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20 March 2000

Bad air and rank hypocrisy

We are now sending aid to fight malaria. Yet the west destroyed Africa's own means of fighting it

By Malcolm Clark

Aid to developing countries is often a case of giving with one hand what the other is busy taking away. The people of Mozambique, for instance, are about to receive, according to Clare Short, £12 million of state-sponsored aid. That’s a good thing – though the aid will probably cross paths halfway with the interest on loans that our bankers are charging the people of Mozambique.

As part of her announcement, the Secretary of State for International Development explained that the money won’t go towards rescuing people – as it is, there are too many helicopters from over a dozen competing airforces crowding out the few airports in the country. The aid will go towards fighting killer diseases, in particular malaria.

Please, Clare, you were doing so well. If only you hadn’t mentioned malaria.

Strange as it seems, Short’s government and this ancient disease have been linked before. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Indeed, I think it was one of this government’s lowest moments, a full-scale grubby scandal which perfectly highlights the hypocrisy of the west’s apparent generosity towards developing countries.

The name malaria, appropriately enough, comes from the Italian for bad air. It is one of the worst diseases to affect Africa. The continent is afflicted by the most voracious and aggressive of all mosquito species, anopheles gambiae. You can take for granted that its larvae are swarming now in the pools left by the receding rivers of Mozambique. Once an infected mosquito bites a person, it transmits the malaria parasite into their blood. And in Africa, the parasite is also a particularly nasty version, called falciparum, responsible for cerebral malaria.

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Although most Africans eventually build a form of immunity to the disease, epidemics are particularly fierce where a population is affected out of season or during a disaster, such as these floods. In Africa as a whole, it is thought that up to a million children die every year from the disease. So you can see immediately why tonnes of anti-malaria drugs will be needed in Mozambique.

Even the cheapest anti-malaria drugs, such as chloroquine, are expensive for African countries. So it would make sense for them to manufacture their own. Unfortunately, it is an expensive, complicated business getting a pharmaceutical plant up and running, so it is perhaps no surprise that production of malaria drugs is woefully inadequate for the continent’s needs.

Yet this was not always the case. Anti-malaria tablets used to be churned out by the million in Africa but the west put a stop to that, and our government had a supporting role in the scandal. The drugs were produced at a showcase modern plant, one of the most sophisticated on the continent. They were a third of the price of the same drugs in the west. The plant employed 300 people and it exported anti-malaria tablets to the whole of Africa, including the country we are now sending drugs to, Mozambique. The factory was in Sudan. It was destroyed by Tomahawk cruise missiles in September 1998.

Bill Clinton claimed this was not just in retaliation for the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and for the suspected role of Osama bin Laden (whom the Sudanese had years before entertained) in that bombing; no, the US president claimed that the plant in question was “a chemical warfare facility”. He cited evidence, soil samples, which proved as much. It did not matter that the Sudanese claimed to be utterly innocent. They would say that, wouldn’t they.

The bombing, you might remember, happened, by sheer coincidence, just three days after Clinton was finally forced to admit his affair with a certain intern. Wag the Dog was playing in cinemas across America. The bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan wiped the Lewinsky scandal off the front pages.

He wouldn’t have, would he? Not to save his own skin? Before such a horrible thought could crystallise, the British government spokesmen appeared on newscasts across the world, rolling their eyes at the very idea. Tony Blair and the then defence minister, George Robertson, rallied to the cause, claiming that America was justified and defending the apparently unassailable evidence. They were, however, alone in their support. The German ambassador to Sudan, for example, publicly denounced the action.

Then the story began to unravel. The Americans claimed that the soil samples, which had been taken covertly, contained EMPTA, a precursor, they said, of VX chemical weapons. These samples were never released to non-military laboratories. Most scientists said EMPTA could just as easily have been from pesticides or insecticides.

