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Has the African Union got Libya wrong?
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?