11 December 2000

West Africa: Soros Launches New Foundation For West Africa

Abuja — The Nigerian capital, Abuja, saw the launch, Monday, of the second African initiative of Hungarian philanthropist and businessman, George Soros - a regional organization to boost democracy and development in West Africa.

OSIWA, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, was launched by President Olusegun Obasanjo and aims to be a "young, dynamic grant-making foundation devoted to building and strengthening the democracies of West Africa".

OSIWA says its vision and mission are to work towards, "a West Africa where all citizens understand democracy's essentials, strengths and limitations; where overwhelming majorities believe strongly that democracy is the best (if imperfect) political system for improving citizens' lives, for resolving conflicts, for advancing national interests and for otherwise governing political units; and where democracy's detractors constitute a weak, insignificant and dwindling force."

The foundation's definition of West Africa will include not only the 16 countries of the Economic Community of West Africa (Ecowas), but also Cameroon and Chad.

In a short address to assembled OSIWA board members, invited guests and Soros himself, the Nigerian leader recalled that he met Soros after his release from prison, following the death of the Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, who had sent Obasanjo and other alleged coup plotters and opponents to jail.

The presence of the Soros Foundation in Nigeria was, Obasanjo said, "a happy conclusion to a discussion between myself and George Soros in New York shortly after I came out of 'college' when I was, myself, just recovering from being a victim of injustice" (his description of his years in prison as 'college' is a reference back to the days of the anti-colonial struggle when those jailed by the British authorities were often described, approvingly, as 'prison graduates').

Obasanjo praised Soros and the work of his foundations, saying that they helped ensure "transparency as an antidote to rampant corruption" and would promote the development of democratic countries and constitutions.

He added that "locating OSIWA in Abuja is recognition of how important it is that democratic governance succeeds in Nigeria. If Nigeria succeeds", Obasanjo continued, "the chances are greatly improved that the democratic government will succeed in Ecowas and all over Africa".

Concluding his speech, Obasanjo told the audience that philanthropists such as Soros and Ted Turner (the CNN media magnate) used their considerable finances and "wise investments" to "invest in open societies" and improve the societies in which they lived. He told Soros: "We thank you, we commend you, we really sing your praises for trying to improve the lot of others".

Soros, who was visiting Abuja for the first time, said he had conceived of the Soros Foundation idea more than forty years ago, because of his experience as a young boy. Soros, who is Jewish, was brought up in Hungary and, at 14, experienced the horrors of a Nazi occupation. "Being a Jew I would probably have perished if my father had not outwitted the Nazis and changed our identities". Soros left Hungary in 1947 when he was 17.

Through life, Soros said, he had learnt that Nazi-style oppressive states or closed societies, as he describes them, had to be confronted with 'open societies': "Ethnicities and religions have to live together in peace". Soros said that people could change governments if they were not doing what they ought to do, and must insist on the rule of law.

Modestly describing his business acumen as "rather successful", Soros said this had enabled him to help others.

Pictures of OSIWA's launch

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