Leaders tiptoe around Libya

As protests became increasingly bloody in Libya this week, the South African government finally issued a statement on Wednesday reluctantly condemning the violence that may have left at least 1 000 dead after the government used live ammunition and heavy weapons on demonstrators.

Department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela was left to deliver the message on behalf of the government that stated that South Africa had “grave concern” about the number of civilians killed since the anti-government protests began and was calling for “restraint”, asking both the “people and the government to find a speedy resolution to the current crisis”.

The only other senior government official to comment was Ebrahim Ebrahim, the head of the ANC’s international relations department and deputy minister of international relations, who released a statement on behalf of the ANC urging the “African Union, the United Nations and the international community to constructively engage the government and the people of Libya to find a solution to avert what has led to the unprecedented deaths of so many civilians in that country”.

In his statement Ebrahim said that there needed to be a “realisation by African leaders that political power is legitimate only if it is derived from the genuine wishes of those who are supposed to be governed”.

The muted comments that finally came nine days into the uprising appear to be in keeping with South Africa’s perceived lukewarm response to the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. The ANC has had a close relationship with Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadaffi.

Former president Nelson Mandela played a key role in brokering the deal in which Gadaffi handed over suspects for prosecution for the Lockerbie airline bombing, securing in the process Libya’s reintegration into the international community.

Unconfirmed rumours
Visits to Libya by President Jacob Zuma and Communist Party chief Blade Nzimande ahead of the 2009 elections were surrounded by unconfirmed rumours that Gadaffi provided financial support for the ANC.

But international condemnation of the violence has been widespread and includes League of Arab States’ comments this week, which pointedly criticised the Libyan government for the violation of human rights and crimes against demonstrators. The silence of the African Union, which Gadaffi chaired until last year, was deafening.

AU commission chairperson Jean Ping released a weak statement late on Wednesday, saying “only dialogue and consultation will enable the Libyans to find appropriate solutions to the challenges facing their country and to embark upon the necessary reforms to fulfil the aspirations of their people”.

Ping said it intended to send a mission to investigate the situation there, condemning the “indiscriminate and excessive use of force and lethal weapons against peaceful protesters” but, like South Africa, stayed clear of condemning Gadaffi or his regime.

Activists are expected to gather at the Grace Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg, on Friday morning, demanding that African governments take action on Libya. A press release issued on Thursday by the civil society group, Civicus, noted that its demand for action was backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel and called for African civil society to pressure African governments to treat the situation in Libya as a threat to international peace and security.

“The carnage in Libya must stop,” Tutu is quoted as saying in the release. “A leader who crushes his own people does not deserve that name—or position.” Silence on the issue followed a similar pattern in which the AU kept quiet during the other uprisings north of the continent, only commenting once there was resolution. Last week the AU finally expressed solidarity with the people of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak resigned.

Political commentator William Gumede said the lack of action by the AU was owed to the prominent role played by Gadaffi in the organisation. “If you think about Gadaffi and all those people, they were in the centre of the AU. The reason the [AU] can’t respond is because they are actually their leaders,” he said.

Another reason the heads of state in the AU were silent is that “they, themselves, are in exactly the same situation. They are also undemocratic, autocratic and so on. So the same kind of thing may happen in their country. “Their strategy is to lay low and say nothing.”

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