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Has the African Union got Libya wrong?

August 31, 2011

The joke always used to be that the ‘U’ in the African Union’s predecessor, the OAU, stood for useless. After the hopeless failure of African diplomatic efforts to bring a peaceful end to Libya’s rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi, and even more since the bloc held back on recognising the new Libyan rulers, critics suggest the African Union could be making itself irrelevant.

But is the African Union wrong to treat the anti-Gaddafi forces with more caution than their Western allies and the Arab world has done even if the former rebels seem to have widespread support for ending an autocrat’s rule?

There are plenty of reasons why the African Union would be reluctant to recognise the rebels who overthrew a man who did as much as anyone to found the African Union in place of the ineffectual club called the Organisation of African Unity.

Many individuals African rulers benefited from Gaddafi’s largesse – particularly when they were in trouble – allowing them to get over any queasiness at his comic theatre at African summits and his coronation as Africa’s “King of Kings” as well as to humour his quest for a “United States of Africa”.

For South Africa’s ruling ANC, Gaddafi was a friend during the struggle against apartheid. For Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who expelled the Libyan ambassador after he switched sides this week, help has been much more recent. Some autocrats may also fear that the example set by the overthrow of Gaddafi could inspire opponents in their own countries.

For the African Union – and South Africa in particular – there was the embarrassment of seeing peace efforts (no matter how well intended) dismissed internationally while the rebels fought towards Tripoli under the NATO air cover which made their war possible.

It’s not that there is a fully united front in Africa. Increasingly assertive giant Nigeria, striving to set itself out as a champion of democracy, was quick to recognise Libya’s new rulers. West Africans have not forgotten the hundreds of thousands who perished in Gaddafi-fuelled wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere either.

But might there be sound reasons less tied to history and emotional links for African countries to be wary of leaping to recognise the rebels?

First may be the treatment of black Libyans and Africans from south of the Sahara, reported by Amnesty International this week, but evident since the start of the rebellion. While there certainly seems to be truth that some African mercenaries fought for Gaddafi, there have been plenty of reports of black Africans being killed or tortured when it wasn’t really clear whether they were fighters or just part of the army of hundreds of thousands of Africans who made their way to Libya to do hard jobs that Libyans didn’t want.

For some, as explained in this Reuters report on Algeria, there is the suspicion of Islamist links among the anti-Gaddafi forces.

The African Union’s Democracy Charter is also clear that those who takes power by force should be sanctioned not welcomed (although it could be interpreted that this applies to democratically elected governments, which Gaddafi’s certainly wasn’t). Hypocritical it may be for those African leaders who first took power by force to now insist that others should not do so, but the African Union has condemned coups and rebellions elsewhere and suspended countries until they held elections. That has undoubtedly helped make clear that taking power by force should not be the workaday means of changing government that it once was in Africa.

Should the African Union treat the Libyans differently to forces that took power elsewhere even if they appear to have popular support and promise democracy? The African Union will probably recognise Libya’s new leadership in the end, if only because it would be impractical to do otherwise, but is the caution justified? Is it just holding off because of wounded pride over failed peace efforts and ties to old friend Gaddafi?


I think the writer should have highlighted the position of African countries that have publicly declared a different view, such as Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, rather than hide every country under South Africa and Zimbabwe’s dodgy umbrella.

Posted by Ken1006 | Report as abusive

The AU is an old boys club of kleptocrats, dictators and tyrants. If they really were interested in democracy and not just a show of it, they would kick out the countries whose leaders came to power through violence, electoral fraud, or transitioned to long serving tyrants using intimidation and suppression to overstay their term in office.
The day heads of state commit themselves to transparency and release details of their financial dealings they might be taken more seriously. When most of their personal fortunes accumulated while in office exceed the paltry US$ 50 million they jointly pledged for the Somalia famine it is obvious where their priorities lie.

