By Chika Onyeani
African Sun Times, March 11-17, 2005 -
On February 26, 2004, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced that he
was launching a Africa Commission which would look at "economic issues,
education, conflict resolution, health, the environment, HIV/AIDS and governance."
Said Mr. Blair then, "Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer in the
last 25 years. Its share of world trade has halved in a generation and it
receives less than 1% of direct foreign investment." "Forty-four million
children," Mr. Blair continued, "do not go to school, millions die through famine or
disease or conflict and Africa risks being left even further behind."
Mr. Blair did set up the Commission and its report was splashed across the
world today. The findings of the Commission's report practically mirror most of
the concerns that Africa has continued to express over the years without
anybody seeming to listen. I am just going to mention some of the issues which I
will deal with later, including the issue of bogus loans that the West extends
to Africa only to allow such loans to be immediately turned around and
re-deposited in their banks; how Africa is required to open up its markets to
western products, only to see the same western nations pour subsidies to some
sectors of their economy thereby making it impossible for Africa to sell its
products in their markets and driving nascent African industries out of business; or
demanding certain standards of governance before even the bogus loans are
As I said earlier, the Blair African Commission report has done a marvelous
job of highlighting these concerns that Africa has expressed over the years.
Africa couldn't have articulated its own case better.
However, I have been sceptical of the Commission from the beginning because
of the circumstances under which it was set up. We have to remember that Tony
Blair, who had joined President Bush in invading Iraq under the pretext that
Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, was being pummeled at the
polls, with more and more Britons expressing dissatisfaction over his job
performance and that of his Labor Party, with the Liberal Party increasing its
share of votes. What better way then to rehabilitate your image than to be the
champion of down-trodden Africa?
We also have to remember the dramatic arrival of Mr. Blair in Africa in
October, 2004, just before the publication of the International Survey Group's
report on weapons of mass destruction, which confirmed that he had lied about the
existence of a military threat in Iraq. On that photo-up visit to Sudan and
Ethiopia, Blair piously announced that he would make 1,500 British troops
available for deployment in the Darfur region of the Sudan, and that Britain would
be willing to train 20,000 African soldiers.
Using Africa to prop up one's standing in the polls is not new, but it is the
brazen manner in which Tony Blair is exploiting his "hand across to Africa,"
that has brought out a good number of people, not only Africans, to question
his real motive. Said Dr. Ian Taylor, a lecturer in African politics at the
University of St. Andrews in Scotland, "Africa is ripe for gesture politics
because of its low-cost financially and low-cost politically. It makes good
headlines, shows you care and plugs into New Labour imagery. But if nothing is
achieved, then no one expected much and they can blame others."
Even before Mr. Blair proposed his Commission on Africa, his Chancellor of
the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary), Mr. Gordon Brown had floated a "Global New
Deal" or debt relief, which envisions $100 billion being created, which would
be made available to poorer countries, and most of which are in Africa. But
before the ink could even dry on this proposal, the Bush administration had shut
it down, DOA. Could we then say that the whole thing is about grandstanding?
With the above as background, we can now revisit the findings of the
Commission that Mr. Blair set up:
1. "Improving accountability," said the report, "is the job of African
leaders. They can do that by broadening the participation of ordinary people in
government processes, in part by strengthening institutions like parliaments,
local authorities, trades unions, the justice system and the media. Donors can
help with this. They can also help build accountable budgetary processes so
that the people of Africa can see how money is raised and where it is going.
That kind of transparency can help combat corruption, which African governments
must root out. Developed nations can help in this too. Money and state
assets stolen from the people of Africa by corrupt leaders must be repatriated.
Foreign banks must be obliged by law to inform on suspicious accounts. Those
who give bribes should be dealt with too; and foreign companies involved in
oil, minerals and other extractive industries must make their payments much more
open to public scrutiny. Firms who bribe should be refused export credits.
Without progress in governance, all other reforms will have limited impact."
