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Has Africa lost Libya?

For decades, Libya has been an integral part of Africa. Indeed Sirte, the Colonel Gaddafi stronghold where fighting still continues, was the birthplace of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. About a quarter of indigenous Libyans are black, while African migrant workers in Libya exceed one million; and during his 40-year rule Gaddafi championed pan-Africanism and African multiculturalism.

But the Libyan uprising, while toppling the old order, has also become an ugly race war. The rebels were angry that black African mercenaries were hired to buttress the old regime — even though most of them were actually migrant workers or indigenous black Libyan soldiers. And a misperception has taken hold of all black Africans being mercenaries which has led to the persecution of African immigrants and black Libyans.

Human Rights Watch and the African Union have called for an end to brutal reprisals, including torture, mass killings and arbitrary arrest. Many attacks seem premeditated. This has led to the question: can Libya still be seen as an “African” country?

The revolution has moved Libya into the democratic wave of the Arab spring. There will be continued interactions between Libya and Africa; but culturally, ideologically and financially, Libya has moved towards a greater identification with its north African, Middle Eastern and south Mediterranean neighbours. Libya is embracing its Arab heritage.

In a way this should be no surprise: Gaddafi’s embrace of pan-Africanism, while popular south of the Sahara, had little backing from Libyans. But the question of support for Libya’s revolution has divided sub-Saharan Africa.

Sense of grievance
Only 20 of the African Union’s 53 member nations have so far recognised the National Transitional Council. The AU itself has not yet recognised the NTC — the fact that a head of state has been unconstitutionally ousted from power by force is against the AU charter. But in addition there is a genuine sense of grievance that UN Resolution 1973, which authorised “necessary force” to protect civilians, has been used to bring about regime change. And the reprisals against black Africans have stoked anger across the continent. Nevertheless, the outcome of the recent AU meeting in South Africa hints at a likely recognition of the NTC, and a new partnership.

There is much at stake in how this relationship plays out. The NTC will need Africa’s assistance to prevent dissidents from using neighbouring countries as bases for new insurgencies. There will also have to be discussions between the NTC and its neighbours on African immigration, including the situation for African refugees — for decades, Libya has been a staging post for African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, which has inflamed racial tensions.

In addition there is the threat that, at some point, NTC and rebel military leaders could find themselves arraigned alongside Gaddafi’s former commanders, on trial for abuses against civilians.

If Libya is to retain its vital African migrant labour force and African goodwill, it will have to end the pogroms and improve its treatment of indigenous and foreign African workers. But Africa has also had to get real. Libya’s role as the ideological and financial engine of Africa has ended, but the continent should not punish the Libyan people for this, or for receiving Western support. Libya is their country, after all.

Africa’s civil society and business leaders have already recognised that the new Libya is not “owned” by Africa. There are deals to be done, and Africa cannot afford to be on the wrong side of history. The AU needs to understand that its failure to speak out against the use of black mercenaries to kill Libyans, and its heralding of Gaddafi as a “brother leader” during its visit in April, cost it dearly in terms of credibility. Nato air attacks which killed dozens of civilians have rightly been criticised, but Africa also needed to speak out about abuses committed by Gaddafi’s forces.

The momentous changes of the Arab spring herald the emergence of a new African dynamic. Pan-Africanist ideals of solidarity and African empowerment continue to resonate; but we may also be moving towards a “post-Africanism” — an Africa which sees itself as part of an interlinked global community. In some ways, we are moving towards an Africa without borders — a globalised Africa. Thus Africa should not wallow in Afro-pessimism about “losing Libya”. We never “had” Libya. The new Libya, warts and all, is an opportunity for Africa, not a threat to be punished. Africa should engage with the new Libya and, in so doing, with itself. –

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