Evgeny Lebedev

Tony Blair in Africa: How the former prime minister went to war against Ebola, and won the adoration of Sierra Leone

The Independent Friday 12 June 2015

The crowd is four deep, and as the cavalcade pulls into Sierra Leone's Connaught Hospital, a hush descends on the assembled doctors and nurses. The passenger door opens and at the first glimpse of the emerging figure there is an eruption of cheers.

The crowd is not here for a Hollywood celebrity or chart-topper, or even for an existing world leader. The focus of their adoration is instead a man who has not been in elected office for almost a decade, and who, in his home country, is dogged by protesters declaring him a war criminal. In Sierra Leone, however, they love the man; in 2007 they awarded him the title Paramount Chief of Kuffa Bulam – or, as he is elsewhere known, Tony Blair.

To understand the adoration, you need to look back to his first term as Prime Minister, and specifically the year 2000, when Blair sent British troops to end this West African nation’s brutal civil war. The scars of that conflict are still visible, the memories deep; and Sierra Leoneans certainly haven’t forgotten the debt they owe to “Tony”, as they all seem to call him here.

Fans of Blair usually refer to him by his first name; critics and haters, a variant of his last. But, today, in the sweltering heat of the driveway leading to the Connaught – also, coincidentally, the name of the London square where he owns a house – there is a more immediate reason for the first-name reception.

The doctors and nurses are here because in their eyes “Tony” is not just the man who won three terms for Labour or invaded Iraq. He is now also the man who helped them to defeat the scourge of Ebola.

The role that Blair played in bringing the disease under control is little known beyond West Africa. It is an intervention that raises fundamental questions about how such epidemics can best be addressed in future, and indicates exactly what Blair’s priorities are as he seeks a new beginning following his resignation as the Quartet’s peace envoy in the Middle East.

It also reveals the nature and workings of his little-reported-on organisation, the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), which is busily establishing itself in corridors of power across the continent. For the crowd gathered at the hospital in the searing heat, however, none of these issues matters. Their overwhelming preoccupation is to secure a selfie.

“Toneeeeee,” a group of blue-uniformed nurses squeal as he emerges from a black S-Class Mercedes, pressing around him with their mobile phones outstretched. “Mr Blair! Mr Blair!” shouts a hospital porter, his phone hanging in wait, the surrounding smell of disinfectant so strong that it chafes the back of the throat. In their midst, Blair is beaming in a manner that recalls those old photographs from his election success in 1997 rather than the more haunted – often hunted – figure more familiar today.

Ever the politician, he clearly loves the adulation; and over the course of four days travelling with him, and several in-depth conversations, it becomes clear that the missionary zeal that his allies – and enemies – frequently remark on has not dimmed with age. What also becomes clear is that he believes he has found a new outlet for it in Africa.

Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, knows exactly how bad the prognosis for the Ebola epidemic was last summer. The disease had already spread from Guinea to Liberia and now it was gaining epidemic status in Sierra Leone. At the Connaught Hospital so many infected people were arriving at the front gates that they had to be turned away. Medical staff were dying of the disease alongside their patients.

Today the number of infected cases nationwide is barely in single figures; all those who had contact have been quarantined. The Ebola crisis is not over, but, barring a fresh outbreak, it is under control. International operators are even restoring flights to the country. Sierra Leone, Koroma tells me, is once again “open for business”.

“It was difficult when [the epidemic] started as we did not know anything about Ebola,” he says as we sit in his office at the country’s Presidential Lodge. “But we knew it was a fight we could not lose. If you are defeated by Ebola, then it is the extinction of the country. Just before Ebola struck we were the second fastest-growing economy in the world; not only in Africa or West Africa, but in the world. We made it happen because the government was focused and the people were resilient, committed. Then we had these difficulties.”

Everything Sierra Leone had achieved was suddenly at risk. The country’s administrative infrastructure was swamped by the speed at which new cases emerged. Corpses were being abandoned in the streets. Ambulances broke down as spare parts ran out. No one even knew exactly how many people were infected, or even where they were located.

That was how Blair found himself part of the solution. His Africa Governance Initiative does not provide doctors or nurses or medicine. It focuses on something often dismissed or not even considered in modern schools of crisis management: the daily task of governance. Drugs and medical staff were no use if they could not get to where they were needed. What was required was command and control.

