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By Your Friends We Shall Know You Tony Blair

When I first met Tony Blair in 1993 at his house in Islington in North London, I was struck by two things. First, the man who had just recently become leader of the UK Labour Party was disarmingly engaging. Secondly, the man who was to go on to become Britain’s Prime Minister, and arguably the second best known British politician following the Second World War after Margaret Thatcher, was a political light weight. This is not to belittle the man. Far from it. Tony Blair was – and is a communicator par excellence. He got the media, and it got him. His greatest success was to carry the increasingly trivial and morally bereft fourth estate with him – including most of the editor and media proprietors, and with only one of two honorable exceptions.

Since leaving office – voters had tired of his posturing, spinning war mongering, although much of the media was still bleating its love for him – Blair has earned in the region of £50 million. More inquiring minds than mine have attempted to disseminate the ways in which Blair the roving elder statesman, patron of good causes and straight forward lobbyist has managed to make a fortune by combining the services on offer.

Oddly Tony Blair has not been very good at communicating what he has been up to since leaving office. Some of the young people I have spoken to clearly believe that that in working for instance for the Blair Faith Foundation, they have been contributing to the greater good. And who am I, old cynic that I am, to doubt them? There must be a plus side to what Tony Blair does, because essentially he is not a bad man. The trouble is that there will always be question marks over Blair, because Britain’s former Prime Minister doesn’t possess a moral compass. In a different time, he may have said of Adolf Hitler; “I can work with him, because he is earnestly trying to modernize his country”.  As with politicians and irony – they lack it – Blair is so blown away with light weight wealth accumulators, he is seemingly oblivious to what he allows himself to be dragged into. But once the warning lights come on – as with Gadaffi and his entourage, Blair drops them like a shot.

Here are two report from British newspapers, and from opposite ends of the spectrum. First the Financial Times and secondly the Daily Mail. By your friends, you are judged, Mr Blair

This from the Financial Times:

The coverage of Prince Andrew’s ties with Kazakhstan has reminded me of another high-profile Brit with a fondness for trips to Astana: Tony Blair.

When we investigated Blair’s business and charity empire, we were puzzled by the former prime minister’s meeting in 2008 with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longtime ruler of Kazakhstan.

The fullest explanation for the visit was given by Blair in a statement to the state-owned Kazakh Khabar TV:

I am very glad to visit Astana and Kazakhstan. Your capital is a very unique city. It demonstrates the power and development level of Kazakhstan.

We together with the president had a very fruitful talk. We discussed a wide range of issues, including Middle East issues. Kazakhstan may play a very important role in this regard. Moreover, we exchanged views on interfaith dialogue. In this regard, Kazakhstan sets a good example for the whole world

Blair found Astana such a “unique city” that he returned in January this year. No quotes this time. And no mention of Blair’s role as Middle East envoy or his interest in inter-faith dialogue. The Kazakh presidential press statement simply said the sides discussed “bilateral relations”.

Ten days later Jonathan Powell also paid a visit to sunny Astana. It wasn’t his first visit since leaving government, when he worked as Blair’s chief of staff. In 2008, on behalf of Morgan Stanley, he won an audience with the Kazakh prime minister to discuss trade and investment opportunities.

His visit in February 2011, however, was more to do with human rights. Powell held meetings about the National Human Rights Institution, which is clearly not short of work. According to the US state department, these are some of the problems reported in Kazakhstan:

severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system; prohibitive political party registration requirements; restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons; and societal discrimination.

So why are Blair and his former aides interested in Kazakhstan and its billionaire president Nursultan Nazarbayev? It is still unclear. I’ve contacted Blair’s office and will update this blog if they want to say more about the purpose of the visit.

But the trips do seem to suggest that Blair and his associates have lost none of their appetite for working with autocratic world leaders, all in the cause of promoting political reform and economic development.

And then this from last Saturday’s edition of the Daily Mail;

One morning a month ago, amid the kind of hearty backslapping and synthetic bonhomie at which he is so adept, Tony Blair played host to a select group of bankers for what is known in the business as a ‘billion dollar breakfast’.

As is so often the case these days, the principal criterion for gaining admission to the event at a luxurious Swiss hotel — and some much sought-after ‘face time’ with the great man himself — was that you should be very seriously rich.

Mr Blair, tight-grinned and tanned in a trademark open-necked white shirt and dark suit teamed, oddly, with a pair of Australian riding boots, was in his element, holding court as red-waistcoated staff poured Buck’s Fizz and coffee for the invited international money men.

