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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 17:09 GMT
In Africa with Blair
Tony Blair in Nigeria
Tony Blair faces criticism from home, as always
Nick Assinder

It is par for the course that whenever Tony Blair holds a press conference during one of his foreign tours he is asked why he did not stay at home.

And it was no different when he sat alongside Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo in his heavily-fortified presidential compound in the capital Abuja.

Refugee flees ethnic fighting in Lagos, Nigeria
The West wants to see more stability in African nations
The two men had clearly spent the previous couple of hours strengthening their friendship and renewing their determination to lead Africa into a new place on the world stage.

But they were also there to present a united front against the "cynics" - some would say realists - who have accused them of embarking on a fools errand.

In an unprecedented speech to both houses of Nigeria's national assembly, the prime minister took on his critics, in effect accusing them of preaching the politics of despair and inaction.

Gadding about

If the world had listened to such siren voices in the past it would still be living in the dark ages, he declared.

Inevitably the opening stage of his trip was dogged by claims that he was engaged in pointless designer diplomacy when he had enough on his plate at home.

The prime minister is genuinely engaged in what he believes is an historic global crusade

Nick Assinder
Why, he was persistently asked, was he gadding around the world rather than tackling those domestic issues. And, on this opening stage of his latest tour, the answer to that question became crystal clear as never before.

The prime minister is genuinely engaged in what he believes is an historic global crusade.

All his words at the last election and during the party conference in the wake of the 11 September were not pieces of empty rhetoric merely designed to answer those accusing him of lacking vision.

Task ahead

They were signalling a campaign that has started to unfold over the past few months.

Mr Blair and his Nigerian ally are under no illusion about the task ahead of them in attempting to unite Africa in a battle for modernisation.

The continent is beset by violence, institutionalised corruption, poverty and a lack of comprehensive health care and education.

The Nigerian capital Abuja still bears many of the signs of its past military regimes and recent ethnic tensions in Lagos and elsewhere hint at the potential for future violence.

And wherever the prime minister was whisked in his 40-strong official convoy he was presented with images of the task he has taken on.

Corruption campaigns

There is no street or hotel without its quota of beggars - often young mothers with babes in arms - prostitutes risking their lives from Aids and heavily-armed security forces often carrying their weapons in an alarmingly casual fashion.

And every government building has its notice boards containing signs urging readers to "say no to corruption".

There are signs of development with a good amount of construction work evident.

And there are clear indications that Nigeria is genuine in its pledges to modernise.

Tony Blair's hotel in Abuja is even hosting a New-Labour sounding "national all-stakeholders conference".

Economic reform

But there are also continual reminders of the abject poverty, random violence and lack of education and health care suffered by the majority of Nigerians and which are echoed across the continent.

The prime minister knows aid is not enough and that economic reform is a prerequisite to development.

By the time of the next G8 summit of industrial nations in Canada at the end of July, he will expect to see concrete proposals to turn his dreams into reality

Nick Assinder
But he also knows that he west will have to do its bit in tackling the conflicts which blight the continent. He is not pledging to send British troops into these areas but he is ready to offer training of local forces.

Over the next few days he will visit Ghana and Senegal and once wartorn Sierra Leone where Britain still has peacekeeping troops.

His message of partnership and development will be the same as the one he took to Nigeria.

And, by the time of the next G8 summit of industrial nations in Canada at the end of July, he will expect to see concrete proposals to turn his dreams into reality.

See also:

07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair hails new era for Africa
07 Feb 02 | Africa
Low-key reception for Blair
06 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair back to world stage
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Perils of a globetrotting PM
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies home to frosty welcome
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