A sovereign Africa needs more dialogue

The old saying “better late than never” might apply to the about-turn performed by the African Union (AU) in recognising the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC).

South Africa has followed suit, though there are good reasons why the AU might have continued in the provisional mode. Given the international stampede to get on the good side of the new rulers in Tripoli, the AU ad hoc committee on Libya cut its losses and managed to reach an apparent rapprochement with the NTC and it, in turn, saw it as in its interest to accommodate the AU.

At the beginning of this week, the NTC was close to announcing an interim government. It assured the AU of its “strategic commitment to Africa” and to giving priority to “national unity and to bringing together all Libyan stakeholders, without exception, to rebuild the country”.

This face-saving building of bridges comes none too soon, given the increasing isolation of South Africa and the AU at a time when the continent can least afford to find itself marginalised. The upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa hold major ramifications for inter-African relations, especially between the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, and between Africa and the rest of the world.

The fact of the matter is that Africa has a stake in Libya’s transition, as reflected in the dismal plight of about two million sub-Saharan African migrant workers. They are being victimised as “mercenaries” in an inevitable post-Gaddafi racist backlash against the Brother Leader’s dubiously pro-Africa agenda, which offset his isolation in the Arab world.

The AU’s provisional recognition of the NTC is needed if it is to be called to account for the treatment of the migrants and African governments have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of their nationals. Already it was beginning to seem as though more concern was being registered about the migrants outside than inside Africa.

Nigeria’s recognition of the NTC reflects the stakes involved. Abuja has felt compelled to protest against the killing of its nationals in Libya (references to “genocide” have even surfaced). Nigerians have reportedly been attacked in Tripoli, Benghazi, Gath, Agadez and Sirte.

In a reported distress note to the Nigerian presidency and ministry of foreign affairs, Nigerian coordinator Daramola Siji called on the AU “to act and save African families boxed in troubled Libya” and to “stop the killing of Nigerians by the former rebels who are now the new leaders in Libya”.

Against the backdrop of racist terror against Nigerians and other Africans, there may be a divide-and-rule dynamic under way, with Nigeria and South Africa being played against one another by the West. This builds on contradictions rubbed raw in tensions over Côte d’Ivoire. But South Africa’s circumstances and Nigeria’s are different—South Africa has no migrants in Libya. Still, Abuja and Pretoria should have been able to find common ground here, but the migrants’ plight is only the cutting edge of broader strategic concerns.

These have to do with how sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb are going to relate to one another, the impact Arab transnational democratic upheavals, including Libya’s, portend for Afro-Arab relations as they interact with complicating factors in relations between Africa and the West. For Africa, the relationship is one-sided and asymmetrical.

South Africa and the AU must offer a diplomacy that redresses this asymmetry. The “strategic partnership” of Africa and the European Union (EU) offers a framework for fashioning such a diplomacy. But, rather than a one-sided focus on African governance (which needs to be more of a pan-African, intra-continental preoccupation), this dialogue needs urgently to focus on African-EU security relations in light of the controversial role played by Nato in enforcing the United Nations’ Resolution 1973 on Libya.

The fact that Nato’s intervention led to “regime change”, which was not part of the Resolution 1973 script, but which only the congenitally naive would have ruled out, makes such a dialogue urgent. At the bottom of Africa’s problem with Nato, as reflected in the stand-off between South Africa and the AU on the one hand, and South Africa and the Libyan NTC on the other, and, as reflected in the open letter of “concerned African intellectuals”, is the pan-African aspiration of achieving continental sovereignty.

How continental sovereignty is to be advanced, defended and maintained, however, seems beyond the political imagination of Africa’s contemporary political class and intelligentsia. Instead, they thrash about in frustrated rage over Africa’s impotence in the face of yet another sign of Western intrusion into the continental space. This impunity exposes a lack of pan-African initiative in determining the terms of engagement between Africa and the rest of the world.

This means defining the scope of continental sovereignty. Does it encompass a North Africa comprising the southern Mediterranean? Is it enforceable within the continental domain of the AU, given the Western-Saharan rupture between Morocco and the AU and the AU’s recent standoff with the Libyan NTC, replete with stranded sub-Saharan migrants?

These are Arab League as well as AU questions in urgent need of answering, given the overlap between Arab/Muslim and sub-Saharan African memberships in each other’s institutions. But they must also factor in a substantive security dialogue with the EU, given scepticism on both sides of the North Atlantic over the future of Nato and the advisability of Libyan-type interventions. This could provide common ground for a security dialogue for the future, as opposed to African self-isolation and marginalisation on the issue of Western impunity.

The economic stresses in the United States and Europe will constrain future impunity. This should form part of the basis for dialogue on African security, because the continent remains dependent on Western donors to meet its security needs. The first order of business ought to be a dialogue between the AU and the Arab League on Libya’s transition and the broader ramifications of the “Arab awakening” for Africa. At a continental level, the AU is correct in its provisional recognition of the NTC pending a more clearly resolved political, military and security situation in Libya. But it is vital, in the broader African interest, that outreach between the AU and the NTC be initiated. This might be managed in tandem with the Arab League. It should be about mutual confidence-building by addressing issues of common concern such as the plight of sub-Saharan African migrants.

This might include coordinating with other actors already involved in addressing their plight, such as the International Migration Organisation. It should be done in the spirit of assisting an NTC that cannot give detained and persecuted migrants its uppermost attention. Beyond the migrants’ plight, there is much that South Africans can offer in helping to facilitate a post-conflict democratic transition.

Indeed, South Africa’s relationship with Libya is full of ironies—Muammar Gaddafi hyperactively did all he could to upstage Pretoria and complicate its efforts to advance the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). It should be remembered that the current AU resulted from an Abuja-Pretoria manoeuvre to contain Gaddafi’s hare-brained “United States of Africa” scheme, an initiative that has already done much to muddle thinking on the continent about systematic ways to accelerate the pace of integration.

South Africa’s problem in the UN Security Council seems to come down to sorting out its African and emerging-power identities and agendas. Pretoria’s African vocation should not become muddled up with what other Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries’ politico-diplomatic proclivities are when it comes to Africa. The other countries in the international grouping aren’t situated on the African continent. When push comes to shove, they follow their national interests, as is evident in Russia and China’s recognition of the NTC.

Now that a breakthrough with the NTC has occurred, South Africa might work with the AU in establishing an AU-Arab League consultative committee on North Africa as the joint domain of both institutions. To forestall a repeat of the Libya debacle, Pretoria might also consider proposing a more robust EU-Africa “strategic partnership”, perhaps an AU-EU permanent joint commission that, among other things, could buffer any future potential military intervention on the continent.

For now, South Africa, the AU and all “concerned” African intellects should concentrate on a much-needed inter-African dialogue, one that surmounts the serious ideological, political and diplomatic contradictions laid bare by this year’s experiences in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya.

The continent could benefit from the forging of a strategic triangle of Nigeria, South Africa and a new Egypt-in-the-making. For Pretoria, such an African phalanx is needed to balance its Brics and Ibsa (India, Brazil, South Africa) emerging-power alignments. Thus could 2011 go down as a watershed year in Africa’s continuing journey towards full decolonisation.

  • Francis Kornegay is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue

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