Interventionists across the political class in Europe and North America have comprehensively militarized the humanitarian enterprise in recent years. So there was much more dismay than surprise when Save the Children awarded Tony Blair a Global Legacy Award recently. Yes, the same Tony Blair reportedly now worth £10 million who takes Henry Kissinger as his role model.
Ordinary Save the Children staff explained to bosses, in a letter signed by more than two hundred employees, just how damaging this bizarre award is to the organization’s credibility. Critics pointed out that Blair has strong connections with higher-ups at Save the Children, including two former advisers, Justin Forsyth and Jonathan Powell.
A third Blair apparatchik, his former director of political operations John McTernan, put forward the most robust defence of Blair’s humanitarian merits with an argument that turns on a particular idea of Africa’s recent history. In 2001, Blair claimed Africa was “a scar on the conscience of the world,” and his supporters are now pointing to the continent as the last hope for the dogged (and doomed) PR effort to canonize Blair as a saintly humanitarian. “What, precisely,” asked McTernan, “is shameful about Blair’s record in Africa? Absolutely nothing.” The Iraq war, he insisted, is “a legitimate area of disagreement, but one that has no relevance to the Blair legacy in Africa.”
This is simply nonsense. It is dangerous thinking that repeats the old idea that Africa is somehow exceptional or outside of world affairs, and that its only “issue” is poverty. As with the Cold War and the two World Wars before that, Africa is no less subject to global conflict than any other continent.
Blair has no more credibility in Africa than he has anywhere else in the world.
The so-called “War on Terror,” spearheaded by Blair with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, has had dire ramifications across the African continent. The emergence of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram in the mid-2000s opened the way for the current crises in East Africa and the Sahel, including the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi and incessant attacks in Northern Nigeria, most notably the kidnapping of hundreds of girls from the village of Chibok.
Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram’s rise has been complemented by the establishment of the US Africa Command (Africom), a US military presence in Africa of unprecedented scale, and one that is increasingly significant in national and regional politics. Last year, investigative reporter Nick Turse exhaustively documented the range of US military operations across Africa, which include a permanent military base in Djibouti, and drone bases in Burkina Faso, Morocco, Uganda and Ethiopia.
The “War on Terror” has also seen a sizable diplomatic realignment, with many African governments forging much closer ties to Israel and the US in order to receive “support” in combating terrorism. It’s also worth noting the thousands of Ugandan military personnel working as private contractors for the US government and US multinationals in Iraq — a large segment of the de facto occupying force over the past few years have been Africans.
There’s also the question of Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) and what exactly it has accomplished. It’s noticeable that take-up on Blair’s services has been distinctly thin on the ground — AGI work in only Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda. They don’t work in Malawi any more, withdrawing after the government they were advising (Joyce Banda’s) was submerged in a massive corruption scandal. Recently another client (Liberia) has seriously struggled to deal with the Ebola outbreak, for all the talk of Blair’s expertise in “capacity-building”.
By contrast with other global advisers, such as the economist Joseph Stiglitz who works on tailoring resource contracts to prevent poor nations being ripped off by predatory investors, AGI’s exact function is opaque. The neoliberal rhetoric of “good governance” and “leadership” changes very little — where we’ve seen major social-democratic movements gaining traction in recent years (such as Burkina Faso last month, Occupy Nigeria or the 2011 Egyptian revolution), Blair’s initiative has been nowhere to be found. In February 2011, Blair defended Hosni Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good.” Just a week later, Mubarak was forced to step down.
In Rwanda, AGI is supporting Paul Kagame at a time when the notion of the Rwandan president as a progressive “reformer” seems more and more implausible in light of his autocratic style and his destructive role in DR Congo. Blair appears to be committed to the failed idea that Africa should be “saved” by a combination of foreign investment and international development agencies — a model that will continue to fail ordinary people.
Save the Children now have a major opportunity: they should revoke the award and explain why. Desmond Tutu says Blair should be charged for war crimes at the Hague. A politician who has done as much harm as Tony Blair should not be allowed to play on Western ignorance of Africa in order to launder his reputation.