They are men of many parts, the "new generation of leaders" President Clinton embraced so publicly in his historic African trip last year. But each attained power through the barrel of a gun, and none has been able to put his weapon down.
"I call them warrior princes," said analyst Salih Booker, of the four former guerrillas not long ago ordained as the shining lights of what once was known as the dark continent: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who brought the Pearl of Africa back from chaos; Paul Kagame, whose rebel forces stopped the genocide in Rwanda; Issaias Afwerki, the quietly charismatic leader of Eritrea, Africa's newest and most unified nation; and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose soulful, calm speeches and Western suits describe the antithesis of the Marxist general he overthrew.
They are leaders who are, in the phrase of more than one admiring Western analyst, "really serious about governance." And yet, in the 18 months since sharing the world stage with the U.S. president, they all have started shooting at one another.
Ethiopia and Eritrea--whose governments are rooted in guerrilla movements that worked in tandem to overthrow a dictatorship--went to war in May 1998, barely two weeks after Clinton earnestly declared an "African renaissance." Although casualty counts are speculative, neither side dismisses estimates that tens of thousands have died in trench warfare between the Horn of Africa neighbors.
Uganda and Rwanda--allies whose leaders have worked closely for more than a decade--fought for only three days last month, on the streets of a Congolese city their armies had held jointly for more than a year. But the clash, which reportedly left at least 100 dead, exploded out of steadily rising tensions between the countries over how to prosecute the rebellion that they are supporting in mammoth Congo.
U.S. policymakers, flummoxed by the eruption in the Horn, were mortified by the battle in the Great Lakes region. In each case, the White House sent senior diplomats scrambling to the hot spot in hopes of brokering at least a truce.
The efforts failed with Ethiopia and Eritrea. Rwanda and Uganda, however, not only swiftly agreed to a cease-fire, but the negotiations that produced it also broke a logjam between competing Congolese rebel groups that had prevented implementation of a sweeping accord aimed at ending the larger Congo war.
But beyond the embarrassment of seeing friends fight--and reinforcing the stereotype of war-torn Africa--the conflicts underscore what analysts call a core flaw both of U.S. policy toward Africa and of the form that governance takes across the continent:
It is almost always personal.
"The 'new generation of leaders' approach said, 'Let's choose individuals and build on that,' " said Adonia Ayebarre, a Uganda-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels research organization. "It doesn't work. It really can't work. You have to build on institutions."
Booker, director of Africa studies for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called U.S. policy a variation on colonial diplomacy: "They arrive and say: Take me to your chief."
The gradual passing of the classic Big Man--the despot more concerned with clinging to power and lining his own pockets than with governing effectively--may yet produce broad-based democratic traditions on the continent. The peace accord the Congolese rebel groups finally signed on Tuesday calls for a "national dialogue" to encourage just that in Congo, where President Laurent Kabila has ruled in an autocratic style that critics say recalls the dictator he toppled in 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko.
But Congo's war was largely conducted by outside leaders, who sent troops in on their own authority. Rwanda and Uganda were first over the border. Both cited security concerns, which for Rwanda's ethnic Tutsi-led government meant pursuing the Hutu extremists who carried out the 1994 genocide before being driven into Congo.
"I think all of them share a little bit of the feeling that they have this urgency, that they have this pressing national interest, as they define it," said Booker. "But that's the problem. It's as they define it, not as it's been defined by some [broad-based] process."
All four leaders, moreover, have long experience employing armed struggle as a means to political ends. Not only did Uganda's Museveni and Rwanda's Kagame come to power through guerrilla campaigns, they fought alongside one another. The Rwandan was the Ugandan's deputy chief of intelligence during the bush war that ended in 1986 with Museveni's swearing-in as president, wearing fatigues and a canvas jungle hat.
Four years later, Uganda served as the operations base for the Rwandan Patriotic Front's push to replace Rwanda's hard-line Hutu government. The alliance continued at the state level--the two nations combining to support Kabila's 1997 rebellion ousting Mobutu from Congo, then again a year later in the current, less successful effort to depose Kabila. They are also close personally; Kagame attended the wedding this summer of Museveni's son.
An even stronger personal relationship existed between Meles of Ethiopia and Issaias of Eritrea, who each supported the other's successful guerrilla movement, but it did not stop those countries from coming to sudden blows last year over a border dispute.
The flare-up between Uganda and Rwanda was "like Part Two of Eritrea-Ethiopia," said a U.S. official who works with all four countries. The problem, the official said, is that in neither instance did the bearhugs and solid, even intimate working relationships between the top leaders extend to the governments working below them.
"These are two guys who don't want to acknowledge they have a problem, just like Asmara and Addis Ababa," said the official, referring to the capitals of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
To many, the clashes were all the more surprising given the promise all four belligerents demonstrated in development. Eritrea and Ethiopia were showcases for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Rwanda remains awash in international sympathy and international aid five years after the genocide.
And Uganda has been a donor favorite for most of the 13 years of Museveni's rule. But while outsiders commend his social programs--no other African nation has produced a decline in the rate of new AIDS infections--the president's pride and joy remains the Ugandan People's Defense Force. In reforming the army that once terrorized its population, Museveni also made it the core of his government.
"The two pillars on which this government stands are: one, the military, and two, the people," said Ugandan Defense Minister Steven Kavuma.
Critics call that misguided. "I think the transition from methods of military struggles to methods of political persuasion has proved difficult," said Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda native who directs African Studies at Columbia University. "You can't force someone to think like you."
But Kavuma echoed Booker, who predicted that the African renaissance "is going to be a bloody affair. It's the destruction of the old order and the creation of a new order."
"Your country came from war," Kavuma reminded an American interviewer before going on to compare Robespierre, who led the guillotining frenzy of the French Revolution, to Idi Amin, the dictator who killed and tortured hundreds of thousands in Uganda a century later.
"There is no way we could have jumped from colonialism to just broad, peaceful Africa," the defense minister said. "Much of this was inevitable. It will take time."
CAPTION: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni arrives at the Southern African Development Community summit meeting in Mozambique, which was designed to address regional poverty and conflict.
CAPTION: Rwanda's Paul Kagame fought alongside Museveni, then against him over prosecution of Congo war.
CAPTION: Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi and his Eritrean counterpart supported each other's successful rebel movements.
CAPTION: Issaias Afwerki is the quietly charismatic leader of Eritrea, which has been locked in a border dispute with Ethiopia.