PUZZLE: The Libyan leader’s election seemed odd given his suppression of dissenting voices
When the recently concluded African Union summit of heads of state and government elected Muammar Gaddafi as its chairman, it seemed an odd choice given the Libyan leader’s suppression of dissenting voices within his own country and his liaison with all manner of armed militia groups.
In reality, this was the culmination of an internal struggle to define the extent of the AU’s reach into the internal affairs of its member states.
Since 2005, when the idea of a United States of Africa was first mooted by Libya, there has been a running tension between those who would prefer to have a gradual and considered transition towards a Union Government of Africa and those who want to do it right away.
At the AU summit in Ghana in 2007, a debate on the proposed Union Government descended into discord and acrimony.
The faultlines dividing the opposing positions became more pronounced.
Indeed, the communique at the end of the summit, was a watered-down compromise that proved ultimately hollow. Libya and Senegal led a coterie of “unionists” who argued that deeper continental political union was necessary.
The “gradualists” camp, which included South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia, argued that it would be imprudent to rush into a union government when the AU had not even got the rudimentary aspects of operational efficiency sorted out.
The gradualists also argued that the continental integration could only be achieved by building upon the integrative processes already underway within regional economic communities.
These debates are not new. The formation of the Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, was marred by a similar division of interests between Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa and those newly liberated post-colonial African countries who felt that they were better off retaining their national sovereignty.
The election of Gaddafi is therefore an indication that the unionist camp has decided to adopt a higher profile and will seek to use the remaining year to make the case for deeper continental integration, if not actually lay the foundations for a fullblown United States of Africa.
Gaddafi, who is no stranger to controversy, does not conceal his desire to be viewed as a Pan-African elder statesman in the mould of the founding fathers of the United States of America – Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams.
This caricature was reinforced when he arrived at the AU summit with a motley crew of “traditional” African leaders in tow.
This entourage was supposed to be the garnish in his crowning as the Pan-African visionary who would lead his continent to the Promised Land.
Africa’s leaders demonstrated their ambivalence towards the unionist project by electing Gaddafi, whose government does not uphold the principles of democratic governance and human rights enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union as well its array of impressive declarations including the AU Protocol on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
The majority of African heads of state and government do not uphold these principles within their own countries, so perhaps the election of “one of their own” did not pose a moral dilemma.
In the meantime, the AU will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis in Darfur, Somalia and Zimbabwe. The consequences of the recent election will only become clearer as the year proceeds.
The unending debate on continental integration will not derail the African unity project, but it might encumber further progress towards addressing the urgent problems that its 800-million constituency faces in terms of impoverishment, access to health care, education, improved infrastructure, the exploitation of natural resources and continuing marginalisation in the global economy.
Africa’s multiple challenges demand a renewed commitment to the African unity project. A leadership that is divided cannot hope to be able to persuade its own citizens of the merits of continental integration.
Dr Tim Murithi is a senior research fellow at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK