Like the elephants that roam the East African savannas, this region’s Big Men once looked like an endangered species.
Some leaders were toppled by coups d’etat, others by democratic revolutions or international pressure. Their replacements -- mostly young, former guerrillas who spoke of sweeping reforms -- were heralded by then-President Clinton and other Western leaders as the “new generation” of African statesmen. International aid and investment began flooding into the region.
But to the disappointment of many, this new guard is beginning to adopt some of the undemocratic behavior of the dictators it replaced. And resulting tensions with Europe and the U.S. are threatening efforts to combat poverty and build strategic partnerships against terrorism.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a onetime favorite of the West, was blamed for a bloody postelection crackdown last year in which police shot to death dozens of students and imprisoned thousands more protesters, including elected opposition leaders.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who once declared that no African leader should serve more than 10 years, is entering his 20th. And after pushing through a constitutional amendment, he’s expected to win another five-year term in Thursday’s election.
Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki swept into office in 2002 on a promise to wipe out corruption but is now embroiled in a government contract scandal and alleged cover-up that is unraveling his administration.
“Clearly, all has gone very badly,” said Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, a London-based journal. “These were the people that everyone was raving about,” but now “there’s a reversion to the same old instincts.”
The African leaders bristle at such criticism, insisting that they are not nearly as brutal and tight-fisted as their predecessors. Big Men such as Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Uganda’s Idi Amin and Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi ruled through torture and oppression, crushing opposition and squandering their countries’ wealth as millions suffered in poverty.
The current leaders blame what they call the overbearing policies of international donors for many of their woes. In an interview, Ethiopia’s Meles contended that his only fault was refusing to ride the “roller coaster” of Western opinion. “I have no regrets,” he said.
Meles took the reins in 1991 when his rebel army toppled Mengistu’s Marxist government. Throughout the decade that followed, he spoke of decentralizing power, building a strong parliament and restoring the economy. Last year, Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest nations, attracted $1 billion in foreign investment, officials said.
By most independent accounts, last May’s parliamentary elections were free and fair. But when results revealed that the opposition won overwhelmingly in Addis Ababa, the capital, Meles responded by sweeping up thousands of rioting protesters and arresting political enemies. More than 80 people were reportedly killed in clashes with police last year.
Now Meles says he is likely to step down in 2010, after what would be almost two decades in power.
At a summit last week in South Africa, attended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Meles, among others, Blair called the Ethiopian leader’s response to the election dispute an “overreaction.” And last month, Britain’s international development chief redirected $88 million in financial assistance away from Meles’ ruling party.
Meles accused donors of bowing to public pressure over “fantastic allegations” of human rights abuses. He said about 730 protesters and opposition figures remained in jail on charges of leading an “insurrection.” Among those still detained is the recently elected mayor of Addis Ababa, a member of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy.
Meles was betting that the current flap with donors over the disputed elections would blow over.
“The maturity of our relationship will be tested by how well we manage this particular turbulence,” he said. “But where our ways diverge, we will have to follow our conscience and accept the consequences.”
Uganda was once at the forefront of the so-called African renaissance. Both Clinton and President Bush visited Museveni and praised his leadership in combating AIDS, helping to burnish the Ugandan’s reputation at home.
But when huge crowds welcomed opposition leader Kizza Besigye, a former Museveni ally, home from exile last fall, the president promptly had him arrested on charges of treason and rape. He also threatened to prosecute Besigye’s wife.
Uganda’s High Court was poised to release Besigye at a bail hearing in November when a commando force, dubbed “Black Mamba,” stormed the court grounds. Besigye was later freed on bail.
Now, Uganda, which gets nearly half its funding from international donors, faces severe cuts. Britain, Norway, Ireland and the Netherlands have scaled back or diverted more than $50 million in aid, citing democratic backsliding by Museveni’s government.
Museveni remains defiant toward the donors he once courted. He responded to criticism by complaining about the “paternalistic arrangement of the so-called donor-beggar relationship” and declaring that he’d rather do without international funding.
Kenya’s 2002 election marked a rare peaceful turnover of power to an African opposition party. In 2003, Kibaki was honored with a state dinner when he visited Washington.
But U.S. officials are debating whether to again cut development aid, as they did a year ago after Kenya’s anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, resigned in frustration.
After fleeing to London amid death threats, Githongo said this month that he had told Kibaki about bogus government contracts. But Githongo said the Kenyan president did nothing, leaving him “dangling in the wind.”
Three Cabinet ministers have quit under a cloud of suspicion, fed in part by secret tape recordings that allegedly document their involvement in the corruption scandal.
“It doesn’t seem that this can be brushed under the table,” said Bob Kerr, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kenya. Kibaki “came to power three years ago with the intention to clean house, but all these allegations continue to come up.”
Jendayi E. Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for African affairs, acknowledged many challenges for American policy in the region. “We keep pushing the leaders to allow for an open political space and serious contestation,” she said.
Former White House special envoy and congressional researcher Ted Dagne, one of the original advocates of Africa’s “new generation” of leaders, said the region remained crucial to U.S. interests.
Washington originally courted the East African leaders in the 1990s to serve as a front-line defense against Islamic militancy building in Sudan, which was once a haven to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The need for a partnership against terrorism became evident after Al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
But now Dagne says he detects signs that the same leaders are beginning to act like Big Men.
He said the lesson for the West was to resist focusing on individual leaders, and instead ensure that strong democratic institutions, such as an independent judiciary and active parliament, are created in each nation.
“In retrospect, it was not the decision to call them a ‘new generation’ that was wrong,” Dagne said. “But at the same time, we should have also built institutions that would create the backbone of democracy. That was the mistake.”
Botswana diplomat Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, who is in charge of a United Nations peacekeeping mission along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, said it was naive to hope that African leaders would alter their behavior just to remain “shining stars of the African firmament.”
“These are very proud people,” he said. “Men like that don’t live by the standards imposed on them by others.”
Others say that cozying up to these leaders may have made them overconfident.
For years, Western leaders declined to impose sanctions on Ethiopia for failing to abide by an international ruling to relinquish disputed territory to Eritrea, its northern neighbor. Now Eritrea is threatening to reignite a border war. And Uganda and Rwanda continue to plunder the mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, with relative impunity.
“The Western blind eye to this kind of behavior has been perceived as a go-ahead,” said Jean Marie Gasana, senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, an African research group.
The Bush administration’s declared war on terrorism further emboldened the leaders.
“It’s no longer an issue of good governance,” said Mohamed Guyo, acting director of the security institute’s Kenya office. “After Sept. 11, terrorism sells. And these former rebel leaders have perfected the art of hoodwinking the West and selling themselves to the international community” as a buffer against terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
Opposition leaders marvel that the leaders were ever heralded as reformers.
“The West totally misread what the prime minister was saying and doing,” Beyene Petros, an opposition member of Ethiopia’s parliament said of Meles. “All he had to do was talk about decentralization and free-market reform, and suddenly he was a hero.”
Petros noted that after Ethiopia’s 2000 election, Meles’ party launched a crackdown in the south, where opposition parties had enjoyed modest success. “From my perspective, I don’t see any changes in his thinking or polices,” Petros said.
Western officials may have expected more of these leaders than had many of the leaders’ subjects.
“They’re just the same as the old ones,” said an Addis Ababa candy vendor, who like many Ethiopians did not want to be identified for fear of government retribution. “Once these guys get into power, they don’t give it up until there’s a coup or revolution.”