Accounting for the African Union (AU) Response to Libya: A Missed Opportunity?

Featuring commentary from several ICRtoP members

Going against the grain of international recognition of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), on August 26th the African Union (AU)  refused to recognize it as the legitimate governing authority of the country. Instead, the African body has instead called for an “inclusive dialogue” with all parties to the conflict, despite the fact that 20 of its members have already recognized the NTC.

This response marks a notable break among African states in the organization over how to best respond to rapidly unfolding developments in Libya.South Africa has led those who oppose the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation, adopting an openly confrontational position. President Jacob Zuma made the statement that the AU would not support the Libya rebels,  and his government also boycotted the recent Libya Contact Group meeting in Paris, refused to unfreeze assets for the NTC, and has criticizedNATO for the way in which the Libyan operation was carried out, calling for an International Criminal Court probe into alleged human rights violations.

South Africa is joined by others who continue to support Gaddafi and the AU’s response, including Zimbabwe, which promptly expelled Libya’s ambassador to the country when he stated he supported the rebel movement. Kenya has also continued to support an inclusive dialogue between members of the NTC and the Gaddafi regime, and has denied recognition of the NTC.

But ill-sentiments have not been limited to official government channels. Concerns with the implementation of resolution 1973 were recently aired in an open letter signed by over 200 “ordinary citizens” of Africa, including former government officials, academics, and artists, and among them former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. A look at the introduction and conclusion encapsulates the letter’s message:

We, the undersigned, are ordinary citizens of Africa who are immensely pained and angered that fellow Africans are and have been subjected to the fury of war by foreign powers which have clearly repudiated the noble and very relevant vision enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. […] Those who have brought a deadly rain of bombs to Libya today should not delude themselves to believe that the apparent silence of the millions of Africans means that Africa approves of the campaign of death, destruction and domination which that rain represents.

What can explain all of this? What factors were at play in the AU’s response to Libya? Why has South Africa taken such an openly confrontational stance towards the mission? Has the African continent’s regional body and perhaps its most powerful member found themselves on the wrong side of history and missed an opportunity in Libya?

Looking for answers to these questions, we turned to some of our ICRtoP members on the African continent. Their responses were insightful, ranging from the lasting ties to Muammar Gaddafi to concerns over the nature and conduct of the Libyan operation.

In this post, we explore what they had to say, in addition to other recent commentary from journalistic and academic sources, including Reuters, Time Magazine, and the South African Institute for International Affairs, to get a better picture of the AU’s and South Africa’s response to Libya.

Gaddafi’s generosity, his pan-African vision, and history

As Dismas Nkunda, Co-Director of the International Refugee Initiative (IRRI) in Kampala, Uganda, and Steering Committee member of the ICRtoP, states, “Put simply, it’s about one person: Colonel Gaddafi.” And more simply still, the remaining support for Gaddafi is due to the fact that the ex-leader spread his country’s wealth across the continent:

The government of Libya had invested heavily in many African countries mainly in telecommunication, oil exploration, hotels, agriculture and infrastructure development in many countries; which means that there was no longer need to borrow from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund or indeed begging for loans from the big economic powers with the appendages that come with that.

Tito Byenkya, CEO of the East Africa Law Society in Arusha and also Steering Committee member of the ICRtoP, Tanzania, states that:

Gadaffi was one of the leading financiers of the AU, and a lot of the AU leaders would undoubtedly feel sympathy for him; and one would wonder why their clamour for democratic and pluralistic governance never saw the light of day whilst Gadaffi was still in absolute power in Libya.

But, as Nkunda notes, lingering support for Gaddafi may also extend beyond his invested riches to an affinity with his pan-African vision of solidarity and unity:

His vision for the United States of Africa, was indeed seen by many as the last attempt to rekindle the lost hope of Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah in the quest for a united Africa. It is believed therefore that the west “feared” what a united Africa, with its own currency, vast natural resources, large population and having one common voice could mean for the rest of the world…What if United States of Africa demanded at their own terms?  At the behest of Gaddafi, Africa was about to have Africa Monetary Fund and Africa Central Bank. And his country had the resources to invest heavily in making these financial head way come to fruition.

For South Africa, it’s also history that binds them to the Gaddafi regime. As Nkunda states, the historical connection between many in South Africa and Gaddafi provides a strong, continued link between the ruling-African National Congress (ANC) and the ex-leader of Libya:

When Nelson Mandela came out of prison, he went against all diplomatic and political pressures and visited Libya to thank Gaddafi for standing up against the apartheid regime and supported Africa National Congress.

But can the lucrative relationship with Gaddafi and a historical connection to his support explain the position adopted by a regional organization and enforced by one of its most powerful members? As we’ll see, other factors were at play.

Shunning AU initiatives, stepping over the boundaries of resolution 1973

South Africa’s critical turn against both NATO and the UN, and the subsequent AU decision to refuse recognition of the NTC, became entrenched when the AU road map for peace – a five-point plan led by South Africa, which called for an inclusive political dialogue between the NTC and the Gaddafi regime – was shunned by the Libyan rebels and the international community. Characterized  as “outdated”, the NTC rejected the AU road map on the basis that it did not reflect the demands of the Libyan people that Gaddafi and his sons completely relinquish power. Alan Boswell, the East Africa correspondent for Time Magazine, writes of the effects on the dismissal of the AU’s efforts:

South African President Jacob Zuma then spearheaded an AU effort to get the two sides in Libya to negotiate, but the international community largely ignored the efforts, and the NTC rejected his mediation as biased. “The rebels, encouraged by NATO, snubbed the African Union,” says Isakka Souare, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. And now, the AU and Zuma are snubbing them back.

