WASHINGTON – They are seen as the future of Africa, leading the continent away from decades of poverty, warfare and corruption, and into a new era of peace and prosperity.
The leaders of South Africa (search), Nigeria (search) and Senegal (search) have banded together to persuade Western leaders they have a plan to rescue Africa that could work. This week, President Bush heads to each of their nations in a show of support for their efforts.
"It's in our national interests that Africa become a prosperous place, it's in our interest that people will continue to fight terror together," Bush told African journalists Thursday.
Bush is also visiting Botswana (search), a prosperous southern African nation actively confronting the AIDS scourge, and Uganda (search), a thriving east African power seen as an important ally in confronting potential terror networks in the region.
"These (men) are either leaders in Africa, or they are representing the kinds of ... policies that the United States would like to see pursued in Africa," said Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Many Western leaders have pinned their hopes for Africa on South African President Thabo Mbeki, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and their New Partnership for Africa's Development (search).
Under the plan, known as NEPAD, Africa is creating a peer review body intended to pressure the continent's leaders to end war and corruption, while adopting international standards of good governance. In exchange, Western nations are expected to greatly increase investment in the continent, which now stands at a tiny 1.5 percent of global investment.
Despite their strong international standing, the three leaders have more complicated records at home.
Mbeki, 61, took power in 1999 and helped reform South Africa's post-apartheid economy, fighting inflation, lowering taxes and working to gradually ensure that blacks reap greater benefits from the continent's wealthiest economy.
But he has faced harsh criticism for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, and for his government's lackadaisical response to the pandemic -- despite South Africa's 5 million infected people.
His refusal to publicly condemn Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian rule, favoring "quiet diplomacy" to try to push Mugabe toward reform, has led some to question whether Mbeki is committed to good governance in Africa.
Obasanjo, who's first election win in 1999 ended 15 years of brutal and corrupt military rule, has been hailed as the man who restored democracy to Africa's most populous nation. A former military ruler himself, he easily won re-election in April in a vote marred by fraud and scattered violence.
Obasanjo, 66, has played a key role in regional mediation and peacekeeping in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Liberia. On Sunday, he flew to the rebel-besieged Liberian capital, Monrovia, to offer asylum to President Charles Taylor, who is under mounting pressure to step down.
Critics, however, say he should be solving problems at home.
Obasanjo's government has brought Nigerians relative freedom, but most remain desperately poor, despite the country's oil wealth. Nigeria is the fifth biggest supplier of crude to the United States.
Power outages are endemic, AIDS is rampant, and Nigeria is regularly named among the world's most corrupt nations. Recent fuel hikes have lead to a weeklong general strike that is crippling business.
Political, ethnic and religious violence have also surged, killing more than 10,000 people since Obasanjo came to power. Nigerian soldiers who killed hundreds of villagers in two massacres in 1999 and 2001 remain unpunished.
Wade, 73, heads one of a handful of West African nations that have never experienced a military coup. A longtime opposition leader in Senegal, his election in 2000 broke the former governing party's 40-year hold on power in a rare victory for democratic change on a continent plagued by election fraud and civil wars.
An advocate of African solutions for African problems, he spearheaded attempts at mediating violent power struggles in Madagascar and Ivory Coast. He has also sought to build continental support for an anti-terrorism pact adopted in 1999 in response to deadly U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania -- attacks blamed on Al-Qaeda.
At home, he signed a cease-fire with separatist rebels in the southern Casamance region, though sporadic violence continues. There is also bitter poverty. Nearly two-thirds of the population is illiterate, hospitals and roads are neglected, and unemployment is rising.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is a straight-talking leader, who favors free trade and fighting terrorism.
Museveni, 58, ended 14 years of state-sponsored violence under Idi Amin and Milton Obote when he took power in 1986. He ushered in a thriving economy, and his massive AIDS campaign has been credited with a drop in HIV infection rates unequaled on the continent.
Like Bush, Museveni enjoys relaxing at his cattle ranch, where he too sometimes hosts reporters.
But after 17 years of rule, his democratic credentials are questionable. The press is free and elections relatively fair, but political parties are banned under what Museveni says is a temporary measure to keep tribal and regional rivalries in check.
Bush's stop in the sparsely populated nation of Botswana is seen as a way of showcasing a responsible, prosperous African nation as an example for the rest of the continent.
President Festus Mogae, 63, made his mark as a corruption fighter. Since taking office in 1998, he has continued the nation's strict fiscal policies and conservative use of its diamond wealth.
He has also launched the continent's most aggressive effort to fight AIDS, promising to bring treatment to everyone in his nation who needs it. Botswana has the highest adult HIV-infection rate in the world, more than 38 percent.