Blair: The Hand is Esau’s but the Voice…

Published on 21st February 2006

In this program researched by Bernadette Cook and produced by Marion Edmunds, Tumi Makgabo interviews Tony Blair, Prime Minister, Britain for carte blanche.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been in power for almost a decade, leading his nation in peace and then controversially into war in Iraq. Now in his third term, he ranks as one of the world's most powerful statesmen, influencing global politics, and advancing a case for Africa.

Tumi Makgabo (Carte Blanche presenter): 'Mr Prime Minister thank you very much for joining us and welcome once again to South Africa. Speaking of Africa, why did you decide to make Africa a focus for your administration?'

Tony Blair: 'Really for two reasons. First of all, Africa is probably the great moral cause of our time because of the millions of people who die unnecessarily through conflict, famine or disease. And because in an interdependent world, it makes no sense for us to leave the continent of Africa to be the only continent in the world that has gone backwards. There is such vitality, energy and intelligence here and it's a tragedy that it is not being mobilised and used in the way that it should be but also, in the end I think it is an enlightened self-interested act.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'With that in mind, in 2001 you essentially rebuked the world, saying: 'The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world'. Do you think that anybody has paid attention to that?'

Tony Blair: 'Yes, I think people have. Whenever you discuss this, there is always the issue, well have you fulfilled all the ambitions you have set. Isn't there a massive amount still to do? Aren't the challenges still enormous? All that is absolutely true. But I think both in civic society in Europe, in America and elsewhere, through the 'Make Poverty History' campaign, there has been a huge surge in awareness of the need to act. I think it was in the G8 summit last year when Africa took centre stage for the first time. Implementing the commitment of that summit will make a huge difference. 

Despite commitments, conflicts in Africa continue to destabilise entire regions. In Darfur, government-backed militia have violently driven two million Sudanese people from their homes, costing 180 000 lives. The international community is failing to contain the ongoing internecine struggle.

Tumi Makgabo: 'But one thing [that] is very important when looking at why the problems in Africa persist is the question of conflict. If indeed the world has paid attention, it seems many are almost contradicting that, because they are not active and proactive enough in dealing with the numerous conflicts that continue to plague the continent. Isn't the situation grave enough for them to be proactive in that regard?' 

Tony Blair: 'I think there are many situations in which the world has been active. For example, in Sierra Leone the case of the intervention by the UK shows. But you are right; there is a lot more we need to do. In the G8 summit last year, we agreed that by the end of 2006, we would have created a 20 000 strong peacekeeping force. If you take the Sudan conflict, for example, the issue is: how do you get the right number of troops, with the right logistics and properly resourced?' 

Tumi Makgabo: 'But is it just about troops though? Is it not about engaging, getting on the ground, putting pressure, for example, on the Sudanese government and saying this situation will no longer be tolerated? … at the same time as trying to deploy military resources?

Tony Blair: 'Of course you have got to do both thus, there has been a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary and then others in London just a few days ago. The International Development Secretary, Hillary Brendan, will be going to Sudan within the next few weeks. We want these talks to get under way in future and get to terms with the need to get the long-term framework for peace.To go back to the point you were making… yes, conflict resolution is in my view a major part of this. That is what the Commission for Africa said. That is what we tried to do in the G8 Summit. This is not just for the outside world - the African Union and Africa itself has got a big responsibility.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'But the African Union has taken its responsibility, when it comes to the question of Darfur while the rest of the world is still debating the question of genocide. What is it going to take for the debate to move away from 'is this genocide or not?' to 'we need to take concrete action?'

Tony Blair: 'That is what we are trying to do. Remember one of the reasons the African Union force went in was because of outside help. But we have now got to a situation where there will have to be a transfer to a UN force. We are very active in Britain in trying to make sure that the Sudanese government agrees. It is for us again to make sure that we finance that properly. There are all sorts of situations in which we have got to do more. We have got a serious situation in the Cote d'Ivore; there are areas of Africa that are either ravaged by the prior consequences of conflict or have the potential for conflict still but to go back to where we started… is the world waking up to its obligations? Yes I think it has. Has it done enough yet? No, obviously not.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'You talked about the responsibility of Africa in dealing with its own situation. You set up the Commission for Africa. Many people regarded that as being quite arrogant - because there already was a plan called NEPAD which was set up by Africans for Africans - wondering the need for another plan that was spearheaded by Britain.'

Tony Blair: 'I don't think you could regard that as arrogant, because the NEPAD process - which I was also heavily involved in, and obviously President Mbeki was the main mover there - was to see what Africa could do for its own development. But I think everybody reckoned that the outside world also has a responsibility and an obligation to act. For example, in relation to trade, debt relief, aid, we cannot get this peace-keeping force of 20 000 unless the outside world is acting. We need the combination of the developing and the developed world acting together. I think most people think that the Commission for Africa came out of the right basic framework and plan. The question is how to implement it. The thing that is both good but frustrating is that there is no question about what needs to be done. The question is about doing it.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'Are they really working together to try and resolve the question? Is it not a question of asking, but being sure you are also listening to the answers that are coming from Africa when it comes to what it is they need and don't need?'

Tony Blair: 'Yes, I think people are listening to Africa. But when I was talking about the responsibility of people here in Africa too, we can and should - I mean Britain has trebled its aid to Africa in the past few years - we can give support, for example, to develop the capability of good governments, but in the end it is obviously for African leaders themselves to make sure that they are also enforcing good governments. NEPAD is a breakthrough because it has the concept of partnership, and that is what we tried to do with the Commission for Africa so that it was no longer about the donor/recipient relationship or the developed world simply saying to the developing world, here are the answers. It was genuine partnership and I think there is an agreed programme now. Doing it is the tough part. We have made progress. We need to do far more, and this year is a crucial year.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'One of the important roles of the Commission for Africa was to come up with some recommendations and an attempted plan of action for the G8 Summit. Many of the recommendations became policy on debt cancellation, an agreement to discuss the question of trade and also perhaps to look at how to tackle some of the more pressing issues - for example, HIV Aids. But one thing that people are a little bit perturbed about was the question of giving 0.7% GDP in aid by the year 2015. However, Britain had already agreed to give 0.7% GDP in aid back in 1970. That hasn't actually happened yet.'  

Tony Blair: 'No, but on the other hand, as I say, we have actually trebled aid to Africa and we have now set a timetable to when we get to 0.7.The good thing about the G8 Summit is the commitment to double aid, and it is a pretty substantial commitment … some 25 billion…'

Tumi Makgabo: 'But what is it going to do to double aid, when meeting those commitments becomes a problem?'

Tony Blair: 'You have to see the commitments through. What we are trying to do - having got the imprints and commitments in place to double aid at the G8 – is going back to Europe… America, Japan and others… saying we have to pay up. There is a lot of pressure on countries and it's difficult sometimes with their budgetary pressures, but by and large, that aid is being given. Trade is a very important part of the agenda as well. The Commission for Africa was based on partnership and it dealt with all the issues together. It is a big step forward. In politics, the job is never done. Someone comes along and says what about x y and z as well as a b and c? You have to make sure that the promises people make are delivered. There’s energy in the agenda for Africa now that was not really there a few years ago.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'Was the Commission for Africa a success, considering that,  many of the aid organisations working on the ground say that the measure of success won't be that you managed to reach some sort of agreement, but that you actually implement the majority of the recommendations?'

Tony Blair: 'Yes, it is very helpful of them to point out the obvious. It is true you have to implement it, but getting the agreement is important too. We managed to get everyone together… no one was that enthusiastic when we started to do this. We have real commitments out of people. Certainly for our country, we are delivering it. We have got very important milestones coming up this year. We have put a plan in place for, as near as possible, for universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment by 2010; there is action on killer diseases like malaria and TB and, of course, the world trade cause. You don't just publish a document, get an agreement and then everyone just floats off. You have to keep at it the whole time.The framework is there and the promises have been made. So we have a chance - at least a better chance than before, of making this happen.

Tumi Makgabo: 'Lets talk for a moment about the question of trade being just as important as aid. That is the call many African leaders have been making.  Looking at the situation, you can't ignore the question of subsidies and them being either reduced or eliminated when it comes to European countries. Why is it so difficult to reach agreement on that? 

Tony Blair: 'It is difficult, but I think we will reach an agreement for a date to phase out agricultural subsidies. It won't probably be as big as Britain would want. There are 25 countries in the European Union, some of them with some very big agricultural interests. It’s not always easy to get them all to agree. But I think the direction is fairly clear. It is not just about the European situation… although that is obviously critical… it is also getting non-agricultural market access in countries like Brazil and India and making sure there are reciprocal agreements on behalf of America, Japan and others.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'If indeed one is looking at addressing those, and saying, 'well it is just as important as looking at European countries that have issues within themselves on subsidies', how is it going to work then to deal with the trade questions and ensure that it is beneficial for Africa when you are struggling to get European countries - and as you rightly say, others as well - to deal more concretely and decisively with this issue?'

Tony Blair: 'We have to sort out the issue of European agriculture which will take some time. It is possible to put forward a development package that is very specific for the poorest countries. It is a lot easier to do that in the context of the overall field, hence the need to be a lot more ambitious in terms of a trade route. But whatever happens, we will be arguing from a British point of view and trying to push this through Europe. It is important, incidentally, to break down barriers inside Africa as well for trade because that will make a huge difference.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'Many countries have been lauded for making progress in the right direction and becoming more and more democratic. But you have situations such as the Ethiopian president, who was serving on your Commission. There was this major corruption scandal; you have this situation in Kenya, which was lauded for its smooth and peaceful transition to democracy. You have the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been criticized for snubbing western style democracy. Do you feel let down by them? Has this shaken your trust in Africa to right its wrongs?'

Tony Blair: 'First of all, when looking at a process of change, it is important to take a broad view over a period of time. If you look at Africa over the last few decades, the movement has been one way - towards a greater democracy. The examples you give are rather different. In Ethiopia, to be fair… there has been the most open election and a lot of progress. It is important that we take account of the human rights concerns and the issues arising out of them; the trouble last year following the election. But on the other hand, it is important to mark the fact that there has been substantial progress there. Likewise in Kenya where, yes, there are real concerns, but the interesting thing about Kenya is that it is an international issue. The government is under pressure to act and people are not just shrugging their shoulders and saying, what do you expect? Do you see what I mean? If you take a broad view of this, I think Africa, in governance terms, is going in the right direction. Now that does not mean that we don't have to keep up the pressure the whole time. The African Union is a body that has been a lot more effective than its predecessor. So I think there are some hopeful signs, as well as obviously some issues.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'As you say, there are hopeful signs. But doesn't it disappoint you that, even with this marked progress, there are things that go wrong that could fundamentally topple what is still quite a precarious situation? You can't dispute that fact?'

Tony Blair: 'I am an optimist. You cannot do my job unless you are optimistic. I think there are real, real problems; but I also think there are some positive signs. Countries like Ghana for example, are making some real strides forward and that is important. It is in all our interests to help. There is certainly a very great confidence in South Africa and your leadership internationally, the fact that it has been successful in the last few years with all the issues you have to deal with here, I think that is a hopeful sign too.'

Tumi Makgabo: 'What would you like your legacy to be?'

Tony Blair: 'I have more written about what I am supposed to think about my legacy than thinking about it myself. In the end history makes judgments. We have discussed two very different ones. Africa, where people will say, provided you did what you said you will, then that is a great progressive thing. And then in respect to Iraq which was obviously a very unpopular decision in many quarters. But the thing that links everything together for me is interdependence and interconnectedness. Our security and prosperity lie in the spread of values, democracy, social justice, the belief that individuals should have the rights to live under proper forms of governments. I believe that for Africa and the Middle East. I am prepared to put an immense amount of effort in helping people get there. It is a good thing and the right thing, for countries like mine that need to have partners in the rest of the world, that we can work with…I don't know; it will be for others to go write the history books and go and describe whatever legacy I have. But what I try to do in difficult situations is to try to do what I believe to be right.'

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