“What Tony Blair’s group did,” Koroma explains, “was set up structures, command centres and other things. They were integral in the process. It was a vital role.” Beating Ebola was not just a medical challenge, it seems, but a logistical one.

AGI had already secured work in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea before the disease struck. The organisation developed after Blair’s resignation from office – and expanded from a team sent on a placement to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Their success resulted in Sierra Leone’s neighbours wanting that expertise, too. Soon AGI had staff placed in each country’s crucial departments.

Those working for AGI are instantly recognisable. They are the ones in suits (for the men) or pencil skirts and heels (for the women) – not the cargo trousers and T-shirts usually favoured by NGOs. Nor are they drawn from the same background as those traditionally undertaking such work. Few boast international development degrees on their CVs. Instead, AGI’s staff are drawn from the civil service, management consultancy, and even the City.

Many of them are fully au fait with the implementation of the New Labour project. If Blair is, as some critics suggest, empire-building in Africa, he is doing so by putting those familiar with his own particular brand of public-service reform in positions of authority. Nick Thompson, its CEO, previously headed up the climate change unit at the Department of Business. His deputy, Andrew Ratcliffe, was in Blair’s strategy unit at Downing Street. The founding CEO, Kate Gross, who died last year from cancer at the tragically young age of 36, had been an aide to not only Blair, but his successor, Gordon Brown, too.

Thompson joined us for what would prove to be a whistle-stop tour of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, with barely a day in each, and every minute on the ground filled with meetings. Even the occasional scheduled period of downtime was usually limited on the itinerary to no more than 15 minutes. At 62, Blair clearly has no intention of easing up.

Little has been written about AGI – and when it has, it has rarely been positive, thanks to the general suspicion about Blair and his behaviour since leaving office. It is normally grouped in with Blair’s other interests – both commercial and charitable – in articles with headlines such as “Tony Blair’s byzantine world of advisers and lucrative deals”, and “The VERY rich friends who support Tony Blair’s network of charities”.

Through my own regular visits to Africa, I realised how fast AGI’s influence is spreading; increasingly, it’s an organisation that cannot be ignored. Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda are among the countries where its personnel also populate the president’s offices. Having been a child in the Soviet Union, born long before glasnost, I also know that ineffective government can impoverish a country. I have childhood memories of people queuing for food. Even today, fortunes are being stolen from my native country through corruption. AGI claims to be working to address such problems. But who exactly are these people, and what do they do?

Thompson, a boyish 37-year-old with glasses and permanent two-week-old stubble, admits that when Ebola struck, the organisation was unsure if it had a role. Until then, AGI had focused on enabling economic development – such as the rebuilding of the port in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia – rather than emergency health initiatives. Other NGOs were now pulling out their personnel from the region. Thompson wondered whether AGI should leave too.

“Like the rest of the world, we didn’t see Ebola coming,” he explains. “But by August, when President Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency in Liberia, it was clear that it was the government’s biggest priority and it needed to become ours, too. What we realised was that we had an important role to play. Coordination and organisation are even more important in a crisis than they are in ‘peace time’.”

Two very different buildings in Freetown illustrate the impact of the decision to stay. One is the wood-panelled modernist structure built in the heart of the city to stage the trial of the infamous warlord Charles Taylor at the end of the Sierra Leone civil war. Here, AGI helped the Sierra Leone and British militaries establish the country’s first Ebola National Situation Room. Until then, no one knew exactly where the disease was or what resources were available to stop it. It was quickly found, for example, that although 90 per cent of cases were in the west of the country, half of all available hospital beds were in the east, a five to 10-hour drive away. The result was a nationwide effort to move beds to where they were needed.

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The other building is a nondescript office block up the hill from the country’s national museum that, before the crisis, housed the British Council. Last summer, AGI helped to set up a nationwide network of district control centres. It was here that they established the first.

Today the building looks like the operational HQ of an army in the field – the walls covered in maps, and with white boards marked with details about the latest people infected or in quarantine. Every new case, dead body and possible case of infection in the surrounding region is carefully tracked. Such painstaking attention to detail slowly enabled an out-of-control crisis first to be compartmentalised and then, ultimately, stopped.

