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Tony Blair, the man who whispers in the ears of Africa’s presidents

By Honoré Banda, Patrick Smith
Posted on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 10:11

Tony Blair visits the autonomous port of Lomé with the Togolese President, Faure Gnassingbé

Through his institute, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), the former British Prime Minister has set up cells of experts to assist Heads of State in accelerating their priority projects.

Restrained applause rippled across the hall in London on 18 February when Tony Blair proferred advice to Britain’s Labour party as it celebrated its 120th anniversary. Although Blair’s last term as prime minister ended in 2007, having won three elections as leader of the Labour Party, he is little celebrated amongst its members.

This luke-warm reception for his remarks on identity politics and how the party could regain power compounded the sense of Blair’s marginalization from British politics.

He looked frustrated and powerless as the Labour Party swung to the left and the country voted, by a narrow margin, to leave the European Union. Both were a repudiation of Blair’s centrist European credo.

Unlike other departing prime ministers, Blair declined the usual honours – elevation to the House of Lords and a clutch of non-executive directorships from grateful companies.

Blair’s ambition was more American in scope. Think of former Presidents and their spouses: the Carter Center in Atlanta in or the Clinton Foundation in New York. They were models for what critics call Blair Inc.

READ MORE Tony Blair on why aid to Africa is necessary but insufficient

The business side of it is Tony Blair Associates, an international organisation that takes on corporate advisory work for outfits such as U.S. Investment bank J P Morgan and Glencore commodity traders.

Alongside this, Blair set up charities such as the Faith Foundation and the Africa Governance Initiative, now parlayed into the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI). There is a sports foundation based in the north-east of England, near his political heartlands and he’s involved with another lobby group on the climate crisis.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the expert accounting advice, the money spinning consultancies get mixed up with the good works. Indiscreet staffers in the Blair organisation tell journalists there is a deliberate ambiguity about many of the top-level meetings. Blair claims he spends about two-thirds of his time working on the charities and then other third earning the money to support them

With a corporate structure of tightly-controlled limited liability partnerships set up by a top tax consultant at KPMG, financial journalists have struggled to understand the sources of revenues, let alone their quantum, flowing to Blair Inc.

Blair airily dismisses claims he is worth over $150m as a risible over-estimate. Yet the family’s property portfolio alone is worth over $50m.

Talking about business in Africa at the Financial Times conference in Claridge’s hotel last year, Blair told the audience how relieved he was to escape from British politics.

Later, in the hotel’s well-appointed meeting rooms upstairs, he held court with African leaders such as South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Ghana’s Deputy President Mahamadou Bawumia.

Blair’s ties with Africa go back two decades to Sierra Leone’s civil war. As rebel forces prepared to storm the capital in May 2000 taking advantage of disarray in the UN and regional peacekeeping forces, Prime Minister Blair sent in British troops, ostensibly on a stabilization mission.

Within days, the Britons were fighting alongside government forces pushing back rebel fighters, having staved off what could have been a murderous siege of Freetown. That made Blair a local hero when he pitched up in Sierra Leone at the end of the war two years later.

It was also the high point of the doctrine of liberal interventionism, of which Blair was an enthusiastic proponent. Within three years his support for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and ensuing international outrage had erased much of Blair’s legacy.

Since then, Blair has struggled to defy Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in the careers of the rich and famous. For the past decade, his corporate consulting and charities have taken on the character of a privatised foreign ministry with its own department of international cooperation.

It started badly in with Blair’s cameo role in a documentary lauding the achievements of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Two months before the film appeared in 2012, Kazakh police had fired on unarmed protestors giving support to striking oil workers. They killed 15 demonstrators and injured scores more.

“If you look back over 20 years,” Blair said in the film, “…you have to say the progress is remarkable.” In mid-2013, Blair helped arrange a meeting between Nazarbayev and David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister at the time.

Blair’s critics, across the ideological spectrum of the British media, lambasted what they claimed was a $40m (a figure stridently denied) consultancy to rehabilitate Nazarbayev’s image and win him a Nobel peace prize. That proved a bridge too far.

So much of this work is in the grey zone, conveniently ambiguous in form, content and commercial value. Most of it has been in Africa.

One of the weirder trajectories was in Libya.

At the 1997 Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh, Blair told journalists that although he had ‘enormous respect’ for Nelson Mandela, he found the South African leader’s efforts to prod Britain into negotiations with Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi over sanctions triggered by the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 to be ‘misplaced.’

Britain had accused Gadaffi of complicity in the disaster which killed all 259 on board and 11 people on the ground in Scotland. But Mandela persisted in his efforts.

Seven years later Blair flew to Libya for a rendezvous with Gadaffi in a Bedouin tent, just outside Tripoli.

Blair offered to end sanctions and a wave of foreign investment, including $110m from Royal Dutch Shell. A less publicised incentive was the cooperation of British and US intelligence operatives in tracking and handing over Libyan dissidents to Gadaffi’s security machine.

In return, Gadaffi offered to abandon his regime’s nuclear weapons’ programme.

Afterwards, Blair told journalists that Libya has made ‘remarkable’ progress and was now an ally in the ‘war against terror’. The encounter was immortalized in pictures of Blair’s awkward embraced with the leader of the Jamahiriya.

Still prime minister in 2007, Blair returned to Libya with the chairman of BP, Peter Sutherland, to see Gadaffi again. In the aftermath, the smiles were less forced. BP had agreed to invest almost a billion dollars, drilling for oil in Libya’s rich reserves.

Two years later, the London Daily Telegraph reported that the head of the Libyan Investment Authority had been encouraged to come to London for discussions prior to another of Blair’s visits to Tripoli, now as an ex-prime minister.

