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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 01:51 GMT
Blair begins African tour
Tony Blair with Nigerian Foreign Minister Sule Lami in Abuja
Tony Blair is offering a deal to African leaders
Nick Assinder

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has arrived in Nigeria at the start of a whirlwind tour of West Africa, dismissing claims that he is engaged in "designer diplomacy".

Speaking en route to the capital Abuja, a relaxed-looking Mr Blair said that if he had listened to those criticising his international initiatives he would never have become involved in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Macedonia or India and Pakistan.

It is sensible for us to try to deal with issues as severe as those in Africa

Tony Blair
He said that if he had listened to Britain's Conservative opposition he would not even be involved in Europe.

"You cannot live like that, so I let the criticism pass me by," he said.

As well as Nigeria - the most populous nation in Africa - Mr Blair's tour will take in Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Critics have again claimed he is abandoning difficult domestic issues in favour of travelling around the world portraying himself as an international saviour.

Shuttle diplomacy

And they say that, by attempting to address the deep-seated and historical problems of Africa, he is over-reaching himself for the sake of image building.

Mr Blair has certainly engaged in a comprehensive round of shuttle diplomacy since the 11 September attacks, partly in his efforts to build the international coalition against terrorism.

But he appears genuinely untroubled by the sniping.

Refugee flees ethnic fighting in Lagos, Nigeria
The West wants to see more stability in African nations
He dismissed claims that he could have met the African leaders in Paris on Friday where President Chirac is hosting a summit on aid to the continent.

"There is no substitute for having face-to-face talks with people - I will have a better idea, and they will have a better idea, of where both sides are coming from," he said.

He stressed the significance of the new partnership forged between leading African nations last year in an attempt to boost trade, end conflict and tackle poverty.

Two-way street

"It is sensible for us to try to deal with issues as severe as those in Africa," he said.

"Nothing has been tried like this before - these are politically significant developments."

But he also made it clear that this was a two-way street.

British soldier talks to villager in Sierra Leone
Britain already has troops in Sierra Leone
The West would be willing to offer aid and assistance to African nations, he said, but only if they in turn tackled corruption, violence and instability.

"We have been absolutely frank, that is part of the deal," he said.

He added that African nations were well aware of their responsibilities and were committed to coming forward with concrete proposals on these issues.

Mr Blair would not say whether he was ready to commit troops to trouble spots on the African continent - Britain already has forces in Sierra Leone.

But he may well come under pressure to offer training to local forces.

Nigerian presidential spokesman Tunji Oxani
"Britain has a role to play in investment"
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Is this trip great wisdom or great folly?"
See also:

07 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair's African contrasts
07 Feb 02 | Africa
Low-key reception for Blair
06 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair back to world stage
05 Feb 02 | Business
Blair mulls Africa's economy
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Perils of a globetrotting PM
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies home to frosty welcome
06 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair handles diplomacy hazards
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Make or break on transport
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