ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Like the elephants that roam the East African savannas, this region's Big Men once looked like an endangered species.
Some leaders were toppled by coups d'etat, others by democratic revolutions or international pressure. Their replacements -- mostly young, former guerrillas who spoke of sweeping reforms -- were heralded by then-President Clinton and other Western leaders as the "new generation" of African statesmen. International aid and investment began flooding into the region.
But to the disappointment of many, this new guard is beginning to adopt some of the undemocratic behavior of the dictators it replaced. And resulting tensions with Europe and the U.S. are threatening efforts to combat poverty and build strategic partnerships against terrorism.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a onetime favorite of the West, was blamed for a bloody postelection crackdown last year in which police shot to death dozens of students and imprisoned thousands more protesters, including elected opposition leaders.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who once declared that no African leader should serve more than 10 years, is entering his 20th. And after pushing through a constitutional amendment, he's expected to win another five-year term in Thursday's election.
Kenya's Mwai Kibaki swept into office in 2002 on a promise to wipe out corruption but is now embroiled in a government contract scandal and alleged cover-up that is unraveling his administration.
"Clearly, all has gone very badly," said Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, a London-based journal. "These were the people that everyone was raving about," but now "there's a reversion to the same old instincts."
The African leaders bristle at such criticism, insisting that they are not nearly as brutal and tight-fisted as their predecessors. Big Men such as Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, Uganda's Idi Amin and Kenya's Daniel Arap Moi ruled through torture and oppression, crushing opposition and squandering their countries' wealth as millions suffered in poverty.
The current leaders blame what they call the overbearing policies of international donors for many of their woes. In an interview, Ethiopia's Meles contended that his only fault was refusing to ride the "roller coaster" of Western opinion. "I have no regrets," he said.
Meles took the reins in 1991 when his rebel army toppled Mengistu's Marxist government. Throughout the decade that followed, he spoke of decentralizing power, building a strong parliament and restoring the economy. Last year, Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest nations, attracted $1 billion in foreign investment, officials said.
By most independent accounts, last May's parliamentary elections were free and fair. But when results revealed that the opposition won overwhelmingly in Addis Ababa, the capital, Meles responded by sweeping up thousands of rioting protesters and arresting political enemies. More than 80 people were reportedly killed in clashes with police last year.
Now Meles says he is likely to step down in 2010, after what would be almost two decades in power.
At a summit last week in South Africa, attended by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Meles, among others, Blair called the Ethiopian leader's response to the election dispute an "overreaction." And last month, Britain's international development chief redirected $88 million in financial assistance away from Meles' ruling party.
Meles accused donors of bowing to public pressure over "fantastic allegations" of human rights abuses. He said about 730 protesters and opposition figures remained in jail on charges of leading an "insurrection." Among those still detained is the recently elected mayor of Addis Ababa, a member of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy.
Meles was betting that the current flap with donors over the disputed elections would blow over.
"The maturity of our relationship will be tested by how well we manage this particular turbulence," he said. "But where our ways diverge, we will have to follow our conscience and accept the consequences."
Uganda was once at the forefront of the so-called African renaissance. Both Clinton and President Bush visited Museveni and praised his leadership in combating AIDS, helping to burnish the Ugandan's reputation at home.
But when huge crowds welcomed opposition leader Kizza Besigye, a former Museveni ally, home from exile last fall, the president promptly had him arrested on charges of treason and rape. He also threatened to prosecute Besigye's wife.
Uganda's High Court was poised to release Besigye at a bail hearing in November when a commando force, dubbed "Black Mamba," stormed the court grounds. Besigye was later freed on bail.
Now, Uganda, which gets nearly half its funding from international donors, faces severe cuts. Britain, Norway, Ireland and the Netherlands have scaled back or diverted more than $50 million in aid, citing democratic backsliding by Museveni's government.