SA's dilemma of exiled presidents

2011-02-22 00:00

IT has emerged in the past two weeks, coinciding with revolutions in North Africa, that two unconstitutionally ousted presidents of two of the poorest islands in the world, Haiti and Madagascar, want to end their exile in South Africa.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular president of Haiti, was pushed out of government and forced into exile by a rebellion involving former soldiers, allegedly supported by the United States, in February 2004.

Anti-government riots and a northern rebellion in 2004 led to Aristide being whisked away (or "kidnapped', according to Aristides's aides) by the U.S., which sent him first to the Central African Republic and then to South Africa. He still denies that he willingly resigned.

In South Africa, Aristide has not hidden his wish to return to his country and has maintained touch with the distraught members of society among whom he is still very popular. The challenge was that he was "not allowed" to travel out of South Africa, but it is not clear as to who imposed the restrictions on his movements.

A few weeks ago Aristide issued a statement indicating that there was a process in place to return his passport to him to enable him to return to Haiti, a leniency probably occasioned by the surprise return to Haiti of the ruthless dictator, François Duvalier, in January. On February 7, it was reported that the Haitan government had issued a new passport for Aristide.

Marc Ravalomanana was deposed from power in Madagascar in January 2009, following protests led by the mayor, Andry Rajoelina, of the capital, Antananarivo. When the presidential guards fired at the protesting crowds as they approached his palace, the conflict escalated. By March, military commanders had switched sides and helped push the beleaguered president from power. After handing over power to the military, he fled first to Swaziland and later to South Africa.

Rajoelina promised a two-year transition leading to an election under a new constitution. However, international actors condemned the unconstitutional change of power and the new government was not recognised by the African Union, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the European Union and the United Nations.

The mediation by former president of Mozambique Joachim Chissano on behalf of SADC has failed to persuade Rajoelina to relinquish his ill-gotten power to an inclusive transitional arrangement. Concerned that with the passage of time he will lose ground support, Ravalomanana indicated last week that he has decided to return home.

As with Aristide, Ravalomanana's return is a cause for concern among Western powers interested in both cases because their popularity might lead to popular revolutions similar to those in North Africa. Suddenly, Western countries that preach democracy fear its advent in their spheres of influence because they cannot control its outcomes.

South Africa could refrain from getting involved in the politics that surround these turns of events as this could hurt its relations with Western powers. But to do so would be to abandon the struggle for a just and fair world order for short-term national interests.

As a responsible global citizen, South Africa cannot be a spectator in these crises. As a regional leader in Africa and the developing world, it cannot fail to defend the interests of the weaker and poorer states whose sovereignty is being trampled upon by big states. It has to use its influence in the global north to encourage support for a smooth transition back to democracy in both countries. It can mobilise the African Group to support a UN resolution calling for a speedy conclusion of transitions in the countries affected.

The new South Africa is itself a beneficiary of support from progressive developing powers and African countries and some friendly countries in the West who helped counterbalance the role of powers like the U.S., Israel and others that supported the apartheid state against what they thought were terrorists. The challenge is that the conduct of major powers may set a precedent where even our own government would be deposed by major powers when they have problems with us.

No country should have the power to dictate the choices of the people of Haiti and Madagascar by keeping Aristide and Ravalomanana in exile. If we do nothing, we may allow a precedent where big powers orchestrate the collapse of popularly elected governments simply because they do not like their leaders.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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