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British PM Leaving Office With Mixed Reviews on Africa Policy

One of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's biggest concerns has been the plight of Africa, once describing it as a "scar on the conscience of the world." For VOA Tendai Maphosa takes a look at Mr. Blair's African legacy as he prepares to step down this week.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's interest in African issues was crystallized with the formation of the Commission for Africa. Often called the "Blair Commission," it published a report in March 2005 aimed at making the continent "strong and prosperous."

Mr. Blair furthered his Africa agenda two years ago when Britain held the rotating presidency of the Group of Eight industrial nations. He made sure that the reduction of poverty in Africa was at the top of the agenda of the G-8 summit in Scotland.

Despite his efforts, some say Mr. Blair achieved very little for Africa.

"I think from the western, British point of view, yes he has pushed Africa up the agenda and that has been very important, created a lot of debate about it," said Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society. "I also think he bought in the aid agency view of Africa ... of Africa as a hopeless starving continent full of wars and famine, and Africa needed almost to be saved from itself. He approached it in rather a missionary sort of way and rather discounted African voices on Africa and was not very sensitive in dealing with Africa and Africa's problems."

Dowden added that Africans also changed their opinion of Mr. Blair when he joined the United States in invading Iraq. He said some viewed his intervention policy as imperialistic.

Vincent Magombe of Africa Inform International, a London-based media agency, says Mr. Blair should have been tougher on corruption on the continent.

"I think Tony Blair has talked too much, he is a very, very bright man and he definitely has a lot of bright ideas," he said. "But Blair was not able to ask Africa leaders to make sure that they are responsive to the aspirations of the population, that they are democratic, that they respect human rights and I think that failure will lead Africa to worse times rather than better times."

One country some critics say will be the Achilles' heel for the Blair legacy is Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu blames the Blair government of reneging on an agreement to fund land reform in Zimbabwe. He says this led to the seizure of white-owned farms for the re-settlement of landless blacks and the imposition of sanctions on the country.

"We are saying good riddance as far as our Zimbabwean government is concerned, as we do not want interference in our internal affairs as a sovereign state, which Blair did not recognize, he did not recognize us as a sovereign state, which has its own policies to make," he said.

But Zimbabwe opposition leaders have criticized President Robert Mugabe of politicizing the land-reform process and using it to enrich his supporters. Many African and Western governments have distanced themselves from Mr. Mugabe's policies.

Some critics say another real challenge for Mr. Blair was Darfur, where Sudan's government has been accused of genocide in fighting a rebel movement. Because of Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prime minister did not have the military resources, the international clout or domestic support for any foreign military intervention elsewhere.

"Darfur really shows the limits of even the most interventionist and progressive governments can do when it comes to the problems of these parts of the world," said Tom Cargill, the Africa program manager at the Chatham House think tank. "Before Iraq, liberal interventions were the order of the day and of course Sierra Leone which will quite rightly be remembered as one of his interventionist triumphs in Africa was going to be the model for these intractable conflicts but Iraq changed all that."

But widely seen as successes, Tony Blair's visit to Tripoli in March 2004 and his meeting with Colonel Gaddafi symbolized an extraordinary turning point in relations with one of the most troublesome regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.

Mr. Blair was also passionate about the HIV and AIDs issue in Africa. His government supported programs aimed at combating the pandemic and lowering infection rates in many African countries.