2 exiled presidents in S. Africa ready to go home
JOHANNESBURG – One man was ousted from the presidency by a disc jockey supported by the army. Another abandoned his presidency as rebels closed in, flown away in an American jet in what he described as a kidnapping.
Now both former presidents Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar and Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti say they're planning to return from exile soon, sparking trepidation and joy in their home countries.
The South African government, oddly enough, finds itself host to both ousted leaders. It says it'll help Aristide go after a seven-year stay, but counsels patience to Ravalomanana.
It's all about geopolitics.
South Africa has a leading role in mediation efforts for nearby Madagascar. Haiti, on the other hand, is far away, and Caribbean politics aren't high on South Africa's agenda.
When Madagascar's democratically elected president announced he was returning this weekend to his troubled Indian Ocean island off the southeast coast of Africa after two years in exile, the South African foreign ministry cautioned him against taking "unilateral measures."
Ravalomanana's stay has drawn little attention in South Africa. But opposition politicians here had criticized the government for granting Aristide asylum because of accusations he committed abuses while in power.
The cost of keeping Aristide in a guarded government guest house in an upscale Pretoria neighborhood also has been periodically questioned. During his stay, Aristide earned a doctorate in African languages at the University of South Africa and then took a research post at the institution.
Aristide has accused the U.S. of forcing him to leave Haiti. The U.S. first flew him to the remote and desperately poor Central African Republic. He then returned to the Caribbean, to Jamaica, only to have the U.S. object to him being so close to Haiti. Finally, he requested and received asylum in South Africa, which treated him as Haiti's legitimate president.
Washington says it organized the departure at Aristide's request and probably saved his life as rebels who had overrun half the country threatened to attack Haiti's capital. U.S. officials now worry that Aristide's return could further destabilize Haiti, and want to put off his return at least until after a presidential runoff scheduled for March 20.
In an essay published in Britain's Guardian newspaper earlier this month, Aristide said he wants to return to Haiti to help it recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake.
"I will return to Haiti to the field I know best and love: education," Aristide wrote. "We can only agree with the words of the great Nelson Mandela, that indeed education is a powerful weapon for changing the world."
Madagascar's Ravalomanana is equally ambitious, saying that it's time for the people of Madagascar to take the lead in resolving the country's political crisis.
Ravalomanana has vowed to return Saturday, despite having been convicted in absentia of conspiracy to commit murder, charges linked to the unrest surrounding his ouster. The court set up by the coup leader sentenced Ravalomanana to life at hard labor.
"I am going back to start this genuine dialogue, which is desperately needed," Ravalomanana told reporters in Johannesburg this week, saying everyone "must get together to define a solution for ourselves."