For Blair, AGI’s assistance during the Ebola epidemic has vindicated his setting it up. He knew from his time in government that political power rarely works as people imagine. The office of President or Prime Minister may bring the holder the aura of authority, but the ability to deliver change depends on establishing mechanisms to implement what has been decided.

That is not easy in the West. Blair has said he wishes he had been more radical in his first term as Prime Minister. He did not understand fully how to wield the levers of power effectively enough to implement the reforms he wanted. Later he appointed Sir Michael Barber to run a Delivery Unit at Number 10, which was such a good idea that the current Conservative government has just copied it with the creation of an “implementation task force”. In Africa, where few countries have the tradition of a longstanding independent civil service – and where vested interests can be rooted and powerful – it is even harder.

“We live in an often post-ideological era where the critical challenge is governments getting things done,” Blair tells me as we fly out that evening from Freetown. “That is why we started AGI. It is specifically designed to help those governments build the capacity for delivering change. That’s what we did with Ebola. The situation was spiralling out of control and the governments were struggling. Then you had a vast influx of international help. But it needed to be channelled. That was the key, and our people played an absolutely crucial part in putting that together.”

It may be his team who put those structures in place, but it is Blair, when he visits, who in each country goes straight into the offices of the President. The impact of his arrival is almost imperial, and heralds a process that starts before he even leaves the airport. Whether in Freetown, Monrovia or Guinea’s capital, Conakry, roads are closed off and police outriders provided. Low-profile it isn’t – the passing of his cavalcade dramatic enough to make people stop and stare.

The temptation is to imagine that part of AGI’s attraction for him is the opportunity to once again be feted as a political celebrity. Certainly his pleasure at chairing committees on subjects that matter is clear. In both Guinea and Sierra Leone it was he who helped lead the national-response meetings during our visit (in fluent French, for the Guineans). Both Blair’s people, and Blair himself, are in the inner sanctum of the governments where AGI operates.

He is honest about his love of the process of governance – “I adore it” – but is insistent that his focus in Africa predates his departure from political office. “Africa was a big part of my premiership,” he says. “In 2005 we had the Commission for Africa, which is still a landmark document as the right relationship between the developed world and the developing world. Then at the Gleneagles Summit, the G8 Summit in 2005, we had Africa as the centrepiece. So the interest in Africa was always there.”

He is also insistent that there is no crossover between his business interests and AGI. Blair has two commercial companies: Windrush, which markets him as an adviser to governments, and Firerush, which does the same to businesses. Both have made him a rich man and have been at the heart of the belief among his most caustic critics that he is now cashing in on his time in office.

AGI, presumably only too aware how toxic a conflict of interest would be for their – and their figurehead’s – reputation, has gone to extremes to try to ensure no contagion. Compliance, legal and accounting teams all monitor for potential clashes. Money is provided by funders – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and Warren Buffet’s son Howard among them – publicly named on its website. Of the countries where they work, only Rwanda contributes to the organisation’s costs. Blair himself is not paid a penny.

AGI also insists that it carefully vets those who ask for its help, saying that it will only work with governments that have demonstrated their commitment to improving the living standards of their people rather than themselves. Having met a number of those working for AGI, many of whom volunteered to stay in Ebola-struck countries to help, it is impossible not to be impressed by their dedication and idealism. These are people whose stated motivation is not securing some sort of shady business deal, but to try to end poverty. They ridicule the idea that AGI is a front for Blair Inc – and I believe them.

Nevertheless, Blair’s ambition for AGI is startling. This will be “big”, he promises, with plans to expand across the continent. He believes that this is possible because it provides a need that many traditional NGOs – often working independent of governments and relying on foreign workers who take their expertise and knowledge with them on departure – do not serve.

“There is unlimited demand in Africa because we offer something unique, which is people living in the country, working alongside the team of the key decision-maker,” Blair explains. “Governance is the key to successful progress for developing countries today. All of the countries we have worked in have actually shown progress as a result of that.”