Then there was the strange behaviour of the Sudanese authorities. Government ministers had turned up to tour the site the day after the attack, as the plant was still smoking; it was hardly the behaviour of people afraid of chemical weapons in their midst. Then there was their open invitation to the UN to send a team of investigators. There was also the testimony of a British engineer, Thomas Carnaffin, who had helped build the plant and who pointed out that the very minimum requirement for a chemical weapons plant was that it should have airlocks. The doors on this plant led directly into the streets of a busy Khartoum suburb.

Most surreal of all were the accounts of visitors to Sudan. Al-Shifa was the country’s showcase factory and everyone, from American Methodist bishops to journalists and ambassadors from various western nations, told of how they had recently been shown round a facility that the American government now claimed was manufacturing chemical weapons for export to Iran and Iraq.

As doubts began to grow, the US story began to change, too. Finally one official was quoted in an authoritative review by the Monterey Institute of International Studies, explaining that intelligence operatives may have chosen Al-shifa because it was forward-thinking enough to have a website. They really had done an Internet search looking for chemical facilities in Sudan. “Whoa . . . Lance look at this . . . I think we may have stumbled on something! Get the President.”

Now, it happened that I was making a programme about malaria for the BBC science series Horizon at the time, so I was in contact with some of the leading scientific experts on the disease. Was there any chance, I asked, that Clinton and Blair were wrong? Could the Sudanese government be right when it said the plant was making chloroquine? Well, yes, actually. Every last white-coated one of them was convinced it was a terrible mistake. Then the TV news moved on and the evidence in question was not soil samples but something even earthier – Monica’s dress.

What happened next is instructive and should be remembered every time any Labour minister shows a charitable interest in malaria, or is applauded at conferences when he or she evokes the spectre of the disease and its appalling symptoms.

The Al-Shifa plant had never been a state-run enterprise. Despite the fiery rhetoric about Sudan, the economy is not run along old Marxist lines. The government had encouraged local entrepreneurs to build it and they had obtained soft loans from the Eastern and Southern African Preferential Trade Association, a worthy, respectable institution not much given to funding chemical weapons. A private entrepreneur, one Salah Idris, who was born in Sudan but lived mainly in Saudi Arabia, then bought the plant and invested millions of dollars of his own money to modernise it. It even turned a profit. This wasn’t charity, this was the sort of boot-straps business enterprise the west claims to love and despairs of finding in Africa. A week after the bombing, Idris had his assets across the world frozen by the US government.

In other circumstances Idris would have been exactly the sort of hero the British are supposed to love. The underdog, he fought back. Outraged at the suggestion he could have anything to do with terrorism, he hired a top Washington law firm and the private investigators Kroll. Then he sued the Bank of America and the US government.

In May 1999, the day before the government was supposed to reply to his lawsuits, they gave in. His accounts were unfrozen. The great shadowy conspirator, allegedly in league with Osama bin Laden, was allowed to go on his peaceful way. He is now returning Al-Shifa to the state it was in before a cruise missile appeared on the Khartoum skyline – before, that is, an American president rushed to find a way of changing the news agenda, and his craven allies in Britain lined up to defend him.

As for malaria, after the attack it was estimated that 50 per cent of all hospital admissions in Sudan were due to the disease. So in December 1998 Lady Bingham, wife of the Lord Chief Justice, and not a radical sort particularly, was driven to write to Clare Short. She pointed out that it would cost a mere £25,000 to supply the country with sufficient anti-malaria drugs and stave off an epidemic. Her letter was supported by the British Red Cross, and pointed out that the British government had, in effect, been party to a huge piece of black propaganda. You might think that £25,000 was the least they could have asked for. I would have suggested the cost of the entire plant should be met by the Americans and British. However, Short declined to provide the money, a decision Bingham thought “dismaying”.

So there you have it. Proof that when it comes to dealing with developing countries our government can do it two ways. Bad cop, good cop. As a bully or as an angel. Just a shame that the angel spends so much of her time picking up the pieces the bully, and his cruise missiles, left behind.