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Thabo Mbeki: A man of two faces

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  • Thabo Mbeki: A man of two faces

    Here's a recent Economist magazine article on President Thabo Mbeki. It provides a balanced praise/critique of the man. It's a bit long, so I'll only post the first few paragraphs and you can follow the linkfor the rest.

    Africa's recovery largely depends on South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki. But his influence abroad may be undermined by his intolerance at home

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    HE IS no “big man”, but Thabo Mbeki is undoubtedly Africa's most powerful politician. Earnest, academic and remote, he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, Nelson Mandela. Yet, under him, the African National Congress (ANC) scooped a record 70% in last April's election, and his poll ratings are still high. He has another four years in office, presiding over Africa's richest and best-organised country.

    Mr Mbeki is also determined to make Africa as a whole stable, democratic and less poor, and this is a good moment to try. He has the ear of world leaders. George Bush calls him America's “point man” in Africa, and seems inclined to channel more aid and help there. This week Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown, toured the continent to promote Britain's Commission for Africa, a body set up last year to devise a plan for development. He wants annual aid from rich countries doubled to $100 billion and poor-country debt worth $80 billion to be written off, much of it to Africa's benefit: a scheme that meshes well with the UN's Millennium Development Goals (see article) .

    If donors increase their help, however, who will ensure that African countries respond? Only Mr Mbeki (who himself is still unknown to many Africans) stands much chance of influencing other leaders on the continent. And yet he has extremely worryingly autocratic and reactionary instincts, which are clearly on display in the way he runs his own country. If they are a clue to his future leadership, then the hugely ambitious plans of the developed world can probably be consigned to the dustbin brimful with previous ideas to “Save Africa”.

    Abroad, Mr Mbeki is willing to use his weight to knock heads together in the name of peace. It is often a losing game, but at least he tries. So far in 2005 he has been to Kenya, Sudan, Congo, Gabon and Côte d'Ivoire for peace parleys and truce-signings. Last year he made 22 trips inside Africa. If the continent is becoming less bloody, it is sometimes nothing to do with him (he played no part in the recent ending of conflicts in Angola, Senegal or Sierra Leone). But in other places—especially Congo (see article)—his efforts have made a difference.

    Mr Mbeki can chalk up some personal successes. Last year, his spies foiled a coup plot against Equatorial Guinea. The year before, he helped organise the exit of Charles Taylor, a tyrant, from Liberia and helped reverse a coup in São Tome and Principe. He has hosted talks between warring parties in Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire and elsewhere. Most successful (though it did not stop the actual killing on the ground) were some, held in a casino, for Congo's warmakers in 2002. Against the odds, they agreed to a power-sharing government. Mr Mbeki then coddled warlords who muttered of going back to the bush. He even sent a fleet of limousines to Kinshasa to soothe grumpy ministers who had no official cars.

    Mr Mbeki feels it is his business to micro-manage peace efforts all over the place. South Africa has 1,300 peacekeepers in Burundi and 1,500 in Congo; the country is a fairly big troop contributor to the United Nations, but is running short of soldiers not infected with HIV/AIDS (a scourge in which Mr Mbeki, as it happens, does not believe). Around 200 other troops have been sent as observers to Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan. The diplomatic corps is also spread thin, as embassies open all over the continent. When an African is sought to oversee peace talks, it is usually Mr Mbeki who leaps in his presidential jet, Inkwazi, to answer the call.

    His interventions can be controversial. On a recent trip to Côte d'Ivoire, where a civil war is ready to re-ignite, a banner draped from a hotel cheerfully declared “Welcome to Thabo Mbeki, a genuine African hero”. Diplomats and locals were less laudatory. Some said that Mr Mbeki had only a loose grasp of details of the conflict. Others said he was naive, too quick to take rotten politicians and rebels at their word. But at least he helps to get them talking.

    Perhaps as important, he pushes the reform of regional bodies. In 2002, with one or two others, he orchestrated the death of the hopeless old Organisation for African Unity and the birth of the African Union. The new AU is far from perfect, but at least it favours democracy and has set up (or plans) potentially useful things, such as a standing African peacekeeping force, observer missions to conflict zones, a Security Council and a continental parliament.

    The Southern African Development Community, a 13-country group, may yet become useful. Mr Mbeki leads efforts to give it some clout, especially in promoting democracy. He used it to nudge leaders in Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and Mozambique to quit office when their constitutions, or voters, said so. He has notably failed in Zimbabwe, which he likens to the intractable problems of Northern Ireland; though if Mr Mbeki stopped giving Robert Mugabe free electricity, Zimbabwe's appalling leader would surely not last long.


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