“Governance,” he confirms, is one of the two areas that he wants to “really focus on now.” The other remains “religious extremism”, despite his resignation as the Quartet’s envoy. Even he would struggle to claim that his time in that role, beset as it was by the intransigence of the most conservative Israeli political parties and the recent bloody turn in the peace process, delivered much of substance.

But the determination to remain a voice in the Middle East clearly remains. Partly this will be through Blair’s chairmanship of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation that was announced last week. But largely it will be through time spent working on his Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the body established to try to tackle religious zealotry.

“Extremism based on a perversion of religion is a fundamental challenge and the whole essence of the work that I do now [through the Foundation] is based on the belief that you have to attack the ideology of extremism and not just the violence,” he says. “We should pull the governments of the world together and say: ‘Look, there should be a global responsibility on any nation to promote religious tolerance and root out religious prejudice in your education systems, formal or informal.’ We will defeat this when we have the right combination of hard and soft power.”

He clearly does not question the appropriateness of his continued involvement in the Middle East, despite all the criticism that has been heaped on him. Such is the certainty of his own internal world view, and his place in it. Indeed, it is only when conversation turns to Britain, the country in which he and his family live, that his confidence falters. There he is not feted. There he has no outriders, is not whisked on arrival into the offices of the “key decision-maker”. Back home he is often ignored; even ridiculed.

It is not as if he is uninterested in British politics. Quite the opposite, in fact. “The extraordinary thing about the election was that in many ways it was a classic 1980s election,” he confides about last month’s vote in which the Labour Party did so badly. “This was a tax-and-spend election in which the Tories said, ‘You may not like us, but you’ve got to vote for us because of economic competence.’ It was a traditional Labour Party vs a traditional Tory Party – and you got the traditional results.

“Progressive parties win when it’s clear that they understand and get the future. This is particularly true in the generation that’s coming up today. They want solutions that empower them, that give more control over their lives; and whereas the Tories are often anti-government, our job – which is why the Third Way politics still remains absolutely the right way forward – has got to be to say: ‘The role of government is to be strategic and empowering and necessary.’ You won’t win the argument on inequality unless your methods of tackling it are seen to be relevant and future-orientated. People don’t want the state sitting on top of them or telling them what to do.”

He is still a Labour Party member and says he will vote in the upcoming leadership poll. “You can debate things like the union relationship and how that works out and so on. But the idea [for the Labour Party] should be to make sure that your party is capable of getting the broadest interaction with people: that its policy debates are informed by the best ideas that are available, not just in this country but worldwide, and that you have a system of accountability that keeps the party and people marching in step. You look around the world at the successful political parties today, and they’re a far broader coalition than in previous times.”

But, when I ask why – given all he has just said – he thinks his voice has such little weight back in Britain, he falters. His eyes search the heavens and his words initially come as a stutter. “I’ve kind of got used to it,” he says. “But it’s… I think when you are in your country and you’re Prime Minister for 10 years, you tend… You’re never going to be a… I don’t…”

“If I’m honest,” he finally says, “I’ve stopped thinking about it.”

This is Blair’s conundrum. It is the time he spent in office and his effectiveness in getting policy through against often stringent opposition that informs his understanding of why AGI can be a force for change in Africa. However, it is this very ability to deliver his convictions into policy and the resulting fall-out from that which now exclude him from his country. For Britain, the stage he once bestrode as his own is now understandably sullied by the collective public memory of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis.

It appears that the solution Blair has adopted is simply to take his skills to where they are wanted. For now, that is Africa – and in the case of Ebola, that is clearly proving Africa’s gain. Certainly, at Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, it is only the “work” that matters to those gathered there and they’re keen to celebrate him for it.

The time comes for Blair to go; the cavalcade’s engines are already running and the crowd are waiting patiently. He emerges from the hospital for a last shake of hands, a few more selfies, a goodbye wave. There is a final cheer from the crowd; the sky fills with outstretched hands. Then he’s off, his motorcycle outriders clearing the way.

As people slowly disperse, I see a nurse proudly showing to her friends the photo she took with him. She laughs and points at it, her pleasure tangible. Why so happy, I ask her. “Because he is Tony Blair,” she says. “We love him in Sierra Leone.”

Being wanted. Being able to make a difference. The Blair cavalcade in motion once again.