According to the Telegraph, quoting leaked emails, the subject was a proposed deal arranged by JPMorgan between Libya and a Russian aluminum conglomerate. At the time, Blair was a ‘government affairs’ advisor for JP Morgan. Price tag: $3m a year.

Africa has remained a priority for Blair Inc. Two of its clients – the Guinea-Conakry President Alpha Condé and his Togolese counterpart Faure Gnassingbé – are in the news this month, accused of attacking political opponents and fixing elections.

After discreet pressure from Ecowas, and less discreet pressure from the European Union, Condé has postponed his plan for a referendum to change the constitution and run for a third term.

On the other hand, Gnassingbé sent troops to surround the house of his opponent in the disputed presidential elections and expelled the U.S.’s National Democratic Institute after it issued a critical report. More work for Blair’s communications advisors.

Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, was one of the first leaders in 2008, to hire Blair. He then recommended Blair to Gnassingbé, who wants to engineer a Rwandan “miracle” in Togo.

There is also former Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn, whom Blair advised on promotion of industrial parks to China’s provincial governors and textile companies. We hear that Blair is discreetly advising Ethiopia’s current premier Abiy Ahmed on opening the telecoms sector to private companies.

READ MORE Abiy Ahmed paddles Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party towards elections

The list goes on: Senegal’s president, Macky Sall; Gambia’s Adama Barrow; Liberia’s George Weah. And Blair is studiously loyal to that early adopter of the TBI method, Rwanda’s Kagame.

When critics raise matters such as Rwanda’s support for militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi or the murder of regime opponents, such as Patrick Karegeya, Blair is on message, urging focus on the government’s economic achievements and cohort of uber impressive women ministers.

Blair advised on projects, helping Guinean government in 2018 to raise financing from China Eximbank for the construction by China International Water & Electric Corporation of the Kaleta ($446 million — 412 million euro) and Souapiti ($1.4 billion — 1.3 billion euro) dams.

Other projects include help on raising financing for 1,600 km of electricity interconnection between Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, the privatisation of companies in Mozambique, and the structuring of the cashew nut industry in Côte d’Ivoire.

Staffers insist that when TBI advises presidents, it does not arrange transactions or raise financing. They add that Blair is not directly remunerated, suggesting perhaps a commission from the other side of the transaction.

TBI sells a service that Blair brought from his government days, known as the ‘delivery unit’. Small cells, made up of young graduates and international experts (about ten people) are placed at the heart of government.

This may be in the president’s office, ministries or government agencies, such as the Rwanda Development Board, to support administrations. In 2018, TBI officials say they spent $47m on such operations in Africa.

Even here, the financing structure remains opaque. As an avowedly non-profit organisation, TBI is funded one-third by philanthropic donations, one-third by organisations such as the World Bank and USAid, and one-third by the African governments that use its services.

‘Many countries have witnessed the rapid growth of Rwanda, Morocco, and Mauritius and want to build on their transformation models and introduce results-based management. The delivery unit is part of this ….’ said former head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa Carlos Lopes, who, along with Tony Blair and former managing director of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is one of the experts that Togo is consulting for its national development plan.

READ MORE How Kagame and Museveni became the best of frenemies

“Unlike other consulting firms, we combine technical and political imperatives,” Antoine Huss, TBI Director for French-speaking West Africa, told Jeune Afrique.

“Until a few years ago, many states were struggling to find funding to be advised on major operations,” said French lawyer Richard Mugni of Baker McKenzie, CWE’s Guinea counsel.

“They support the states but do not act in their place and offer refresher training in targeted areas,” said Jean-Paul Kimonyo, special adviser to Paul Kagame.

In Senegal, an adviser has been integrated into the Ministry of Energy as part of the Power Africa plan projects. A TBI expert, who had worked on telecoms privatization in Asia countries, is advising Ethiopia’s Ministry of Finance.

These task forces focus on priority projects, aiming to bring in investors. They try to help officials speed up decision-making, monitoring, and implementation process.

Access to the President or Prime Minister and fostering coordination between ministries all helps.

“The real challenge is not the lack of state strategy, but the time it takes to implement projects,” says Huss. “States are constantly being pulled by international institutions, each of which has its own reform agenda.”

TBI helps to ‘package’ projects so they can be presented to investors, he adds.

“The delivery unit has taught us the culture of urgency in project implementation. A government does not have the same responsiveness as a consulting firm,” Kanka-Malik Natchaba, an advisor to President Gnassingbé, told Jeune Afrique.

From a sectoral analysis, TBI experts identified several areas where Togo could attract investors – such as market gardening, logistics, or call centres. They looked factors such as market trends, operating costs, availability of labour then invited several players to meet with the operator TogoCom.

It paid off.

In July 2019, Majorel, founded in 2018 by Germany’s communications giant Bertelsmann and the Moroccan insurer Saham set up in Lomé. It has a global turnover of 1.2 billion euro in turnover.

And Kuwait’s Agility is investing in a multiservice logistics park.

Togo is also in discussions with PVH (ex-Philip-Van Heusen), one of the world’s biggest players in the clothing industry (8.95 billion euro — in revenue in 2018), owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands. Its factories are located mainly in Asia.

After its first roadshow between Lomé, Abidjan, and Accra in November 2019, the TBI is expected to organise two other tours this year to link Hong Kong-based textile manufacturers with West Africa.

Apart from their links to big corporate investors, another selling point for Blair’s consultants is that they are cheaper than the big outfits such as McKinseys or Boston Consulting Group and hire more nationals.

“Their costs are more affordable than other firms, which hire expatriates, because they rely on local expertise. In Togo, 90% of their team is made up of Togolese under 30 years of age,” says Natchaba in Lomé.

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