And, as Matthew Tostevin of Reuters notes:

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.

In aftermath of this dismissal, Byenkya of the East Africa Law Society says that the conduct of the NATO operation can further explain why both the AU and South Africa have taken the stance that they have:

The African Union, just as the Arab league, was in support of the UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973…Unfortunately, it appears that the UN Security Council, on which South Africa sits, did not expressly detail the mode of operation of Resolution 1973, leaving it to the members and other continental bodies to determine how to implement it.  NATO then figures that protection of civilians also includes bombing of Gadaffi’s military depots and communication infrastructure; while France resorts to arming the insurgents who have decided to fight all the way to Tripoli…A number of countries that initially supported the resolution, including South Africa, took issue with this mode of implementation of the Resolution, insisting that it was outside the parameters of the Resolution, and effectively constituted facilitating a regime change in Libya..

And according to Nkunda, the manner in which resolution 1973 was implemented may have consequences for the perceptions of RtoP held in capitals on the African continent, and, by association, its various regional bodies and the African Union:

Africa has had the strongest proponents of R2P. As evidenced in the article 4h (of the AU Constitutive Act), it was a mile stone step that if not tinged with world politics and personalities was bound to make R2P become very relevant. But now it will take more convincing since the opponents of the norm will question the wisdom of giving the west a free hand of choosing where, when and how to intervene in any UN member state with or without the consent of the others.

It becomes clear then that the manner in which the international community reacted to the AU’s peace plan, largely championed by South Africa, and concerns held over the way in which resolution 1973 was implemented and pursued by the UN and NATO have factored into the way in which members of the regional body, in particular South Africa, have calculated their response the situation in Libya.

Concerns over regime security?

While the concerns expressed above are powerful in explaining the AU’s and South Africa’s response to the Libya, Nkunda raises an interesting point in his response to our questions, turning his analysis to the response of some other countries on the continent. He states:

There are those who believe that should Gaddafi go, then they are next in line, particularly those who have been longer in power than their constitutional welcome. They muse, “If the strong man Gaddafi can go; what will happen to us, we could be the next”. That is why countries such as Uganda, Congo, Zimbabwe are ready to dismiss the NATO led forces into Libya for they are not sure whence the same force could strike next.

And this fear, that popular revolt (and a potential for UN-mandated intervention to support them in the face of a heavy-handed response) may somehow spread to Sub-Saharan Africa, is certainly guiding some leaders who want to ensure their citizens do not imitate the Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans. Recent actions by the government of Uganda, which went as far as blocking a rally that supported the NTC, claiming that protests could trigger violence, are telling.

What role for the AU in Libya moving forward?

The African Union has categorically rejected any criticism that it has failed to help bring an end to Libya’s civil war. It has expressed a willingness to work with the NTC moving forward, and, despite South Africa’s boycott of the Paris Contact Group meeting, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, participated.

Given this, what role should the regional body play moving forward in Libya?

Regarding the African Union, Byenkya states that it must come around on its position towards the NTC and secure a position in post-conflict Libya:

The AU should work with the NTC to meet the constitutional and legal reform targets that it has set, but also ensure that all those persons complicit in rights violations on either side of the political divide in Libya are brought to book.

But he also wrote that the AU has bigger challenges confronting it, as evidenced by the manner in which it has responded to Libya:

The AU, as a continental intergovernmental organizational, has all the organs and mechanisms to effectively deal with conflict across the region…However, the response time of these institutions to governance and resource based conflicts across Africa seems at best belated, and wrought with political and other considerations…The AU should also examine whether its current institutional framework is attuned to the emerging global mechanisms on timely prevention of or accountability for human rights violations; and if it is in the negative, make the necessary amendments so it is to be perceived as being relevant.

Elizabeth Sidiropolous of the South African Institute of International Affairs makes a similar recommendation, and urges the African Union to act quickly in order to ensure continued and constructive involvement in post-Gaddafi Libya:

It should also recognise the TNC. Not doing so quickly will make it more irrelevant in the post-Gaddafi Libya and unable to play a meaningful role in pushing for, as its August 26 communiqué said, “an inclusive transitional government, the establishment of a constitutional and legislative framework for the democratic transformation of Libya… and the national reconciliation process”… If the AU does not take these actions now, its objections to its marginalisation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, we want to know what you think. Have the African Union and South Africa fallen on the wrong side of history and missed an opportunity in Libya? Or is the manner in which the regional body responded to the situation measured, given their concerns? Comment below and get the conversation started!

A special thanks to Dismas Nkunda and Tito Byenkya for their insights and assistance in bringing this post together.

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1 Comment

Filed under African Union, CivSoc, Libya, Regional Orgs, RtoP, UN

One response to “Accounting for the African Union (AU) Response to Libya: A Missed Opportunity?

  1. Karasai

    Clearly, the AU should not recognize the NTC. It is up to the People of Libya to determine who there council is. Questions the AU should ask themselves: how was the NTC created? were they funded, if so, by whom, and what were/are the stipulations? who is on the NTC? does the entire Libyan country nation-state recognize this council as the sole representative body of Libya? If no is the answer to one or more of these questions, the AU has no consent to recognize the council. Because, that would of course, be anti-democratic–being that the People did not elect anyone to represent them. At some point in time, the Afrikan leaders will have to become dignified, or the People will truly oust them. These are critical times.

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