Britain Drops the Debt, but Not for All. (around Africa)

By Seymour, Richard | New African, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Britain Drops the Debt, but Not for All. (around Africa)


Seymour, Richard, New African


The Old Testament decrees that at regular intervals, debts should be forgiven and slaves freed. On 2 December, Britain took a giant and pioneering stride forward to end the burden of debt that has, for so long, crippled Africa and other developing countries.

At a rally dubbed The World Will Never Be The Same Again, organised in London by the Jubilee 2000 coalition, Britain's finance minister (or chancellor of the exchequer), Gordon Brown, told the debt cancellation campaigners that Britain would "renounce all right of debt" owed by 41 countries, many of them in Africa.

Twenty of those countries will have debt cancelled with immediate effect, while the other 21 countries will have their debt repayments placed in trust until they have met certain political and social conditions.

"When the need is so great and so urgent, it is time to ensure that the richest countries who have so much, should not receive any further benefit from the debts of those countries who have so little," Gordon Brown said.

Known domestically as the "Iron Chancellor" for his thriftiness, Brown received a standing ovation from the hard-nosed campaigners. Ed Mayo, chairman of the Jubilee 2000 coalition, hailed Brown as "a giant among politicians on the issue of debt". Britain's move now puts pressure on the other rich countries to follow suit.

But Charles Abugre, the Ghanaian partnership officer for the debt relief campaign, who flew in from Accra specially for the rally, was not so charitable; he had heard it all before. He sounded a note of caution, telling the crowd, "there is still much to be done". He cited the case of Nigeria, which borrowed $7 billion in 1978, has since repaid $15 billion, and still owes $31 billion.

"The conditions, laid out by the IMF, World Bank and other creditor countries," Abugre said, "sometimes undermine the democratic conditions for holding governments accountable in the sense that the conditions make the governments accountable to the lenders instead of the people".

Abugre, however, praised the campaigners. "There is very much to celebrate, the argument has been won," he said. "Ten years ago, the IMF and the World Bank said that debt relief was dangerous, but it has been proved that there is no threat to the global system. The ability to open closed fists is power."

After the speeches, came the march -- the streets of central London took on a carnival feel as the protesters marched, played their drums and carried huge and brightly coloured banners -- much to the delight of passing tourists.

The campaigners reconvened in the night in Trafalgar Square under the statue of Lord Nelson who had presided over many victories in his life, but none more momentous than this one for the people of the developing world.

Despite the cold December night, illuminated by a millennium beacon and hundreds of raised candles, speakers from around the world -- such as Charlotte Mwesigye of Uganda -- offered thanks on behalf of their respective countries but urged for the fight to continue.

She said Uganda has had to come further than any other African nation in meeting the conditions for relief imposed by the lenders, and held her country up as an example of hope to others that still have so much to do. …

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