Scene of horror: The skulls of victims of the Rwandan massacres

At the former Prime Minister’s side throughout was a rake-thin and bespectacled black man whom Blair was conspicuously keen to introduce to the assembled movers and shakers. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the event — at which Mr Blair was officially the chairman — was arranged in sole honour of Paul Kagame, the president of the African state of Rwanda.

And this being Mr Blair, the subject on his lips throughout the stylish meeting, held during the World Economic Forum in Davos, was cold, hard cash. Or, more to the point, how much he could persuade the super-rich investment bankers to plough into businesses in his close friend Mr Kagame’s emerging economy.

It is a task to which Mr Blair is devoting much of his time. Both he and his wife Cherie are regular guests of Kagame, flying in on a fabulously luxurious private jet (of which more later) and staying in a smart suite at the Rwandan capital Kigali’s finest lodgings, the Serena Hotel.

Their relationship, it has to be said, is something of a love-in. Mr Blair describes Kagame, a former rebel soldier in the once war-torn country, as a ‘visionary leader’ and ‘great friend’. For his part, the grateful Kagame has called on his people to name their children after his new English chum.

Meanwhile, Mrs Blair recently paid a misty-eyed tribute to his regime’s promotion of the rights of women.

Which, one imagines, must have put an ironic smile on the face of one of Rwanda’s leading female journalists, Agnes Nkusi Uwimana, now languishing in Kigali’s grim Central Prison.

Last month, the newspaper editor began a 17-year sentence for publishing critical articles in the run-up to the country’s blatantly fixed presidential elections last August that saw Kagame — the country’s leader since 2000 — returned to office with a 93 per cent majority.

Friends: Tony Blair greets Rwandan President Paul Kagame inside No 10 in December 2006 while he was still Prime Minister

Another writer on her paper was jailed for seven years. Meanwhile, their paper was summarily closed down by presidential order. Indeed, the increasingly dictatorial Kagame has now closed down all the independent media outlets the country once had.

No wonder Amnesty International has condemned the jailing, while the White House recently attacked Kagame’s growing political suppression.

Even so, Miss Uwimana and her journalist colleague can count themselves lucky. Others have suffered much worse fates.

The sham elections, at which 53-year-old father-of-four Kagame banned the two major opposition parties from standing and stood against three members of his own ruling coalition, were marred by the mysterious deaths of some of his political opponents and critics.

In June, the acting editor of another newspaper was shot in the face and killed. The journalist, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was silenced because he exposed corruption involving Kagame and claimed he had uncovered the government’s involvement in the attempted murder of a former Rwandan army general exiled in South Africa.

Worse was to come. A month later, the vice-president of the country’s Democratic Green Party, which had been due to stand against the president’s Rwandan Patriotic Front ruling party, went missing before his almost decapitated body was discovered. Kagame’s government denied any involvement.

In October, the woman leader of the central African country’s most prominent opposition party, FDU-Inkingi, was jailed under new defamation laws brought in by Kagame to stifle opposition.

Then, two months ago, four exiled political rivals who used to be part of Kagame’s inner circle, but now accuse him of corruption, were jailed by a court for up to 24 years in their absence.

Which makes Mr Blair’s congratulatory letter to Kagame, hailing his ‘popular mandate’ after the vote, seem a bit of a sick joke.

Blair’s robust backing for his latest dodgy friend bears striking similarities to his long-time support of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, to whom he shamelessly cosied up during his time as PM, and to whom he has remained close ever since.

Presidents Robert Mugabe, centre of Zimbabwe and Paul Kagame, right, at an African Union summit in 2007

But could Kagame prove to be even more of an ill-advised friend?

Damning evidence is beginning to emerge that he ordered the systematic genocide of tens of thousands of rival Hutu civilians in revenge for the massacre of up to 800,000 of his Tutsi people in three months of bloodshed in 1994.

In October, the United Nations published a damning 550-page report which detailed the mass rape and torture of Hutu civilians after the Tutsi army, led by Kagame, chased fleeing Hutus into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Witnesses to the atrocities claim there were ritual beheadings, while women and children were set alight, bludgeoned with hammers and shot. The UN has said that Kagame may face trial for war crimes.

Even so, Blair remains defiantly behind the increasingly despotic leader. Two months ago he launched a passionate defence of him, saying: ‘I am a believer in and a supporter of Paul Kagame.’

At the same time, he is said to have rolled his eyes when a Washington-based journalist questioned him about the scathing UN report into the Rwandan regime.

Blair has installed a team of handpicked advisers from his personal charity, the African Governance Initiative — which he set up in 2008 to assist three African countries — at the very heart of the corrupt president’s administration.

