What is Tony Blair doing in Africa? Some have posed the same question about his role as a Middle East peace envoy given the never ending turmoil in the region. Last week, as Blair gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, he answered one question by claiming his work in Africa meant he had not been on top of domestic political affairs since leaving office before adding – almost as an afterthought – the Middle East as well. So what is he actually doing in Africa?
Well, whatever it is, there’s a hell of a lot of money involved. Seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa and it would appear that Britain’s former prime minister wants a piece of it, and is using all his famous charm and persuasion to bring his super-rich business friends to feast at the table.
After stepping down (or being forced out) of Downing Street he set up the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) charity along with other foundations, including one to promote interfaith work which at times appears to be really promoting faith in Tony Blair, the statesman, over the benefits of religion.
His African charity’s website is a little light on detail about what they actually do. It doesn’t deliver aid projects on the ground but works with Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Guinea and Nigeria, spending a total of £3 million in the last year. Where is this money going? It’s purpose, according to documents at the Charities Commission, is to:
“…pioneer new ways of working with African countries, enabling committed African leaders with the capacity to deliver the public services which their citizens have the right to expect, to tackle deep-rooted poverty, and to attract the sustainable investment necessary to build strong economies for the future.”
One interpretation of this could be: “…working with our friends in Africa to facilitate contracts for Western business to expatriate of profits back to the West and we hope our staff will spend a bit money in that country, which might have a trickle-down effect relieving poverty, which is great if it does, but that’s not, well that’s not our primary concern.”
Staff working for Blair certainly are not short of a few bob. In 2009, the charity paid its five staff £246,000, an average of £49,200 each. A year later, in 2010, it was paying 22 employees, seven secondees and sub-contractors a total of more than £1.6 million, a whopping 650 per cent increase. Plenty of spare change to buy a few curios from the local market and boost the local economy.
One person who could shed some light on what’s going on is “His Excellency President Paul Kagame”, as a AGI report described the president of Rwanda. He is the same president accused by a United Nations report of horrifying war crimes and human rights abuses, mainly concerning the Rwandan genocide but also regarding Rwanda’s involvement in a decade of blood-letting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kagame wrote a gushing testimonial to the work of the AGI in the charity’s annual report, saying: “In the last two years, it has produced substantive and tangible results.” AGI claim to be delivering ‘support’ to Rwanda’s government departments – even while the central African country is still involved in the DRC conflict. According to the Daily Telegraph:
“Young, bright and very eager, Team Blair on the ground in Rwanda has staff in the president’s and prime minister’s offices as well as in the Ministry of Finance and in the Rwandan Development Board. Chauffeur-driven around Kigali in new Toyota Corollas, they mentor local workers and help them draw up and implement policy. “In 2009, not long after AGI was established in Rwanda, Mr Blair led a delegation to Kigali which included Christian Angermayer, a founder of one of Germany’s largest financial services groups. Mr Angermayer also acts as an adviser to Mr Kagame.
“Mr Blair is in a good position to introduce Rwanda to a lot of wealthy people although there is no suggestion that Mr Blair has benefited financially from his dealings in the country. “His friends Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a philanthropist and senior figure in the banking industry, and his wife Lady Rothschild, visited Rwanda in September, staying in a suite at the Serena Hotel. “They came accompanied by presidential guards,” said a source. “They are looking to invest in a game lodge in Rwanda — to buy one and modernise it.” The Rothschilds refused to comment last week on their four-day trip and any deals being struck in Rwanda.”
It appears that Blair’s charity is operating as a firm of commercial management consultants, drawing up policies and implementation plans for African governments, while at the same time hooking their clients up with high-level contacts made during his time as prime minister for business deals. In Rwanda, Blair has picked one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
The financial benefits of doing business with the worlds’ biggest firms is enormous, and most middle-men would take a cut from deals. It would take a morally-upstanding individual to resist. Someone like Blair, perhaps?
Several newspapers in the UK and America have commented on how complex and secretive Blair’s financial arrangements are, so we can only take it on trust that there are no kickbacks. But the Charities Commission may want to make sure, if it can afford to hire the best financial brains to unpick Blair’s intricate web of accounts.
Another country Blair is heavily involved in is Sierra Leone. Blair and the west African state go way back. His father, Leo, worked there in the 1970s, and as prime minister he sent 1,000 British troops there to crush the Revolutionary United Front army as they advanced on Freetown.
The public were initially told the intervention was just to rescue British citizens from a worsening civil war – driven by illegal trade in diamonds to Belgium and Lebanon – but it was clearly about much more than that. It was about propping up a government that was about to fall. And, having secured stability, Britain then delivered training for the Sierra Leone police and army.
