11 December 2000

West Africa: Why Geoge Soros Wants To Help 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". allAFrica.com's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton spoke to George Soros after the launch-ceremony.

Mr Soros, Why OSIWA?

I have set up a network of foundations which are working on strengthening 'open societies'. By 'open society', I mean a democracy in a more profound manner. That is to say, not just free elections, but also the institutions, without which democracies cannot function. We started in the former Soviet Empire and, as the revolution there calmed down, we are branching out to other parts of the world where there is a great need to reinforce the striving for democracy.

We can't set up national foundations everywhere, because there are just too many countries and we can't do it. So, here we have set up a foundation that is going to cover 18 west African countries, which goes together with the foundation for southern Africa, OSISA, which covers I think 10 countries.

And why locate it in Nigeria?

Nigeria is going to be one of our two bases in the region, because Nigeria is the most populous and most influential in this 18-country region [the sixteen countries of Ecowas plus Cameroon and Chad]. So, we have an office in Nigeria and we will have an office in Dakar to cover the francophone countries.

This isn't your first venture in Africa; going back 15-20 years you were in South Africa, weren't you?

That's right. It was my first major effort, in 1979, in South Africa. But I dropped it, because I felt that the regime was too pervasive and whatever we did to ameliorate conditions, would actually go to strengthen the regime.

The apartheid regime?

Exactly, the apartheid regime. So it was only after the change that we were able to set up a foundation and we've been there now for 6 years.

Now the idea in the early days was to give scholarships to Black South African students. What is the main thrust now?

This will be a very different effort, because this is to empower the democratic forces within the countries. So, we will not be able to give individual scholarships or do many of the things that we are doing in the other countries.

Mr Soros, people obviously see that you are wealthy and wish to act as a philanthropist - do people ever question your motives? Are people ever sceptical or jealous? Is there a question to be answered there?

Of course there is and I think very justifiably so. And I try to answer it whenever I'm asked.

It's because, at a very early age, I discovered how important it is, the social order in which you live. Because when I was less than 14, in 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary and, being a Jew, they would certainly have exterminated me if my father hadn't managed to outwit them.

And then I had a taste of communism, which I didn't like, so I left the country at the age of 17, and so I learnt at an early age that it can be very unhealthy to live in a repressive regime.

And when you look to the continent of Africa now, is that what goes on in your mind? You were talking a little earlier about local despots in Africa who literally hold their people down and do not allow progress?

Some of the countries are in horrendous condition. When you think of what has happened in Sierra Leone, it boggles the imagination. There is not that much we can do against a bloody despot like Taylor. Because I think using that kind of terror has to be countermanded by force.

Are you talking about President Charles Taylor of Liberia?

That's what I'm talking about, because I think it's now becoming increasingly clear that he is a destabilizing force and is responsible, largely responsible, for what happened in Sierra Leone.

Now Charles Taylor might disagree with you.

I'm sure he would disagree with me. But that's my perception and I think it's increasingly recognised that, because of his attempts to capture the diamond deposits in the neighbourhood, he encourages and supports the rebel forces in Sierra Leone. These have, as you know, committed incredible atrocities. So, I don't think we can do much about Liberia at this stage. But there are other countries where there is an attempt to build democracies. And there, I think the foundation can do more to strengthen those developments, so that they should be successful and less susceptible to this kind of disruption.

But I suppose people could say, 'George Soros is playing a political game of chess here, choosing who he supports, who he doesn't support, through his personal beliefs."

Certainly, I own up to my personal beliefs. But the foundations are guided by people of the region, who know the region. I came here, I am a stranger. I don't really know about the conditions. So, what I said about (Charles) Taylor is what I basically read in the newspapers.

But I think that the foundation people know that a lot better than I do, because the president of the Foundation comes from Liberia [Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Liberian leader and past Africa director for the United Nations Development Programme] So, I rely on people in the region, who have the same idea of an 'open society' and they are the ones who make the decisions.

Mr Soros, you said, and you've said again and again, that the Soros Foundation is not 'manna from heaven' and that people in Africa and on other continents should not expect that you are going to clear their problems; but concretely, what do you expect that OSIWA can do for the people of the region?

Only indirectly by helping, for instance, to strengthen independent media, strengthen independent judiciary. Because certainly our resources are not sufficient to, let's say, engage in micro-credit, which could be a very useful instrument on a very large scale.

We will try to help the micro-credit enterprises also, but we will not be able to do it on a scale that would make a difference. So, we can only try to work on systemic change.

Now you seem to have a very friendly relationship with President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. He spoke very warmly of you as his friend, at the launch ceremony. Is he the man who convinced you that you must come to this part of Africa and try to help?

Yes, I met him shortly after he was released from jail - or college, as he calls it (laughs). Yes that's right. And so we do have a little bit of a relationship. And he encouraged me to come and I responded. But the foundation will be independent of him and of the presidency. Because this is a foundation that is devoted to 'open society' which, of course, has to rely on civil society as well as the state. But, certainly he has made the Soros Foundation welcome here and that is why we have set up in Abuja.

Are the Soros Foundations independent of George Soros?

To some extent, but not entirely. Because they can decide how they spend their money, but if I don't like how they do it, I don't give them any more money. So I would not call them independent, no.

So you have the financial veto, the final word?

That's right and I don't pretend anything different.

Pictures of OSIWA's launch

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