Massacre: A Rwandan soldier looks at hundreds of skulls displayed at the Bisesero memorial in the west of the country

The young team of between eight and ten aides, led by a Yale graduate, have taken up key roles in the President’s personal office, working for the country’s prime minister, in the cabinet office and on the Rwanda Development Board.

Which does rather invite the question — just what is in all this for Blair himself? Well, as is so often the case with the former Labour leader, the line between charity and personal aggrandisement is often more than a little hazy.

Take, for example, those flights Blair has made into Rwanda on a sumptuous private jet. The plane is one of two blue-and-white Bombardier BD-700 Global Express jets — costing  £30 million each — owned by the ruler of a country where 60 per cent of the people live in poverty.

In a bid to cover up the millions he has splurged on the aircraft, Kagame’s government set up a private investment company, registered in South Africa, as a front.

However, official records reveal that all the directors of the company, founded in May 2008, work for the president.

Just to make the whole thing even more fishy, the planes, whose registrations are ZS-ESA and ZS-XRS, are piloted by South Africa crews and operated by a private jet company based at Lanseria airport near Johannesburg.

Blair, who has amassed an estimated £50 million fortune since leaving Downing Street in June 2007, is said to have made at least three flights across three continents in one of the planes.

Friends: Blair with Gaddafi at his desert base outside Tropoli while he was Prime Minister in 2007

As long ago as 2009, he was spotted using one of the jets to attend meetings in Israel, Zurich and Abu Dhabi, before being flown into Kigali for a meeting with President Kagame.

At the time, Blair had personally corralled a group of European investment bankers in a bid to persuade them to speculate in Rwanda’s emerging IT and bio-fuels industries. Quite what Blair was doing accepting the flights, which would have cost in excess of £500,000 if he were paying himself, is anyone’s guess.

His trips to Israel can be explained by his duties as the West’s unpaid Middle East peace envoy. But his regular trips to Switzerland and Abu Dhabi are usually about further lining the pockets of his well-cut trousers.

For three years, Blair has acted as £500,000-a-year adviser on ‘development and trends in the international political environment’ for Swiss insurer Zurich. Meanwhile, he is often required to fly to Abu Dhabi in his £1 million-a-year capacity as consultant to the United Arab Emirates’ super-rich sovereign wealth fund Mubadala. None of which sounds exactly charitable.

Kagame casts his vote at a polling station in elections last year

And there is also further reason to suspect the lines between Blair’s twin roles as money-maker and the new self-appointed saviour of Africa are being stretched to something approaching breaking point. Last August, Blair, who pumped millions of pounds of aid into Rwanda during his time as PM, published a lengthy self-congratulatory article about his African charity work — which involves him helping to secure investment — on his personal website.

As one of many such glowing tributes to himself, it was, understandably, barely noticed at the time. But hidden away in a question and answer session is a fascinating admission about the structure of his charity, the Africa Governance Initiative. Describing how the charity works in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Mr Blair stressed first that he deals directly with each country’s leader.

Then he added: ‘The second thing is that AGI then hire a team of young people to come and live in the country — from JP Morgan, or they may have been in Downing Street or in the American system.’

Seasoned Blair watchers will know, of course, that he is a senior adviser to JP Morgan, a major U.S. investment bank, which pays him a reported £2 million a year to brief it on ‘the political and economic changes that globalisation brings’.

No doubt his paymasters at the bank are grateful that Mr Blair is able to put its young executives in on the ground floor of the fast-expanding Rwandan economy.

In recent months, Mr Blair has come in for flak over the ‘opaque’ nature of a complex network of companies set up to control his business interests, because they exploit a loophole that means he can keep his earnings from his business interests and his appearances on the international lecture circuit a secret.

Figures from one of his charities, however, reveal the scope of his influence. Three months ago, a Sainsbury family charity, the Gatsby Foundation, declared it had paid £992,000 into Blair’s Windrush charity. The money was, it said, for charitable projects in Rwanda.

Meanwhile, The Gates Foundation, set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, says it paid £1.5 million to Windrush in 2008 for similar projects in Sierra Leone.

Friends of the former Prime Minister defend him by saying he personally likes Kagame and believes his country’s brutal recent history means allowances must be made for him.

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But one source close to Mr Blair told me this week: ‘Tony’s got a blind spot when it comes to this guy. He is surprisingly easily charmed, and Kagame has gone out of his way to be a very generous host with plane rides and things.

‘But Tony’s credibility has taken an absolute kicking over Gaddafi and, frankly, he can ill afford to get tied up with another dangerous nutcase.’

Surely, even the discredited and morally dispossessed Mr Blair can see that getting into bed with one bloodthirsty tyrant is regrettable, but two starts to look downright careless.

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