Gaddafi: AU predictably scrambles to save face

Saturday August 27 2011


The past week has seen the African Union re-enact its best parody of a headless chicken as the 42-year old regime of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi crumbled with barely a whimper as rebels swept into Tripoli.

Reactions at the 53-nation bloc were confused as members squabbled over adopting a common position on Libya, which under the “Brother Leader” had towered over the organisation in a manner unlikely to be achieved by any other country.

Heading into a mini-summit Friday of 15 heads of state who sit on the Peace and Security Council responsible for enforcing bloc decisions, it seemed the key decision would be how to recognise the rebels while saving face after being relegated to the sidelines by the West and Nato.

A lower-level meeting of the Council on Monday failed to take a common position on the country that has been at the forefront of the pan-African movement for years. Diplomats present at the talks only resolved to defer the decision to their Heads of State. “There was confusion, and we agreed to forward the issue to our respective leaders,” a South African diplomat present at the August 22 meeting told this publication.

Subsequently, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma on Thursday held a late-night meeting to craft a position to present to the main summit.

It was an indicator of the depth of the confusion that AU Commission chief Jean Ping, after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and holding telephone conversations with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, tersely told journalists that he would not be fielding any questions related to Libya. 

It is the type of statement that has driven the relentless criticism of the African Union as an organisation that prefers to bury its head in the sand and only reacts to crises when the initiative has already been seized by other quarters.

This was the same week the bloc had come in for sustained criticism over its late reaction to the Horn of Africa drought. In its defence, the African Union blamed its lack of logistical capacity and belatedly organised a poorly attended pledging conference that raised $351 million.

For South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, throwing Gaddafi under the train is a difficult decision. His support for the anti-apartheid struggle was unrelenting and wholehearted. That was why President Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki last week groused rather loudly over Nato’s military support for the rebels, adding that a negotiated solution would have saved many lives.

“Those who have the power to bomb other countries have undermined the AU’s efforts and initiatives to handle the situation in Libya,” President Zuma said at a press conference at Tuynhuys after a Tuesday meeting with Ghana’s President John Atta Mills.

Indeed, South Africa opposed to the last minute a UN decision to hand over $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets to the rebels, only relenting when the National Transitional Council was replaced with the “governing authority” in a resolution.

The Libyan government’s continent-wide investments in sensitive sectors such as oil and banking were further testament to his influence in the region. “The AU will surely miss one of its agile proponents and financiers, who was committed to making it an active continental body that would negotiate and trade with other continents on the same level,” said Dr Adams Oloo, a political science lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

“In the absence of Gaddafi and Libya’s generous contributions, there will be a slowdown in some of the projects that had been lined up. I don’t think a new Libyan leader will have the same enthusiasm, because Gaddafi had ruled Libya for four decades and he was now ready to lead Africa,” he added.

Libya’s contribution to the AU budget is estimated to have been about 12 per cent. Apart from voluntarily sponsoring ministerial and expert meetings, Gaddafi was personally paying annual fees on behalf of some African counties, especially those from West Africa who have difficulties in meeting their financial obligations to the continental body. 

Gaddafi was also a major contributor to AU projects, whose budget stands at an average of $300 million annually. In the 2011 budget, the organisation voted for $256.8 million, a 2.5 per cent increase compared with 2010.  The budget consisted of $112.4 million for operations and $144.4 million for programmes.

Since February 2011, the AU has issued four strongly worded statements urging Nato to suspend its bombing campaign while a negotiated solution that locked out Gaddafi from a further term was sought.

The AU had tasked the presidents of South Africa, Uganda, Mali, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea with the task of finding such a solution — only for their efforts to be ignored by Nato and the rebels.