Sierra Leone is a former British colony which began as a land for freed slaves from America but was previously dominated by the Koranko and Temne kingdoms. In 2002, Blair was crowned Paramount Chief of the village of Mahera near Freetown, the capital which was named in honour of the former slave settlers. Blair carries the title of Paramount Chief Bai Sherbora Mathuff, meaning Man of Peace. Literally.
I imagine Blair made no mention of Iraq in his acceptance speech. Neither, I suspect, did he see fit to tell a nation founded on freed slaves that under his premiership he sent Valerie (now Baroness) Amos to the United Nations Conference on race and xenophobia held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 to tell delegates that slavery was not a crime because it was legal at the time.
Today, as well as supporting the present government, Blair has turned missionary, with a Faiths Act in Sierra Leone project which somehow merges the issue of religion with an anti-malaria vaccination drive.
His wife, Cherie, is getting in on the act too – linking up with Sia Nyama Koroma, the first lady of Sierra Leone, to develop a mobile phone technology programme for women and taking part in an African Women’s Entrepreneurship scheme. She has also been working with South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria to “harness the benefits of mobile technology for women entrepreneurs in Africa” in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.
Her foundation’s report identifies a “market opportunity” worth US$2 billion in sub-Saharan Africa.
Tony Blair is also helping Sierra Leone promote its’ potentially lucrative tourism industry. One newspaper report drew a highlighted JP Morgan’s interests in Sierra Leone and the fact that it had awarded a £2m contract with Blair’s foundation. There was no smoking gun that proved any impropriety, but the old adage of being seen to be fair and transparent is important here.
Blair has made over £50m since leaving office, which – as the Guardian pointed out – is funnelled through a “Byzantine” and “opaque” complex web of structures involving 12 different legal entities, and a company called Windrush Ventures No 3 Limited Partnership.
Blair has also been getting involved north of the Sahara in Libya, as the Daily Telegraph reported:
“An investigation can reveal new details of the complex structure behind “Tony Blair Inc”. It can also be disclosed that Mr Blair has built links with Monitor Group, an American public affairs consultancy that earned millions of pounds working for Col Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed Libyan dictator. “Monitor, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the subject of increasing scrutiny in the US over millions of dollars it earned attempting to boost the image of Gaddafi.”
If Gaddafi were alive today, he should be asking for his money back.
As Africa stands on the cusp of a new economic dawn is the continents’ most pressing need to employ Tony Blair’s flunkeys to write government policy for them? Given Blair’s warmongering record in office, which has turned him into an international figure of hate, his value to Africa lies more in his contacts than his reputation.
Some might argue that Blair has come a little late to the party, long after China moved in. But just as there have been criticisms over the neo-colonialist nature of China’s involvement – which I wrote about as long ago as 2006 – Blair must surely also face questions about his motives.
Introducing Western big business to African leaders that his charity are ‘advising’ doesn’t just make him a middle-man, it suggests he wants the bulk of Africa’s profits from expanding markets to be expatriated to the West, in the same way multinational agribusiness brought huge tracts of land for commercial farming in the 1970s and 80s.
Western agribusiness patent the seeds, import tractors and machinery, provide all the spare parts, export the raw produce to be processed and packaged back in the West, and take profits back to the West. Africans were mere farm labourers. A key question today is this: over and above the extra labour employed by new businesses moving in to take advantage of Africa’s fledgling boom, to what degree will ordinary Africans benefit?
In a little-reported speech in March this year, Blair outlined his vision for Africa, and identified the barriers to progress as being governance and lack of foreign investment. He said:
“This is not only true of… mining and food production [but also] there remain huge opportunities [in the] expansion of the oil and gas sectors in many countries. It is essential that intellectual capital comes in.
“And for the private sector, for the people in this room, Africa is a great investment destination. The returns are there, the trajectory is positive.”
The message is clear – the new gold rush has begun. The new Scramble for Africa.
He appears to be saying: let me, Tony Blair, design the policies for African governments and deal with its’ leaders while you, my business friends, use your financial muscle to grab as much of the growing economy as possible to make profits for you back in the West.
No wonder he’s so busy with Africa he’s not keeping on top of British political affairs. No wonder the Middle East is going to pot! Never mind Chief of Mahera, Tony Blair is on his way to becoming the new King of Africa, and possibly amassing greater riches than all the book deals and speaking engagements combined could ever pull in.
Blair may be pushing 60, but he’s behaving like a young man on the make. And he can feel the hand of African history on his shoulder.