All these, of course, are oxymoronic. African governments and leaders know
that these are steps that they need to take; but the question is, is the will
there to take these drastic steps? Can our leaders begin to realise that the
treasuries of their respective countries are not their personal banks, as was
shown after former dictator of Nigeria Sani Abacha died, that the Nigerian
Central Bank honored a check for $2.5 billion that Abacha had written, without
even as much as asking what the money is being used for?
Then again, we have the case of the billions that African officials have been
hiding in European banks. According to the Nigerian president, Olusegun
Obasanjo, Africans have stolen and hidden more than $400 billion of Africa's
wealth in western banks. If the Blair African Commission's report is not a sort of
shedding crocodile tears, that is the first place it should have started by
demanding that European banks immediately start repatriating this huge amount
of money back to Africa. Without even as much as lifting a finger of aid from
its past colonial masters, Africa would rid itself of all external debts and
still have more than $80 billion in its credits - as at present time, Africa's
debt amounts to $315 billion.
2. "Africa faces two major constraints on trade," says the report. "It does
not produce enough goods, of the right quality or price, to enable it to
break into world markets. And it faces indefensible trade barriers which, directly
or indirectly, tax its goods as they enter the markets of developed countries.
To improve its capacity to trade Africa needs to make changes internally. It
must improve its transport infrastructure to make goods cheaper to move. It
must reduce and simplify the tariff systems between one African country and
another. It must reform excessive bureaucracy, cumbersome customs procedures, and
corruption by public servants, wherever these exist. It must make it easier to
set up businesses. It must improve economic integration within the
continent's regional economic communities. Donors can help fund these changes.
But the rich nations must also dismantle the barriers they have erected
against African goods, particularly in agriculture. These barriers hurt citizens in
both rich and poor countries. They must abolish trade-distorting subsidies to
their agriculture and agribusiness which give them an unfair advantage over
poor African farmers. They must lower tariffs and other non-tariff barriers to
African products, including stopping the bureaucratic application of rules of
origin which excludes African goods from preferences to which they are
entitled. And they must show this ambition by completing the current Doha Round of
world trade talks in a way which does not demand reciprocal concessions from
poor African nations. Careful attention must be given to ensure that the poorest
people are helped to take advantage of the new opportunities and to cope with
the impacts of a more open system of world trade. Africa must be provided with
the funds that can help it adjust to the new opportunities of a changed world
Everywhere you look, agriculture is dying in Africa. It is famine
everywhere. We have to depend on ocean loads of food to help feed the hungry in Africa.
It has become a cottage industry for people collecting pittance from all
kinds of people to feed the hungry in Africa. But the governments of the west
speak with a forked tongue, preaching one thing and doing another. They call on
African governments to open their markets to Western products, at the same
time slamming tariffs on African goods. And worse still, pouring huge amounts
of subsidies to the agricultural sector, thereby driving African farmers out of
business, and creating the famine that they turn around and try to eradicate.
Aren't we playing Russian roulette here?
3. The third thing is about debt relief, which calls for $25 billion in aids
to Africa by the year 2010 - this must be tied to the advancement of good
governance. But the most realistic of the recommendations is that which says
that "For poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa which need it, the objective must
be 100 per cent debt cancellation as soon as possible. This must be part of
a financing package for these countries - including those excluded from
current debt schemes - to achieve the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), as
promised in Monterrey and Kananaskis."
Tony Blair's ambition for Africa is laudable, but as Dr. Taylor said making
promises to Africa in times of when one is in an precarious situation is a
pastime of Western leaders, and breaking such promises are not such big deals.
And Zimbabwe comes easily to mind, how it was Mr. Blair who broke his
predecessor's promise to make $75 million available for land repurchase in Zimbabwe,
pinning his actions on Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe not doing enough for the
poor of his countrymen.
In other words, we must look at Blair's gift horse in the mouth. We must
employ a heavy axe and break this trojan horse to pieces to ensure there are no
hidden agendas (soldiers) inside. Let's thread carefully in these perilous
Dr. Chika Onyeani is Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of the African Sun Times and
has just been selected a "2005 Fellow of the New York Times Company Foundation
Institute." Onyeani is the author of the critically acclaimed book,
"Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success."