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AU Appointment of Chissano as Zimbabwe Mediator Seen as Blow for Mbeki

The African Union named Mozambique's former President Joachim Chissano to mediate the political standoff in Zimbabwe that has alarmed human rights advocates and plunged the economy into crisis. The choice of Mr. Chissano follows President Robert Mugabe's rejection of efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki to resolve the crisis.

The appointment by the African Union of the former president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, as the new mediator for Zimbabwe is seen by some African analysts as a blow to South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, who has been acting as the regional power broker.

As the leader of one of Africa's economic powerhouses, Mr. Mbeki has been able to pursue a strong foreign affairs agenda, often holding his country up as a model for other African nations in terms of democracy, progressive economics and racial unity.

That seems to be changing.

Earlier this week, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe publicly rejected South Africa's appeal to resume a political dialogue with the opposition.

Also this week, rebels who control northern Ivory Coast rejected mediation efforts by Mr. Mbeki, accusing his government of siding with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and his backers.

Last week, in what is widely perceived as major setback for President Mbeki, African Union leaders blocked his compromise that would have given Africa at least two non-veto-wielding seats on the U.N. Security Council. It turns out, most African leaders prefer veto-power wielding seats on the Security Council.

President Mbeki's political activism, some experts say, puts him out of step with other African leaders. Ross Herbert, the senior analyst for the Johannesburg-based South African Institute for International Affairs, is one of them. He says Mr. Mbeki's push for the New Partnership for Africa's Development, known as NEPAD, is making many African leaders suspicious.

"The activism, his fiscal conservatism are not necessarily hugely popular in Africa. People kind of assent to the vision of NEPAD, but they are quite suspicious in Africa that NEPAD is some kind of undertaking by South Africa to become president of Africa or solidify its position. Instead of saying Mbeki pushes NEPAD because he believes in it, they say that he's out to gain something, that he has some ulterior motive," he said.

But Desmond Orjiako, spokesman for the African Union's, cautions not much should be read into Mr. Mbeki's string of recent diplomatic failures.

"I don't even see them like setbacks because no conflict situation is resolved by first attempt or second attempt, especially one as severe as that of Cote d'Ivoire," said Mr. Orjiako. "He is known to have succeeded in many places. He has succeeded in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. He succeeded in Burundi. He's succeeded in a couple of other conflicts in Africa. It should be the other way round. Instead of saying he is failing, he is not failing."

Mr. Herbert says he expects Mr. Mbeki's star to rise again, if for no other reason than Pretoria is one of the main suppliers of troops and materiel for peacekeeping in Africa.

"Almost no country goes without diplomatic setbacks. These things are always to and from. South Africa certainly has fewer cards to play than the EU [European Union] or China or other players, but even those players don't get their way all the time," he said. "There are quite clear limits to South Africa's influence within Africa. It has a certain amount of prestige and stature in the world, but that doesn't really take it too far in Africa. It has leverage insofar as it's prepared to commit troops or money."

Economic incentives, such as extending Zimbabwe a loan to prevent it from expulsion from the International Monetary Fund, analysts say, may also help Mr. Mbeki in exerting influence over President Mugabe.