African business, politics and lifestyle
Gaddafi keeps African leaders talking
Despite the extremely tight security at this week’s African Union summit in Ethiopia, one brief lapse gave some journalists covering the meeting a very rare glimpse behind the scenes.
Reporters at the annual meeting in Addis Ababa are normally kept well away from the heads of state, except for the occasional carefully managed press conference, or a brief word thrown in our direction as they sweep past in the middle of a phalanx of sharp-elbowed, scowling bodyguards.
As the talks dragged well past midnight on Tuesday, long after the summit was scheduled to end, a European diplomat approached me and a colleague: “Want to see something interesting?”
Leading us down an outside staircase, we were suddenly confronted with the sight of dozens of African leaders consulting in private.
The curtains in the meeting room had been left open a little, and we had a perfect view of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi holding forth. Gaddafi, who was elected AU chairman at the summit, appeared to be particularly animated — although we couldn’t hear what he was saying.
But as the discussions neared 2 a.m., the other presidents became visibly more and more tired.
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, sitting just a couple of metres away, looked particularly dejected, often holding his head in his hands. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stared stonily ahead. AU Commission chairman Jean Ping, sitting next to Gaddafi, stifled a few yawns.
I ran to tell colleagues and soon a couple of photographers were snapping away through the glass. It was bright inside, and pitch black outside, so the presidents couldn’t see us.
“Nobody use flash: security will be here in a split second if they see it,” one Kenyan cameraman warned.
And still the talks went on.
Several leaders kept checking their watches, and others began surreptitiously packing their attaché cases, perhaps in the hope of heading back to their hotels to sleep or to enjoy the last few hours of Addis Ababa nightlife.
Then an aide brought the gold-robed Gaddafi another steaming pot of tea.
Would anybody be able to leave before dawn?
Moments later, Museveni decided to act.
Leaving his seat, he walked the length of the hall and whispered something in the Libyan leader’s ear. Gaddafi looked up at him, laughed, and moments later the meeting broke up.
We quit our unprecedented vantage point on the stairs and raced with scores of other journalists, bodyguards and officials to the entrance to the hall. Maybe we would get the press conference we’d been waiting for after all.
But no such luck.
A large posse of burly bodyguards suddenly swept past, Gaddafi at its centre. He was going back to his tent, set up in the gardens of a palatial hotel.
“Go home and sleep,” he told the throngs of reporters thrusting microphones at him and hurling questions. “Come back tomorrow.”