Old colonial rivals aim for new co-operation

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH Foreign Secretary and a French Foreign Minister will this week host in Abidjan an unprecedented meeting of envoys from the two countries, in a symbolic gesture designed to show that a new era of co- operation is replacing the long historical rivalry between Africa's two dominant former colonial powers.

About 10 ambassadors from each side, posted in countries all over sub- Saharan Africa, are expected to attend the Ivory Coast conference on Thursday.

It will be hosted by Robin Cook and his counterpart Hubert Vedrine, and will be the climax of a joint mission by the two men to Ghana and then Ivory Coast, former British and French colonies in West Africa, during which they will meet the respective leaders, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and Henri Bedie.

The initiative flows from last December's Anglo-French summit in St Malo, France, where Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair laid the foundation of what they intend to be a specifically European foreign policy and defence identity.

It will be built around co- operation between the EU's two most influential global powers, who are the only European nations with nuclear weapons.

It could lead to greater aid from the EU to Africa, andgreater co-operation at individual embassies in African countries where either Britain or France is not represented - even to the point of joint embassies in some countries.

The initiative meshes with efforts to boost links between the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, the association of French-speaking countries, mostly former French colonies, scattered around the world.

Both countries also hope trade benefits will flow along the lines of a recent pounds 130m contract won by the British TCI group for port development in Ivory Coast, traditionally the fiefdom of French companies.

Before teaming up with Mr Vedrine in Ghana, Mr Cook will spend two days in Nigeria, where he will meet Nigeria's president-elect, Olusegun Obasanjo and Tejan Kabbah, the elected President of Sierra Leone who is being kept in power only by the Nigerian-led Ecomog force.

The Foreign Secretary will be assuring Nigeria that the return of civilian rule will mean greater Western financial assistance, and easing of sanctions.

In the case of Sierra Leone, source of so much embarrassment to Mr Cook over the past 12 months, he will be desperate to ensure that Ecomog, the one barrier against the savage Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, does not pull out too quickly.

British officials do not hide how much is riding on a successful transition to democracy by Nigeria. "If Nigeria can get it right, the rising water will lift all boats in the region. If it goes wrong then the whole continent will suffer," said one.