The African Union After Gaddafi

By Robert Nolan
The charismatic, controversial and recently deceased Moammar Gaddafi was famously fond of titles.  From his subjects, he commanded the military rank of Colonel Gaddafi, a reminder of the revolutionary roots that brought him to power in 1969.  To his contemporaries, he was Brother Leader, a title with strong socialist undertones.  And in Africa, he had himself proclaimed “King of Kings,” by a group of tribal leaders, a direct reference to Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, one of the last ruling monarchs on the continent.

While it is easy to dismiss this last incarnation as yet another eccentricity of an unpredictable and often brutal leader, it is important to remember that Gaddafi envisioned himself the true heir to the legacy of Pan-Africanism.  Like Ghana’s first president, firebrand Kwame Nkrumah who called for a United States of Africa, and Ethiopia’s Selassie, who helped give birth to the much-maligned Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, Ghaddfi poured rhetoric and resources into the quest for African unity.  In 1999 at a summit in Sirte, Libya, Gaddafi helped convince 45 African heads of state to approve the creation of the African Union, and for more than a decade, he was its largest patron and most outspoken advocate.

So, when opposition forces in Libya, inspired by uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, rebelled against Gadaffi’s rule, the AU sought unsuccessfully to mediate an agreement that would have left Gadaffi in power, and denounced the NATO-led airstrike against Libya.  Now that Gadaffi is gone, how will his death impact the future of this emerging continental body?  The answer, not unlike the man himself, is a mixed bag.

Loss of a Patron
In the short term, the AU will lose its most avid financial backer.  It is estimated that roughly 15 percent of the AU operating budget provided by member states came from Libya, in addition to Tripoli’s covering of dues for a number of smaller African countries in arrears.  With a 2010 operating budget of just $200 million, and increasing peacekeeping responsibilities placed on the AU by the international community in places like Sudan and Somalia, the gap in funding is not insignificant.  Just this month, for example, the 9,000- strong AU mission tasked with pushing back al-Qaeda linked Islamists known as al-Shabab in Somalia announced a $10 million shortfall for operations.  While Gadaffi was often accused of stoking conflicts across the continent (he was linked to dozens of coups and civil wars across Africa over the years), Libya’s contribution alone could easily cover the shortfall.

Beyond direct contributions to the African Union, Gadaffi used his country’s vast resources – primarily cash and oil – to win friends across Africa.  Libya invested in infrastructure and agricultural projects, the construction of mosques and hospitals and companies continent-wide.  While the exact figure of Gadaffi’s Africa investments are not yet known, some estimate the number at $150 billion.

In addition to losing a patron, the African Union’s influence in North Africa will be severely diminished with Gadaffi out of power.  Gaddafi spent lavishly on bolstering regional governments in Liberia, Niger, Mali and Chad.  The new leadership in Libya, the National Transitional Council (NTC), relied heavily on Arab League and Western support during the overthrow of the Gadaffi regime. Many analysts believe this is where their future loyalties will lie, and that Libyan investment in many parts of Africa will come to a screeching halt.  For its part, only 20 of the 43 African Union countries have yet to recognize the NTC, and while some have called for a strong AU role in post-conflict Libya – helping with disarmament and the formation of democratic institutions – few believe such a role will be welcome.

Loss of Credibility
“Muammar Gadaffi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist,” wrote Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Foreign Policy Magazine last February.  “I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests.”  It was on this sentiment that the African Union staked its role during Libya’s short-lived civil war, and on this sentiment that it was dealt yet another blow to its credibility.

Throughout its four decades of existence, the Organization of African Unity was criticized for its unwavering commitment to state sovereignty, regardless of the actions taken by ruthless dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.  In an effort to shake its reputation as a toothless bulldog, the African Union built into its mandate some of the most progressive language on intervention of any multilateral institution, including the United Nations.

Yet the AU response to the uprisings in Libya indicated little desire from African leaders to meaningfully intervene.  For more than a month after the uprisings began, the AU remained largely silent.   Finally, just days before the UN Security Council approved a NATO enforced no-fly zone over the country  (which Security Council members South Africa, Gabon and Nigeria voted in favor of), an ad-hoc High Level Panel of AU leaders offered up a “road map” that called for an immediate ceasefire between rebels and government troops, and later sent a delegation of African leaders to meet with both Gadaffi and the rebels.

While Gadaffi welcomed the AU’s efforts, rebel leaders, well aware of Gadaffi’s strong ties with the continental body, refused to negotiate with Gadaffi.  Rebuffed, the AU fell back to its default position.  “Our desire is that Libya’s unity and territorial integrity be respected, as well as the rejection of any kind of foreign military intervention,” the panel announced once NATO sorties had commenced.  The statement could just as easily have been issued by the OAU.


Loss of a Leader
African Union summits are generally host to two camps.  The first, spearheaded until this year by Gadaffi, advocates for the immediate creation of a unity government.  “We want an African military to defend Africa, we want a single Africa currency, we want on African passport to travel within Africa,” Gaddfi said upon his appointment as chairman of the body in 2009, echoing the words of Nkrumah before him.  This camp relies on the cult of personality more than the abilities of technocrats to address problems in Africa.  “The people believe in the chiefs and kings more than they believe in their governments,” said Gadaffi, when he was conferred the title “King of Kings” by tribal leaders upon his chairmanship of the AU.

The second camp, led by leaders from economic powerhouses like South Africa and Nigeria, as well as emerging democracies like Liberia and Botswana, generally oppose radical unification in favor of a more gradual approach.   This group supports the move towards a united Africa through economic integration, the strengthening of eight officially recognized “Regional Economic Communities” like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the creation of a more unified Africa floor by floor.

The removal of Gadaffi from this equation is a clear victory for the gradualist camp of African integration.  “Colonel Gadaffi spent a lot of time discussing a unity government for Africa that was impossible to implement now.  He was in a hurry for this, possibly because he wanted to head it up himself, ” South African President Jacob Zuma said following Gadaffi’s death.  “The AU will work better now without his delaying it and with some members no longer feeling intimidated by him as they did.”

For some African leaders, however, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the death of Gadaffi represents the fall of yet another comrade whose revolutionary stance was the basis of strong alliances.  Countless African leaders (and indeed many citizens across Africa) who could not speak out against Western injustices, real or perceived, mourned the death of a historic African leader.

Today the AU seeks to maintain slow but steady progress on democratic development, maintaining peace and security and promoting economic integration across Africa.  Like the heavyweight champions of Pan-Africanism before him, his legacy is likely to be a mix of respect for the rhetoric, and disdain for the controversial and often destabilizing methods by which he sought to achieve the goal of African unity.  Indeed, the impact of Gadaffi’s death on the body is perhaps summed up best by an unnamed AU official.  ”For us, there was some good and some bad,” he told Reuters.  “But overall, we won’t miss him.”

Robert Nolan is the author of “The Quest for African Unity: 50 Years of Independence and Interdependence,” and an editor and producer at the Foreign Policy Association.  He tweets under the handle @robert_nolan.

[Photographs taken by author]