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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 01:31 GMT
Blair's African contrasts
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's West African tour takes in the best and the worst of Africa.
The precise itinerary has not been made public, apparently for security reasons. But it is expected that Mr Blair will visit four countries - Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Ghana's presidential elections in December 2000 were a model of democracy
The political debate was well informed. It is certain, for example, that the average Ghanaian is better informed politically than the average Briton, and the contest was conducted with good humour all round.
Some of the credit for this must go to former coup leader Jerry Rawlings, who more or less gracefully bowed out of office.
Senegal, where a stopover is planned, was the trailblazer for multi-party politics on the continent back in the 1980s when most African states had dictatorships or military rule.
Its main export is peanuts - but the joke is sometimes made that Senegal's most profitable export is really its democratic image.
That image, and Senegal's pleasant climate and excellent hotels, attract aid workers and development bankers by the planeload, thereby helping to prop up an otherwise weak economy.
But Nigeria is another case altogether, a case of huge missed economic opportunities and ethnic strife.
Nigerians, and those of us who have a soft spot for the frank, confident mindset of the people, love to refer to the place as the "Giant of Africa".
A South African friend of mine recently related a story from former US President Bill Clinton's tour of Africa in 1998.
At a dinner party, he said, one of Clinton's aides, gleaning information about Africa, asked which country was South Africa's strategic partner on the continent.
The South African, who also loves the brash, confident Nigerian style, said:
"I really wanted to answer that Nigeria was South Africa's strategic partner. We all want our most populous nation to succeed. It would be great if we, as the richest African nation, and they, as the biggest, could work together."
But my friend concluded: "We have to admit the truth that Nigeria is in a mess. So I answered Ghana."
The latest fighting between ethnic Hausas and Yorubas in Lagos is symptomatic of widespread religious intolerance.
While much has been achieved in Nigeria with the vast oil revenues from the southern Delta region, corrupt politicians and soldiers have siphoned off very large amounts of money to foreign bank accounts.
The warmest welcome for Tony Blair is likely to be in Sierra Leone, where Britain has made a vital contribution to the return of peace after a decade of war.
That contribution is so popular among Sierra Leonians that in a recent poll 70% of the residents of Freetown said they would prefer to be temporarily recolonised by Britain than have their own politicians continue to rule them.
In Sierra Leone, Blair will see the best and the worst of Africa in one place.
Ten years of war devastated the towns and the countryside. Millions were made homeless and the economy virtually ground to a halt - except for the illegal mining of diamonds, which was the main cause of the conflict in the first place.
In May 2000, the rebels made a new push for the capital, and British troops intervened to save the elected government from almost certain collapse.
The intervention of British troops was hugely popular in Sierra Leone with almost everyone except the feared rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
But the rebels came to realise that with the British army in Freetown it would be impossible to take the city by force, and they are now looking forward to taking part - now calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front Party - in presidential elections in May.
Sierra Leone may therefore be portrayed by British officials as a UK success story in Africa.
But it is still a fragile success. The British have rebuilt the government army into a viable force after it had disintegrated into being not much better disciplined than the rebels. The army is now deploying throughout the country and ordinary people have a new confidence in it.
However, many Sierra Leonians remain convinced that if the British scale down their commitment to the Sierra Leone army too quickly there could be trouble again.
The challenge for Britain in Sierra Leone is to help - but without creating neo-colonial dependency.
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