Posted by Limnothrissa | Report as abusive

Your article is very balanced. Unfortunately the AU’s approach has not been. Its Roadmap would have left Gaddafi in charge of his machinery of repression and therefore allowed him to stay in power. By standing next to him and referring to him as the Brother Leader, Jacob Zuma lent Gaddafi support; by not even bothering to go to Bengahzi to meet the anti-Gaddafi forces he emphasised the AU’s bias. By trying to insist that the parties must return the roadmap even when all other conciliators had recognised that Gaddafi was not prepared to leave power, the AU showed that it was out of touch with reality.

Now, by refusing to recognise the NTC, and by the manner of its doing so, it and South Africa’s Zuma seem to be motivated more by a bruised ego than by sensible politics, let alone by the good of the Libyan people.

Your balance gives Zuma and the AU too much credit.

Posted by AlanWatson | Report as abusive

The AU is indeed holding off because of wounded pride, loyalty to Gadhaffi especially since he can still take revenge, the fact that there are still many autocrats among its “shareholders” (Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Zimbabwe, Idriss Déby, Paul Biya, Sassou Nguesso, Bongo and Eyadema kids, etc…), and because there are other pending cases such as Madagascar. Once more, it is facing the issue of legitimacy and legality of power. When people rise up (with or without external help) against a dictator, their fight should be considered legitimate. When a dictator is in charge, his power is no longer legal anyway, unlike what the AU seems to be still thinking. Libya, after Madagascar, once more shows that the AU and other African organisations need to be rejuvenated and reformed. StrategiCo.,, specialises in risk analysis in Africa.

Posted by lydieboka | Report as abusive

The AU is a continental body with a very diverse membership. It is trying to set a tone of constitutional changes of power in Africa and it has moved very fast in problematic hand-over such as that in Togo. Racist rebels backed by foreign powers stormed into Tripoli in a country that has long been deeply divided. The new rulers need to lay down a roadmap for a transition to full democracy before people should give them recognition.
Besides, if the AU can’t recognize Somaliland, which has been democratically holding elections and running a peaceful country for 20 years now, why would they follow NATO prompting and recognize the Libyans?

Posted by TomMinney | Report as abusive

For the AU and most of sub-saharan Africa ‘Operation Odyssey Dawn’ and later ‘Operation Unified Protector’, the US and later NATO’s brutal bombardment of Libya, represented a return to the dark days of unfettered imperialism. In the minds of most Africans it had nothing or little to do with the protection of civilians, because both operations proceeded to kill thousands of the civilians they were ostensibly supposed to protect.

NATO should have the decency to stop insulting the intelligence of Africans. NATO’s intervention in Libya was clearly meant to serve the national interests of a few key countries. These interests included securing access to cheap energy resources in the Libyan desert as well as getting even with Gadhaffi for the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy. Why not just come out and say it instead of all this subterfuge? NATO entered this Libyan adventure without any consultation with the AU (the foremost continental organization), why then are they surprised that the majority of African countries will not recognize the National Transitional Council?

Many in Africa consider the NTC a Sarkozy creation,a Frankenstein like creature composed of former Gadhaffi associates, monarchists and Islamists. All this talk about African heads of state supporting a balanced and all inclusive (i.e. with Gadhaffi elements as well) peace process in Libya as being indicative of weakness in the face of Gadhaffi is erroneous. Gadhaffi would hardly win a popularity contest in the AU, many leaders disliked him and his abrasive methods.

The question for all is about the utter lack of respect for the sovereignty of an African country. This where the path of the AU, China and Russia diverges completely from that of NATO. If the Libyan rebels had fought Gadhaffi without assistance from NATO, no one in Africa would oppose them. Their fight would be legitimate in the eyes of most Africans.

This whole Libyan affair reminds one of the West’s involvement in the Congo in the early 1960s. Then as now a force (read Mobutu) that seemed to promise the West unrestricted access to Congo’s wealth was encouraged to revolt and then supported by airpower and mercenaries (read Special Forces)to crush a popular insurgency. The NTC has a fragile hold on power for the time being, but the ferocity of the Libyan peoples resistance to this NATO creation in the past seven months does not augur well for them. It is not the AU that has made a catastrophic mistake in Libya but it is NATO that has done so.

