful on board in aid of Africa, he raised real hopes that that he would lead the world in making a difference on the continent.
He did not even come close to succeeding. So weak was the much-fanfared commitment that Blair extracted from the2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles that some of its celebrity mobilizers denounced it as a fraud when 2006 figures released last month showed that rather than expanding substantially, aid to Africa declined. The outlook on trade, which is more important to African fortunes than aid, is even grimmer.
In hindsight, there was never any prospect that a Labourite who presided gleefully over the creation of a huge new British class of the shamelessly rich and put spin and self-image well before action would seek the policies that would match his compassion for the poor. In the six years since Blair first proclaimed his crusade, few Africans have been lifted out of the brutal deprivations and humiliations that mark the daily lives of hundreds of millions on the continent. Ironically, his Conservative predecessor Harold Macmillan's 1960 speech alluding to the "wind of change" blowing in Africa will be remembered as an infinitely more prescient and determined indication of future action.
In any event, even if the promises from the G8 that Tony Blair had extracted are honoured, they will do little to undercut the mass poverty that he wanted to diminish. That is because inherent in the aid compact that he engineered was an African commitment to continue pursuing neo-liberal policies that the World Bank, the IMF and the donors have advocated for two decades. These policies have created vast amounts of wealth for multinational and national elites but have at best a mixed record in creating or stunting economic growth. For certain, they have singularly failed to diminish the misery of those who live in absolute poverty. The market in Africa will never lift up the poor along with the rich.
One woman's story from the UN Population Fund's report released Wednesday captures poverty's horrors. Sabina of Kibera, Nairobi's and indeed Africa's, largest slum (pop. 1,000,000), sells water to those who can afford it, and so herself makes almost nothing. However, her water comes from pipes which frequently suck in excrement as they run through open sewage ditches. There are few toilets in Kibera. Hundreds of thousands in Nairobi slums do without. Toilet paper rolls cost half a dollar each, in an environment when many do not even earn a dollar a day. There are millions in Kenya having to scramble every day to find even food for their families because they are unemployed
"Our people live like beasts," local government administrator Charity Bokindo candidly told a writer about life in Mathare, Nairobi's second largest slum (pop. 500,000).
Even the United Nations-inspired Millennium Development Goals, whose 15-year midpoint criteria this year has not been met by a single African country, will not address this poorest of the poor group. Africa, and the world, needs an altogether new drive narrowly focussed on providing those who live in such brutish deprivation with the simplest of essentials.
Eliminating poverty is a complex, long-term operation, but providing toilets and cleaner water in slums in central city locations is not. The responsibility for the provision of such services is squarely Africa's own, but the rich countries can help make this happen. For the war in Iraq, they have spent about $1,000 billion so far!
That people are condemned to such inhumanity results from the abiding conviction among the well-to-do that the poor have an unlimited capacity to weather their punishing existence. This is no longer true. The macabre beheadings witnessed this month in Kenya of at least a dozen individuals, with severed heads subsequently hoisted on to poles in strategic locations, were the work of the shadowy Mungiki group, which has also killed at least a dozen policemen and called on the poor and landless to rise up against the government. We will be seeing more and more of such mini revolts spread across the continent.
In the political arena, Mr. Blair did have one major political success, in Sierra Leone, where he courageously intervened and ended a vicious civil war early in his tenure. But otherwise, his failures in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and of course Sudan have added rather than healed scars.
In Zimbabwe, he ignored African advice and chose the path of confrontation, sanctions and regime change, which has contributed to the pauperisation of millions. Mr. Mugabe's seizure of white farms was an idiotic attempt to arrest his plummeting popularity, but underlying this move in this former settler colony was the explosive issue of land that needed addressing. Instead, Blair escalated what was a minor crisis into a bitter conflict for strategic ends. The conflict in Burundi has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo an astonishing 4.5 million. But these did not merit the attention paid to undermining and demonizing Robert Mugabe, whom Labour MP Kate Hoey, in a shameless excess of spin, compared to Pol Pot.
Even if Mugabe loses power, he has come out ahead within Africa, with Mr. Blair finally agreeing this month with South African President Thabo Mbeki that regional diplomacy was the only option in dealing with Zimbabwe. Two weeks earlier, Mugabe's denunciation of western exploitation of Africa had been greeted with thunderous applause at the Comesa heads of state trade summit in Nairobi.
It is not an accident that Thabo Mbeki has for so long resisted his friend Tony Blair's pressure to publicly take on Mugabe. Mbeki was aware there were powerful social forces which were fighting for land redistribution in Zimbabwe, and that he himself faced lurking danger in not having done nearly enough in developing equitable post-apartheid structures. Mbeki is in fact sitting on powder-keg much larger than Zimbabwe's, but there is no indication that Tony Blair understood this and urged his friend Mbeki to shift course to prevent an explosion.
Darfur is the other major Blair failure, but conventional comment aside, his early resort to bellicose rhetoric in 2004, no doubt to distract from the unravelling in Iraq, hardened Sudan's resistance to a UN force which could have more effectively protected against the slaughter there.
Less well-known is Mr. Blair's complicity in the profoundly destabilizing developments in the Horn, encompassing Uganda, Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The latter's Meles Zenawi was hailed by the prime minister as a visionary democrat and appointed to his blue-ribbon Commission for Africa in 2004. Mr. Meles now runs a tyrannical regime which stole the 2005 election, and then mounted an illegal and brutal invasion of Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Meles should have been disowned by Blair long ago, but instead British aid to Ethiopia went up again last year.
Kenya has historically been Britain's closest ally in Africa, and hosts a large contingent of its soldiers. But as in the Ethiopian war and occupation of Somalia, Blair gave full support to the US roping in the Kibaki regime for grossly illegal actions in support of the invasion by closing borders to genuine refugees and kidnapping suspects for Guantanamo-type "renditions" Ethiopia's secret prisons.
In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army from the country's North has committed horrendous atrocities. President Yoweri Museveni, another close British ally, retaliated with a scorched-earth campaign in which nearly two million northerners were herded into camps in a campaign which saw massive human rights catastrophes, which some credible human rights observers have labelled genocide. Uganda is nevertheless being honoured by being asked to host the Commonwealth heads of state summit meeting. Rule of law and human rights only mattered for Tony Blair when they were being disfigured by Saddam Hussein.
There are no easy fixes for Africa. Poverty and conflict aside, landlessness, mega-corruption and ethnic divisions born of political and economic marginalization threaten too many states. But unacceptably intense poverty afflicts hundreds of millions and addressing its most open wounds must be an uncompromising priority. Not everything that can be done is impossibly complex or expensive, such as providing public toilets, drains and clean water supply.
Only the continent's own leaders and people can correct these obscenities. Donors have an important but minor role to play. But they must get this role right. That includes
recognizing that what Africa needs most of all is space to formulate its own policies. To determine what these might be, donors need to radically alter their approach and engage first and foremost with the grass roots.
Salim Lone, who was the spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq in 2003, is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya.