- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

ABUJA, Nigeria British Prime Minister Tony Blair was due to arrive here late yesterday at the start of a four-nation West African tour during which he will call for more action to fight poverty on the continent.

In an interview with the Times of London published yesterday, Mr. Blair warned the world's richest nations must help end poverty in Africa or risk creating more failed states like Afghanistan. Somalia is such an example in East Africa, and money laundering, weapons trading and human misery are already rife in West Africa.

Mr. Blair's spokesman told reporters the prime minister, who is to give a keynote speech today on Africa's relations with the developed world, hopes to seize the moment to press for more aid.

Africa now has the "best chance in a generation to make progress, not least because of its group of young, energetic leaders who recognize the problems of Africa have to be addressed not just from within but in partnership," Mr. Blair's spokesman said.

It was not immediately clear whom he was referring to. Of the four countries Mr. Blair is to visit on this trip, Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo turns 65 next month, Ghana's John Kufuor has just celebrated his 63rd birthday, Sierra Leone's Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is 69, and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade is 75.

Mr. Blair, who is to be accompanied on his African trip by the British development and African ministers, is expected to arrive shortly before midnight and meet Mr. Obasanjo early today before addressing the Parliament later. He leaves later in the day for Ghana.

Mr. Obasanjo's spokesman, Tunji Oseni, told reporters Tuesday the talks with Mr. Blair would focus on hopes for British investment in Nigeria, assistance with the recovery of money illegally transferred abroad under past regimes, peacekeeping efforts in the region and youth development.

Other issues that could come up in talks are debt, Zimbabwe, British support for an AIDS program, and the return of a collection of ancient carvings and artifacts the Benin bronzes looted by British soldiers in the 19th century that now reside in Lonon's British Museum.

After visiting Nigeria, Mr. Blair is awaited in Ghana for the first official visit by a British head-of-government in more than 40 years. Mr. Kufuor was elected that country's president last year, ending the long rule of Jerry Rawlings in what was seen as a successful democratic transition.

Tomorrow, Mr. Blair is to visit Sierra Leone, a country where British armed forces prevented rebels from seizing the capital, Freetown, in mid-2000.

He is expected to hold talks with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah on the consolidation of peace in the country, scarred by years of war, and on upcoming elections. He is also likely to meet British military officials engaged in training the Sierra Leone army.

Britain is hugely popular in Sierra Leone, and the reception is expected to be warm.

The Standard Times newspaper said two days ago that "a cross-section of the Freetown public will join in welcoming the prime minister as a sign of appreciation to Britain's support to Sierra Leone during the turbulent period."

Sierra Leone gained independence from British colonial rule in 1961.

Mr. Blair spent part of his childhood in Freetown, where his father taught history at Fourah Bay College. According to the News, a Freetown daily, the British prime minister will be awarded an honorary doctorate and visit British-sponsored projects in the capital.

From Freetown, he will fly to Senegal, a French-speaking country and another West African success story that has made a smooth transition to a new government.

This week, Solomon Berewa, Sierra Leone's attorney general, said in a radio interview that rebel leader Foday Sankoh will not be freed even if the state of emergency is lifted.

Mr. Berewa told U.N. radio on Tuesday that Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who led a brutal civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 until a cease-fire last May, will remain behind bars even after the state of emergency is lifted.

Sankoh was sentenced to death for treason in 1998. He was granted amnesty and released in 1999 as part of a deal with the RUF that fell apart when the rebels resumed the offensive. The RUF is demanding Sankoh's release.

On Sunday, Eldred Collins, spokesman of the party created by the former RUF rebels, the RUFP, renewed calls for Sankoh's release, claiming the rebel group had "adequately demonstrated its commitment to the peace process."

The United Nations is setting up a special court in Sierra Leone to try people accused of war crimes during the decade-long civil conflict.

Under the terms of a 23-point agreement setting up the court, it will prosecute people who bear "the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone" since Nov. 30, 1996.

That was the date of the signing of the first, failed peace agreement between the government and RUF.

The court will be able to mete out jail terms but not death sentences.

About 200,000 people were killed and thousands more deliberately mutilated during the RUF's terror campaign.

This week, a RUF official told AFP that about 140 top RUF officials had been cleared in "an internal inquiry" that probed alleged links to the al Qaeda terrorist network. Omrie Golley, chairman of the RUF political and peace council, said the rebel probe found no evidence that RUF officials had any ties to Osama bin Laden's group or sold so-called "blood diamonds" to it.

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