Posted by WalterRodney | Report as abusive

Well balanced piece. Highlighting a few points that the usual AU (Africa) bashing writers in the international media have kept aside. The AU booted out Niger, Guinea, etc because people took power by force. Why be different towards Libya? According to the West, when Dadis takes power by force in Guinea, it is not right but when rebels supported by NATO bombs overthrow a country’s leader (long-serving or not) and destroy its infrastructure – that is correct and fine!
As the writer says, the AU will eventually welcome the NTC in its fold, but at least they made their point.

Posted by AfricanFergie | Report as abusive

Who is hypocritical, the Europeans who take 85% of Qaddafi oil knowing he not democratic, or the AU who have tried diplomatic solution to end NATO massacre in Libya?

Posted by Teluu | Report as abusive

The headline – “Has the African Union got Libya wrong?” – suggests there is a “right” strategy somewhere out there but it is not the AU’s position. Why? The Libya issue is more complex, and politically conflicted, than most analysts and commentators (including the author of this article) are willing to concede. So, to attempt to undermine the AU’s position (not the best position by any stretch of the imagination)does not, and should not, legitamize the position taken by competing interest groups.

Posted by AfricaStrategy | Report as abusive

It is a very complex web of intrigue, very much like a trojan that writes itself against all executionable files in a computer, such was Ghaddafi’s influence in Africa. Even as the sun set on his 40 year old hegemony, clandestine funds were being channeled to various lobby groups throughout the world and more particularly Africa to influence public opinion in his favour and scare off potential opponents.

Many of these lobby groups buoyed by petroleum Dollars, staged protests and pumped out the anti-colonialist rhetoric.But it was all in vain as the Libyan people themselves have spoken. Oil aside if the West had not intervened, Libya would have been the scene of killing fields that would have made Rwanda look mild.

It would be then that the West would have been accused of not doing enough to intervene. In Africa unfortunately voices will only be expressed where financial incentive is given. The same AU is silent where other humanitarian crises are playing out every day, simply because there is no financial incentive to do anything or say anything about it.

Posted by Jitesh_Naidoo | Report as abusive

Perhaps this author is unaware that since the so-called ‘rebellion’ tens of thousands of black Afrikans have been systematically ethnically cleansed by the so-called rebels. The western media cynically blocked all news of this, and instead tried to suggest that the few executions of Afrikans they did report was down to the killing of Ghaddafi loyalists and mercenaries. Now, why would an incumbent president of a country with a large standing army have a need for mercenary soldiers.

The west must think we are more stupid than we already know they do .. Black Libyans as well as immigrants are rounded up en mass and ethnically cleansed under the supervision of NATO .. and they reckon Afrikan countries should bless those killing their brethren ..

The author of this article forgets to mention that the AU suggested a mediated settlement on Libya before the bombing was started, and that Ghaddafi accepted for this to happen. So, NATO went ahead to create its war industry deliberately, instead of taking the option of a peaceful settlement mooted by AU. The AU was riddicled then, and I am amazed that they are even talking to NATO or the UN even now.

Finally, the author also conveniently fails to mention that NATO broke the terms of the UN mandate for a no-fly zone .. right from day one. And here someone is writing as if the west and NATO are progressive people and Africans are irresponsible. The west is clearly abusing the fact that they have military superiority to Afrikans .. and are clearly telling Afrikans that they may have to arm themselves to avoid being enslaved all over again.

Now, why would I now be against Iran, North Korea and others who have realized that the only way to protect themselves from unending exploitation is to tool up ..because the current rules simply scream: “MIGHT IS RIGHT .. and we got the propaganda machinery to claim whatever we want !!!”

Posted by PACnergi | Report as abusive

It is complete nonsense to state that the NATO backed rebels “seem to have widespread support for ending an autocrat’s rule?”

Further the Tripoli Military Council is headeed by a known terrorist leader of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group! It is not suprising then to see war crimes being committed in Tripoli.

The true facts of the war is that it was arranged by NATO. The majority of the people support the Jamahiriya government. When that government proposed having an election it was rejected. Why? Because the overthrow of the government was mandated by the NATO colonial imperialists so they could steal Libya’s resources. Thats all you hear about from the Canadian Prime Minister is oil and contracts!

So the African Union have it right!

Posted by ElCid451 | Report as abusive

This article is absolute rubbish. …”After the hopeless failure of African diplomatic efforts to bring a peaceful end to Libya’s rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi…” NATO wanted this war,and refused to negotiate. Don’t blame it on the AU. The NATO mercenaries might not stay in power for long. They do not have popular support, contrary to what is written in this article. The West has supported dictators far worse than Gaddafi, like Bokassa who literally cannibalised his own people.
The most serious concerns of AU is that Sovereign Countries face NATO agression. Any of them can be attacked, their leaders taken out, a form of second colonization of Africa.

Posted by Renox | Report as abusive

“While there certainly seems to be truth that some African mercenaries fought for Gaddafi, there have been plenty of reports of black Africans being killed or tortured when it wasn’t really clear whether they were fighters or just part of the army of hundreds of thousands of Africans who made their way to Libya to do hard jobs that Libyans didn’t want.”

What’s most upsetting about this sentence is its unstated implication that it would be OK to pick up some black African to be “killed or tortured” if he CAN be shown to have fought for Qaddafi. Is that really OK? If Qaddafi had won, and had thereafter picked up suspected rebels and “killed or tortured” them, would we declare that to be OK if he could establish that the detainees had in fact fought for the rebels? Of course not.

Posted by Yahoo2426 | Report as abusive

Corrupted African leaders love dictators like them. They ought to be ashamed not supporting the desire of Libyan people.

Posted by Theodore777 | Report as abusive

Funny how the AU likes to “negotiate”.

The last time I checked, Libya wanted Gaddafi out. After 40-odd years I’m not surprised.

Besides, he was quite happy to sell his oil to the so-called imperialists. At least the government which eventually replaces him will be able to ensure that Libyans benefit from oil and not just government officials and foreign companies.

Posted by Lennon | Report as abusive

we need a force capable of purging out all forces of colonialists that have ruled us since time immemorial. i think we have been reprimanded in all ways of reasoning and they even think we are are not equally intelligent. a time bomb is waiting. beware. whether the FBI spies on us or the CIA EMPLOYS SOME OF US TO SPY upon ourselves. the US and its allies are cowards.

Posted by mtuwetu | Report as abusive

Well, i was never a supporter of Gaddafi,, however I have a feeling that a bigger turmoil is about to happen. I do not think the rebel leaders are as united as everyone thinks. As to whether the rebels will ensure that the Libyan people benefit from the country’s wealth, well that sound like a fairy-tale. These rebels will continue where Gaddafi left off,,So who’s the real winner in this? obviously its Washington and its allies. AU is right not to recognize these rebels, until such time the Libyan people vote freely, (But voting, well that’s a dream deferred).

Posted by matzho | Report as abusive

Have a look at these stats from the UNDP. Libya ranked 53 on the Human Development Index for 2010. Time will tell if the future will be as rosy. ofiles/LBY.html

Posted by equalizethis | Report as abusive

I don’t know much about Gadaffi but I respect his contribution to the African continent. His nation has no debt unlike others who brag to be democratic but live beyond their means, messing the world economy, opening wars to revive their economy etc etc. I don’t think the war in Libya was indeed to help Libyans get their freedom. The world is not blind to what is happening and don’t try to fool us by giving us news that you think sounds better to our ears. The rebels in Libya have committed heinous crimes against women and children and in particular black Africans but no one reports about it because they are allies of the west. Today’s hidden secrets will come to light some day. Gadaffi was a friend of the west until 8 months ago and all those sneaky creepy creatures were working with him killing innocent people but later to turn against him. If NATO was concerned about peace why hasn’t stopped the war in Somalia? Aren’t Somali lives worth the fight? The simple reason is Somali has no oil therefore no need to stop the war.Fascist West has supported dozens of dictators and it’s paradoxical to hear them say they are fighting dictators.For God’s sake stop fooling yourself. I am not a supporter of Gadaffi but I feel sad to see him treated like a dog. He deserves a humanly burial right. RIP Gadaffi.

Posted by alfonzo | Report as abusive

I wonder whether the New Libyan regime would see themselves nore as belonging to the Arab league than the AU. It will all hinge on what they feel serves their interest best. The AU was an alomost Gadaffi creation and was becoming the only world stage for him to perform on.
I hope the likes of Nigeria and South Africa would sieze the opportunity to make it a force for the good of African economic advancement on trade, culture, education, human rights, poverty alliviation and free elections.
Africans are poor because there is little or no African involvement in their trades other than receipients of aid and consumers of goods supplied by our old imported merchant class who have sewn up tied agencies that excludes donestic African partiticipation.
If the AU to be judges as a success it must be vocal on policies as to how it will lift its people into middle class and sustain democracy as a universal ideal

Posted by orisatukeh | Report as abusive

I do not blame the writer of this article when he says that the “U” in the OAU signifies “useless”
Every writer has got good reasons to say any thing against the AU hence it could not prove its self a real regional bloc by stopping the fate of the African people being determined by the imperialists west. There is no soverign nation in Africa except Libya under Muammar Gaddafi… I mean a nation where there was no colonial influence, an example of a complet independent state.
The AU is now as good as non existing. It has failed itself and done more so to all African youths who hoped that Africa would soon be a livable place again once the United States of Africa is realized. Let the Nigerian government recognise the rebel government in Libya, it is shameful but not as shameful as the fact that Nigeria is run by a catel who enjoy the resources of the nation at the expends of its poor masses yet they claim DEMOCRAZY. Let all the African nations recognise Benghazi racist rule in Libya, it makes no difference from the fact that Libya under Gaddafi had the best form of Democracy which ensured the equal opportunities to its people… Free education to all levels of education,free healthcare, free housing,free electricity and water, free individual mobility etc.

Posted by shedrackokeagu | Report as abusive

I’m amazed that someone still claims that Libya was behind the Lockerbie tragedy.

The Lockerbie trial was condemned by numerous legal experts as well as the UN Lockerbie observer Hans Koechler.

In 2007, a Scottish police officer signed a statement according to which the piece of circuit board that was used as evidence to condemn one of the accused Libyans had been planted on the scene.

Later in 2007, the Swiss engineer Ulrich Lumpert stated in a sworn affidavit that he had lied to the court and stolen the piece of circuit board from his employer after the Lockerbie bombing and given it to officials investigating the event:

“I confirm today on July 18, 2007, that I stole the third hand-manufactured MST-13 timer PC-board consisting of eight layers of fiber-glass from MEBO Ltd. and gave it without permission on June 22, 1989, to a person officially investigating in the Lockerbie case. [...] It did not escape me that the MST-13 fragment shown [at the Lockerbie trial] on the police photograph No. PT/35(b) came from the nonoperational MST-13 prototype PC-board that I had stolen.”

No wonder the accused Libyan, al-Megrahi, was released in 2009 on “compassionate grounds”, based on the claim that he had less than 3 months to live due to terminal cancer. As it happens, he was last reported alive this month, with his family.

Shame on “our” Western mainstream media for continuing to ignore such foul play on “our” part.

Posted by Finntellect | Report as abusive

African Union is full of Dictators, so they need to support each other. African Union has no use. Its useless as you rightfully said.

Posted by lukong | Report as abusive

Confusing now, eh, African? I like Gaddafi’s concept toward Africa. It’s just like Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Pan Arabism, the old days of nationalism movements.

Posted by AndiPrama | Report as abusive

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