No. 378: Mbeki — From Ousted President to Peacemaker / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
3 October 2016
As former South African president Thabo Mbeki continues his troubleshooting role in Sudan, it is worth examining his post-presidency activities since his dramatic "recall" from office in September 2008.
Mbeki has transformed himself from a philosopher-king to a peacemaker and public intellectual.
At first, he concentrated only on issues of foreign policy, assiduously avoiding domestic politics so as not to get in the way of his successor, Jacob Zuma. He has subsequently bemoaned "a dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift".
Mbeki has visited universities, high schools, business forums and women's groups at home and abroad. He has also talked to African leaders on ways to develop the continent. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Addis Ababa University in 2010 for his peacemaking efforts in Africa, and received the Obafemi Awolowo Leadership Prize in Nigeria in 2015.
Mbeki has focused on issues such as the scourge of corruption and dictatorship in Africa, the "brain drain" of professionals from Africa and the need to strengthen African civil society.
He has criticised the stalled implementation of AU projects, Western fears of China's growing economic presence in Africa, the EU's heavy-handed imposition of unequal trade agreements on Africa, the increased deployment of US troops in Africa and Nato's intervention in Libya.
Mbeki played an instrumental role in brokering the 2009 agreement by which Zimbabwe established a government of national unity that eventually led to elections four years later.
He also became involved in peacemaking efforts in Sudan's five-decade conflicts that have involved disputes between an often repressive jihadist government in Khartoum and subordinate regions such as Darfur, South Sudan, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.
Although Mbeki enjoyed the confidence of Khartoum, many in South Sudan distrust him due to his perceived closeness to Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir.
Mbeki has continued to visit the region, consistently pushing for implementation of agreements on sharing oil revenues, the management of assets and debt, citizenship issues, border security, the holding of a referendum in Abyei and joint control of disputed areas.
He has also pushed for an inclusive national dialogue within Sudan involving political parties and civil society.
After Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down following the loss of a presidential election to Alassane Ouattara in Ivory Coast in 2010, Mbeki was sent by the AU to meet the key actors in Abidjan and prepare a report. He pushed for a political compromise involving direct talks between Gbagbo and Ouattara mediated by African leaders, something that the victorious Ouattara understandably declined.
Gbagbo was eventually removed from power by French and UN forces.
Since 2012, Mbeki has also chaired the UN Economic Commission for Africa's panel on illicit financial flows. The panel noted that capital flight from the continent between 1970 and 2008 amounted to between $854bn and $1.8-trillion. Mbeki thus argued that the $50bn illicitly leaving Africa annually undermined the continent's development efforts, particularly as Africa received $25bn in aid annually.
In 2010, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation was established, with Mbeki as its patron. Its goals include promoting the African Renaissance; serving as an intellectual home for a continental African Renaissance movement; becoming a premier African centre for dialogue, research and publication; and ensuring that African voices are heard and respected on African issues.
Linked to the foundation is the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, established at the University of South Africa to train African youth on the political, economic and social renewal of their continent; and to create new thought leaders.
Students from SA, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and further afield have attended courses at the institute.
The institute seeks to achieve its goals through offering courses on leadership, political economy, gender and public policy, as well as convening regular seminars. Although both institutions are playing an active role in promoting debates and training African youth, a grassroots African Renaissance movement seems a distant pipe dream.
The question remains whether these two bodies can be institutionalised and resourced sustainably to ensure their continuation after their patron's demise: a key challenge for all similar institutions across the continent.
Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and author of Thabo Mbeki: Africa's Philosopher-King