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RM Issue #031206

PM to Africans: Clean up corruption
Chretien: Queen 'very gracious' in final meeting

ABUJA, Nigeria (CP) - Prime Minister Jean Chretien had a blunt message for African business leaders seeking foreign investment and debt relief Thursday: clean up your act and manage your resources better.

Chretien's impromptu tough- love act came during a question-and- answer session following a speech to a Commonwealth business forum.

It provided a welcome, and well received, contrast to the diplomatic niceties being served up on the eve of the start of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Chretien was scheduled to meet the Queen and has arranged several other bilateral meetings with leaders.

In his speech, Chretien told the business forum preceding the summit that it was an emotional time for him because of his imminent retirement from politics and his long advocacy of African development issues.

But it was after the speech that the relaxed prime minister really let loose.

Asked whether Canada will lead the push for debt relief for Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and also ranked as the continent's most corrupt, Chretien replied that debt forgiveness is only for the poorest of the poor.

"Everybody would like to be there, not to have to pay back debt," Chretien told a couple of hundred business leaders in a hotel ballroom.

"But in the case of Nigeria, because of the enormous resource you have here, it's a question of internal management very often that is the problem," he said to applause.

"You need the political will in order to redress a country and sometimes leaders have to make very tough decisions. And it is the responsibility of the citizens to back them up."

He said that's why Canada was successful in turning around deficits during the 1990s - political will backed by popular support.

"Virtue eventually pays. Perhaps it's less fun, but it pays."

Chretien was similarly forthright when asked where the foreign investment was that was supposed to flow following the 2002 Kananaskis meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries and its African initiative.

He replied that investors require stability and reassurance, that the decisions of individual citizens determine a country's economic progress and that governments must provide the climate - including rule of law, respected courts and fair elections.

"Africa is very rich, I have no doubt on my mind," said Chretien.

"Two things: you have to have access to markets to sell your products. But you need good administration for the people to invest to develop business. You need political stability. Stop this bloody conflict that you have too often in some parts of Africa. You know, this is the reality, and the capital will come, I'm sure. But help yourself to succeed."

"I'm perhaps a bit blunt but I don't have to be elected here," he added, to laughter and applause.

Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, who shared the podium with Chretien at the business forum, said in an interview that Chretien was spot on.

"He's right. He's correct. This is the decision of the African countries to fight against all that is bad and create a better environment for investment."

And Robert Blackburn, senior vice-president international for Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, said the prime minister was a breath of fresh air at the conference.

"We've had a lot of talk over the last couple of days about the problem of corruption but he was speaking off the cuff and from the heart and very frankly," said Blackburn. "And I think that was very appreciated."

Nigeria, the host of this year's Commonwealth meeting, exemplifies the problem.

With 120 million people, it is Africa's most populous country and would appear a ripe target for business investment.

But Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo faces an uphill battle in reforming a society that even usually taciturn Canadian diplomats call "one of the worst" in terms of corruption.

In countries where "you can't necessarily trust the judges or the courts, we tell our business people: 'It's your decision'," whether or not to invest, said one senior Canadian official.

The official added that encouraging signs for business investment have yet to be seen in Nigeria.

Chretien and Obasanjo are scheduled to attend bilateral talks on Friday.

For Canadian businesses that do get a foothold, return on investment in sub-Saharan countries runs at about 29 per cent, said an official - among the best to be found in the world.

Obasanjo is one of the key leaders of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD, and Nigeria is on NEPAD's steering committee and chairs the implementation committee.

A central goal of NEPAD is attracting investment to Africa by cleaning up corruption, making governments more transparent and accountable and exercising "peer review" to ensure countries are moving in the right direction.

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