A bizarre ambassador for African aid
By PAUL KNOX, Globe and Mail Update
Calgary Thabo Mbeki will occupy pride of place in Kananaskis on Thursday as the world's most powerful nations allow a group of African leaders to attend their annual summit for the first time. The South African leader wants the Group of Eight's support for a plan to boost the flows of aid, trade and investment to the world's poorest continent.
But how credible is Mr. Mbeki as spearhead of an African recovery?
He certainly knows what makes Western leaders sit up and salivate. While Nelson Mandela led the struggle against apartheid from his prison cell, Mr. Mbeki was in exile galvanizing outside support as de facto foreign minister of the African National Congress. He spent years living in London. He was elected handily three years ago to succeed Mr. Mandela as South Africa's president.
In general, Mr. Mbeki has been a middling president of a country with unique and complex problems. But at times his judgment has been so bizarre as to call into question his usefulness as a continental leader and as an interlocutor for Africa with the rest of the world.
Until the last few weeks, his government behaved as if AIDS were a colonialist plot, flouting the conclusions of science and resisting demands for even the cheapest anti-retroviral drugs to be provided to victims. And he has been inexcusably unwilling to stand up to Robert Mugabe, president of neighbouring Zimbabwe, whose disastrous, divisive policies are leading his people to ruin.
It is surely no accident that the 66-page New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), promoted by Mr. Mbeki as a made-in-Africa blueprint for galvanizing economic growth, contains just a couple of tangential references to AIDS.
Mr. Mbeki has lent credibility to crackpots who question the link between the human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS and suggest the disease is part of a plot to keep Africa in its place. Only under intense pressure has he finally agreed to make cheap anti-retroviral drugs available to some of South Africa's 4.7 million AIDS patients. His cabinet ministers are still fighting court rulings declaring its reprehensible AIDS policies unconstitutional.
South Africa is not the only African nation ravaged by AIDS. The highest rate of infection — 30 per cent — appears to be in Botswana. But Zimbabwe, Zambia and Uganda have also been hit hard. No development strategy for Africa is worth much without a serious effort to halt this devastating pandemic.
That was the message delivered by Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy on AIDS in Africa, as the parallel Group of Six Billion People's Summit opened here on Friday. One hopes Africans as well as the G8 leaders heard his message. Mr. Mbeki cannot be taken seriously as a proponent of African recovery unless he demonstrates leadership on AIDS.
Equally unbecoming is the mantle of apologist for Mr. Mugabe. The Zimbabwean president has persecuted law-abiding white farmers and sent gangs of thugs to harass, beat up and murder political opponents. The April voting that re-elected him was a travesty of democratic process. Yet Mr. Mbeki was one of those leading the effort to stall the censure of Mr. Mugabe by the Commonwealth.
This record makes you wonder what will become of the so-called African Peer Review Mechanism, under which African "eminent persons" — not Europeans or North Americans — are supposed to decide whether African countries are measuring up to the governance principles set out in NEPAD. Peer review is a work in progress; it appears it will be months before details of the mechanism are hammered out. But it will be a laughingstock if people like Mr. Mugabe are able to profit from enhanced post-NEPAD aid.
Mr. Mbeki is not NEPAD's only credibility problem. The 15 nations represented on its implementation committee include oil-rich Gabon. It has been led since 1967 by President Omar Bongo, who was asked to close personal bank accounts at Citibank of New York in 1999 after moving $130-million (U.S.) through them.
Also on the committee are Nigeria and Cameroon — perceived as the most corrupt and second most corrupt countries in the world, according to the independent watchdog Transparency International. Rwanda is another member; it is one of the foreign nations involved in the vicious scramble for mineral wealth disguised as a civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It would be very wrong to expect pristine Western-style democracy everywhere before approving help for people with AIDS, stepped-up debt relief and a fairer deal for Africa on trade, as the G8 is being asked to do. But Africans need to feel that NEPAD is for all of them — those living with HIV/AIDS, those mired in poverty, those living in fear. And North Americans and Europeans who are being asked to help them want reassurance that NEPAD is more likely to bridge gaps than widen them.
Such assurances would flow much more easily if Mr. Mbeki were capable of a visible mea culpa — a strong statement on AIDS coupled with signs that Mr. Mugabe is now on a much shorter leash. The G8 leaders should let him know just how welcome such signals would be. Who better to take the lead than Jean Chrétien, whose idea it was in the first place to give African leadership a showcase at Kananaskis?
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