Gadaffi and the AU: Brotherly despots or estranged lovers?
By Jason Pack 20/04/2011
The African Union’s half-hearted attempt to mediate between the two sides of the Libya conflict does not mean they have belatedly joined the international coalition supporting humanitarian military intervention and are finally offering planes. Far from it. In fact, inasmuch as AU member states have thrown their weight behind one side or another they have haphazardly and inadvertently contributed more to strengthening Qaddafi‘s side through unwittingly providing mercenaries, supply lines, and diplomatic cover. Additionally, most African countries would find it impossible to take an overtly anti-Qaddafi stance while their migrant workers are essentially held hostage by events in the country.
For reasons geographical and historical, the AU remains Qaddafi’s most important potential ally on the world stage. If Qaddafi wants to hold onto power in the medium term — and avoid the most deleterious effects of international sanctions in the long term –he positively needs AU support. After all, it was Qaddafi’s African neighbours who helped him first circumvent and then later exit the previous UN sanctions regime on Libya from 1992-1999. Neither side has forgotten this.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that less than a week after an AU delegation attempted some sort of shuttle diplomacy between Qaddafi and the rebels that the “˜ AU peace initiative’ is no longer talked about in diplomatic circles nor does it constitute a functional “˜back channel’ between the adversaries. Qaddafi is clearly in good touch with the AU leadership, while the rebels have essentially spurned them. Nonetheless, the AU is also avoiding overtly aiding Qaddafi. Their March 25th summit in Addis Ababa called for the AU to be at the forefront in pushing for “˜an early resolution to the crisis’ via “˜establishment of a mechanism for continuous consultation and coordination’. Pursuant to this mandate, the AU appears to be cultivating murky “˜neutrality’ with some member states more pro- and others more anti-Qaddafi.
Unlike NATO, the Arab League, the GCC, or the UN, the AU avoided either calling for Qaddafi to go or formally endorsing a no-fly zone. Instead, the AU’s contribution concerns stressing the importance of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, all of which bolster the Colonel and hamper future Western humanitarian interventions in Africa. This is unremarkable because many of the AU’s member states practice repression against their own people, and fear both internal separatist movements and external international interventions.
And yet, despite Qaddafi’s role in its formation, the AU had a dramatic falling-out with Qaddafi long before the events of 2011 engulfed his country. In late January 2010, Qaddafi attempted to run for a second term as AU president. This unprecedented action mobilized Africa’s heavyweight political actors (South Africa, Nigeria, etc.) against him. Additionally, many have denounced Qaddafi’s long-standing idea for a United States of Africa and have called for greater transparency and accountability in the operation of the AU – partially in response to Qaddafi’s use of petrol dollars to sway its decision making. Moreover, Qaddafi’s links to Zimbabwe‘s Robert Mugabe, the post-coup Mauritanian leadership, and Yuweri Museveni in Uganda have made his money and support increasingly less welcome by other African neighbours who are on better terms with the West.
The AU should have been ripe for an emphatic turn against Qaddafi. Now is an ideal time to get on the right side of history by disowning him — as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has so stealthily done. Hindering Qaddafi’s efforts to draw mercenaries from among their citizens or supporting the nascent rebel political leadership would have also been the perfect opportunity for the AU to increase its legitimacy on the world stage. The Arab League’s call for a humanitarian no-fly zone against a member state has breathed new life into the once-moribund organization. Yet, despite an even greater opportunity to make itself relevant and respected, a parallel course was not adopted by the AU.
What then were the goals of the African heads of state who made the pilgrimage to Tripoli on April 10th? It would appear that they were invited by Qaddafi, rather than deciding to mediate on their own initiative. They proclaimed that Qaddafi had accepted their proposed peace plan without making clear the details of how it would be implemented, or even first presenting it to the rebel side. This is not how successes in shuttle diplomacy are generally achieved. The delegation’s pro-Qaddafi bias was betrayed by which countries participated – Mali, Mauritania, Congo-Brazzaville, and Uganda. All receive monies, investment, and political support from Libya
South Africa is another case, however. Although Qaddafi’s support of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress was essential to their success, and reciprocally South African mediation in the 1990s was critical to Qaddafi exiting the previous UN sanctions regime, South African president Jacob Zuma can in no way be described as Qaddafi’s stooge. In fact, South Africa voted in favour of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 calling for a no-fly zone and “˜all means necessary’ to protect civilians, as well as expanded sanctions against Libya. President Zuma is an independent, respected world leader of an emerging continental and international power. Zuma may have genuinely believed he could help mediate in the conflict and that his personal involvement could spur other African states to constructively engage on the Libya issue. Zuma’s departure after the Tripoli leg of the voyage – without visiting the rebel capital in Benghazi – may show that he realized that the AU mediation would come to naught, and hence, didn’t want to be overly associated with its failure.
It is clear that the AU docilely fulfilled Qaddafi’s bidding gaining him propaganda points as a “˜man of peace’, while casting the rebels in the role of warmongers by deliberately offering “˜peace’ terms they could not accept. Beyond this, it is unclear if the mission will have any long-lasting importance. Professor Dirk Vandewalle, Libya-specialist at Dartmouth University, has referred to the AU mission as the first step in a long process of engagement between the two sides. He may prove correct, but there are not yet many signs for optimism.
Independently of this recent mediation attempt, Africa has certainly earned a seat at the proverbial table deciding the international community’s policies towards Qaddafi. However, the AU won’t be able to effectively mediate between the rebels and the regime unless they assert that Qaddafi and his sons must leave Libya as part of a settlement. There are also credible reports that the Obama administration is searching for an African country that would allow the Qaddafis to seek exile there beyond the reach of the ICC. If the AU were to help mediate an exile arrangement it would then have a legitimate claim to see its interests secured during the transition to a post-Qaddafi Libya.
It remains unclear if the possible countries where Qaddafi could go into exile would actually wish to see him leave Libya. A post-Qaddafi Libya is unlikely to focus its diplomacy and investment on Africa. A rebel-led Libya will not simply hand out cash to African countries or pay their AU entry fees. The rebels will look towards renewing ties with the Middle East and Europe. Therefore, the conflict in Libya is also a struggle about Libya’s international orientation. Qaddafi represents a Libya which has looked southward over the last twenty years, while the rebels are certain to turn their attention and largesse to the north and east.
Adopting a long view, the AU’s brief foray into peacemaking should not be dismissed as merely forwarding Qaddafi’s PR aims. Western and Arab actors should encourage further AU engagement in the hopes of forging a truly international consensus on Libya. Both Africa and the world would benefit from having a more effective and internationally respected AU that could advocate for Africa on issues like agricultural subsidies and peacekeeping missions in post-intervention scenarios like Libya or Cote d’Ivoire.
As a result of geography and history, the AU cannot avoid playing a lead role in influencing the final outcome in Libya. But to do so intelligently it must decisively escape the long shadow that Qaddafi has cast over the organisation.
Jason Pack is a researcher of Libya at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. He has published on the Libyan uprising in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and Foreign Policy.