Blair ends whirlwind tour of West Africa with plea for campaign to relieve poor nations' debt

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair ended a four-day tour of west Africa yesterday with an appeal for a new public campaign to put pressure on Western leaders to help the people of a continent which he has called the "scar on the conscience of the world".

In Dakar, the Senegalese capital, he pleaded for a campaign modelled on the Jubilee 2000 initiatives which pressed leaders of the industrialised nations to remove the debt of the world's poorest states. He said: "I think it would be good if civil society was out campaigning for this partnership."

Mr Blair's four-day trip from Nigeria to Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal was intended to spark a new era of partnership between the First World and what is perceived as the world's most troubled continent, with the Prime Minister carving out a role as its chief advocate in an indifferent West.

With public services in crisis at home, though, Mr Blair again had to defend his foreign travel, and to emphasise his commitment to reform of domestic public service.

And critics on the ground in Africa are waiting for evidence that his enthusiastic message will translate into concrete changes that touch ordinary lives. In essence, that message is a call for people to work together to end war and create global free trade

"Even a very small amount of time" spent on African issues can make a difference, he said before leaving Senegal, where he visited an Aids clinic.

Officially, Mr Blair's intention was to rally support for a package of aid and development measures at the June meeting of the G8, the world's most industrialised countries, in Canada. The initiative is being sold as "Africa's Marshall Plan", recalling the package that helped rebuild Europe in the Fifties.

The Prime Minister has couched his aims in the language of enlightened self-interest. Partnership is "a down-payment on a decent future for us all" he argued, because failed states are breeding grounds for global terrorism.

Yesterday, before returning home, Mr Blair told Sky News: "Increasingly, it is not a zero-sum game. The one thing we know about today's world is that it is interdependent. If we leave failed states in parts of Africa, the problems sooner or later end up on our doorstep and we have to deal with them, and spend a lot of money dealing with them."

Mr Blair is also the Western godfather of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), a plan hatched by the presidents of South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Algeria to bring £45bn of investment to ailing economies.

The trip has signalled a slight geopolitical shift. By weathering domestic criticism to make the Africa trip, Mr Blair has put some distance between himself and the US President, George Bush, whose foreign policy has been subsumed by the war on terror.

The trip also disturbed traditional, post-colonial, alliances. Mr Blair was the first British prime minister to visit Senegal, a country with strong historical ties to France.

The Conservatives repeated accusations that Mr Blair was appeasing dictators and challenged his decision not to visit countries neighbouring Zimbabwe to raise the question of conditions ahead of presidential elections later this year.