Blair begins African tour with democracy plea

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Tony Blair begins a four-day tour of west Africa today, appealing to leaders of the continent he has called "a scar on the conscience of the world" to embrace democratic change.

Shrugging off criticism in Britain over the amount of time spent abroad, the Prime Minister is due to visit Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Mr Blair will experience Africa's widespread instability first hand when he visits Nigeria, where at least 100 people have been killed in tribal clashes in Lagos in the past four days. In Sierra Leone he will meet many of the 400 British soldiers helping to keep the peace over the last two years.

Mr Blair has said he wants the problems faced by Africa to be seen as a priority for his second term. He has drawn up the itinerary for the trip to support efforts by younger African leaders to help democracy take root in the continent.

Olusegun Obasanjo, of Nigeria, is the first elected President after years of military dictatorship and hopes are rising that it could soon become fully democratic and, as a country of 120 million, a model for the rest of the continent.

The leader of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is at the forefront of efforts to attract more worldwide investment and trade in the continent. The visit by Mr Blair to the French-speaking nation will be seen as an effort by London to build ties outside the Commonwealth.

Ghana recently became the first African country where a military regime voluntarily handed power to the opposition.

Sierra Leone, where elections are planned for May, is seen by the Government is an example of how a country can be turned round in a short time. A British official said last night: "Just two years ago it was a basket-case". The trip also chimes with a repeated Blairite theme that events in apparently far-flung parts of the world can affect the United Kingdom.

But in a letter last night to the Prime Minister, Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, wrote: "I must ask for your reasons for prioritising the countries for your visit as Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone. Surely the real issues of peace, regional stability, democracy and human rights to which you alluded are currently most pressing in southern Africa?

"And I understand you will be going nowhere near Zimbabwe. South Africa holds the key. South Africa could shut down Zimbabwe's railroads, power and sea access if it chose to but to do this President Mbeki is going to need support. If there is one country in Africa that you should be visiting at this time, if not Zimbabwe, then it is South Africa."

But, on the eve of Mr Blair's departure, Wiseman Nkhulu, chief economic adviser to the South African government, said the visit would be "very useful" to the cause of economic reforms. He said: "African leaders embarking on this rocky path need partners they can work with from the start."

Mr Nkhulu, during a visit to London, said Africa had a responsibility to deal with its own military and humanitarian crises. But he added that the continent's leaders had limited means at their disposal and could need "logistical and financial" help in emergencies.