As with his premiership, Tony Blair’s autobiography, published this month, has been surrounded by controversy. It has rapidly become a bestseller but in the UK book signings have been cancelled because of the threat of demonstrations. Before its launch he announced that he would not receive any money from the book and that all the proceeds would go to soldiers’ charity, the Royal British Legion.
It is still far too soon to adequately assess the legacy of Tony Blair’s 11 years in office as British Prime Minister but no doubt opinions will always remain divided. For many in the UK he is regarded as a villain who took Britain into an illegal and bloody war in Iraq. In the United States he is regarded in almost Churchillian stature, as someone who stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the Americans in the fight for peace and justice. For many in Africa he is regarded as a hero – at least in certain countries. It is doubtful that Robert Mugabe will be extolling the virtues of Tony Blair but, for example, to most Sierra Leoneans he is the man responsible for saving their democracy and restoring stability through his decision to intervene militarily. [protected]
References to Africa in general and Sierra Leone in particular, including several photographs, are dotted throughout the book. I doubt that any other British Prime Minister’s memoirs have highlighted Africa as much. On Sierra Leone he says that he was “immensely proud of what we achieved there”. He cites the involvement of British troops as the justification for intervention “where a strong moral case can be made.” This same argument is made for the intervention in Iraq although there are clear differences. In Sierra Leone the British troops were going in with the agreement and at the request of the legitimate democratically elected government of Tejan Kabbah and with the strong support of the vast majority of the Sierra Leone people.
As British High Commissioner I had argued for the deployment of British troops to bolster the ineffective UN force deployed to consolidate the restoration of the Kabbah government in 1998 which had been achieved through the intervention of the Ecomog/Nigerian forces, but I was turned down. Initially the British Foreign Office under Robin Cook was more concerned with the “Arms to Africa scandal” (strangely not mentioned in the book?). Instead Cook, who was supposedly promoting his “ethical foreign policy” at the time, advocated a power sharing agreement with the notorious rebels under Foday Sankoh, notwithstanding my view that this was morally wrong and that Sankoh could not be trusted. I was conscious that I had some support from Tony Blair in No 10 but at the time he was not prepared to go against his Foreign Minister and the policy makers in the Foreign Office. As a result the rebels regrouped and attacked Freetown in 1999. It was the kidnapping of some British troops in 2000 which finally prompted the British government to go on the military offensive.
The deployment was hugely successful, for which Tony Blair can rightly take much credit. The operation, which sadly resulted in the loss of life of one SAS soldier, was master minded by General Sir David Richards, currently Chief of the Defence Staff, though he gets no mention in the book. There was cynical speculation at the time that Tony Blair had only decided to get involved in Sierra Leone because his late father, Leo, had been a visiting lecturer at Fourah Bay University in the 1960s. This fact receives a passing mention in the book but I believe that his commitment was driven by a genuine desire to help Africa, a desire shared by his ministers at the time, Gordon Brown and Clare Short.
Tony Blair’s foray into Africa whilst in office did not rest with Sierra Leone. He was the driving force behind the Commission for Africa which produced the report “Our Common Interest” in 2005. A well documented and thought provoking report, sadly like so many others, it is now left to gather dust on the shelves of government ministries and research institutions around the world, but at the time it helped ensure that the needs of Africa were high on the agenda of governments and institutions in the face of so many competing priorities.
Tony Blair was undoubtedly impressed with the activities of the pop stars Bono and Bob Geldorf – they receive more mentions in his book than Nelson Mandela! Maybe it was because of his aspirations to be a rock guitarist (!) but his passion for Africa has probably helped fuel the activities of Bill Gates and his club of philanthropic billionaires which are making a genuine difference in parts of Africa.
In his retirement Tony Blair’s interest in Africa has remained. He launched his African Governance Initiative which works with leaders and their governments on policy delivery and attracting sustainable investment in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Better governance is undoubtedly needed in many African countries, not only those identified, and the Initiative has attracted substantial funding but has yet to establish substantial results. In 2008 he launched the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which promotes respect and understanding between the major religions and makes the case for faith as a force for good in the modern world. Somewhat surprisingly this has not been very active in Africa but is seen as more in support of his role as the Special representative to the Middle East on behalf of the US, UN, Russia and the EU.
The tendency in recent decades for democracies to elect younger leaders often means that when these leaders retire they are still active and need to look for other things to do, usually away from their domestic politics. In Tony Blair’s case Africa appears to be a beneficiary. [/protected]
By Peter Penfold
The Writer was the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone from 1997-2000
Tony Blair’s book Tony Blair A Journey is published by Hutchinson.