Five myths of Libyan intervention

Recent debate about the intervention in Libya that toppled the 42-year autocracy of the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi has not always clarified matters. It is important to untangle five myths regarding this intervention.

The first—ubiquitous in Western media—is that Gaddafi was widely popular in Africa and having played the flamboyant paymaster of the African Union (AU), the organisation will now suffer greatly from his demise. It should be noted that the Libyan leader was feared and viewed with widespread suspicion across the continent.
Libya became isolated within the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) following Gaddafi’s 1980 military intervention in Chad. He called for a jihad by Congolese Muslims against the autocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and for the partition of Nigeria. He backed vicious rebel groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as Tuareg rebels in Mali.

More positively, Gaddafi established a $5-billion fund that invested in hotels, cellphones, mosques, and mining companies across Africa. Many governments took his money without supporting his quixotic dreams of a federalist “United States of Africa”. While the “Brother Leader” did the most to ensure that the AU was born in 2002 and bought influence by paying off the debts of several African states, Libya (like South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria) contributes no more than 15% of the AU’s operating budget.

The second myth is that South Africa’s Libya policy has been a total failure, resulting in the isolation of both the country and the continent. Francis Kornegay’s piece “A sovereign Africa needs more dialogue” (September 23) makes such an argument. Some of the obfuscatory petulance of this sort of analysis has also seen Greg Mills hyperbolically referring to South Africa as a “rogue democracy” in these pages (September 2). South Africa did not achieve the negotiated outcome it wanted in Libya, but it is important to recognise its tireless mediation efforts. President Jacob Zuma conducted several rounds of “shuttle diplomacy” to Tripoli.

One must also note some of the dynamics that led to Tshwane’s adopting an anti-Nato stance. The Zuma administration was clearly stung by criticism from within the ruling ANC, in which Gaddafi still enjoys much popularity as a revolutionary leader, that South Africa’s support of the United Nations resolution to protect civilians opened the door to Nato’s regime-change agenda.

These pressures explain the hardening of Zuma’s approach to Libya. Thabo Mbeki was also involved in a campaign, with 600 “concerned Africans”, to oppose the Nato intervention because the AU had been sidelined.

That Kornegay, an African-American, would disparage Africa’s intellectual and political class for lacking “political imagination” and “thrashing about in frustrated rage” shows a profound lack of understanding of the nuances of this debate, as well as a breathtaking insensitivity towards the genuine anger felt across the continent at what many perceived to be an anachronistic “neo-colonial” intervention. Whether one agrees or disagrees with these African perspectives, it is important to explain rather than simply dismiss them.

Failure of the AU
The third myth is the moral and political failure of the AU. Kornegay writes of “African self-isolation and marginalisation” and Mills questions the organisation’s concern for African lives. The AU clearly has institutional and other weaknesses, but it spoke with remarkable clarity during this crisis. It condemned the killing of civilians early on and called for a mediated end to the conflict that would culminate in an inclusive government.

That the AU could not implement its roadmap was largely the result of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) refusing to negotiate with Gaddafi’s regime, as well as Nato’s adoption of a military approach to the crisis. Kornegay talks of the AU having been “marginalised”, but in fact the organisation was divided. These splits mirrored the European Union’s own difficulties in responding to the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s. Such differences are not unusual in multilateral diplomacy.

It is therefore important to disaggregate the 53 AU states, about 20 of which recognised the NTC soon after Gaddafi’s fall. The Libyan case unfortunately revives the historical diplomatic rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria. Both—as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council—voted to support the Nato intervention in Libya. Nigeria was among the first African countries to recognise the NTC. South Africa and Nigeria will have to re-establish the common strategic approach they demonstrated during the presidencies of Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007 if Africa’s voice is to carry weight in future crises. It is unfair to describe the Libya case solely as a failure of the AU (as Kornegay and Mills imply), because both the Arab League and the UN had an equal stake in resolving the dispute peacefully. 

The fourth myth is the sense of Nato’s invincibility. This view tends to gloss over the fact that, with the disappearance of its Soviet raison d’être, Nato is in the throes of a serious existential crisis. Of its 28 members, only eight agreed to take part in the bombing raids. Germany not only abstained from the Security Council resolution that sanctioned the Nato attacks, but also declined to contribute to the military mission. Poland refused to join the intervention and criticised it as having been driven by a thirst for Libya’s oil. With Nato’s European countries continuing to rely heavily on an American sheriff who is increasingly reluctant to rally military possess for foreign adventures, their declining military spending will surely render future “out-of-area operations” unsustainable. If the AU was divided over Libya, so too was Nato.

The fifth myth of the Libyan intervention is that, after four decades of Gaddafi’s ossified dictatorship, NTC horsemen have ridden into Tripoli to establish a new dawn of multiparty democracy.

Murmurings about the council’s nepotism and corruption are already growing louder. The assassination of the NTC’s military commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, remains unexplained, which also suggests that the revolution has started devouring its children even before it has consolidated its grip on power. The massacre of scores of black African migrants by NTC forces (condemned by the AU and human-rights groups but bizarrely described by Kornegay as “inevitable”) further damages a regime tainted by xenophobic extremists who have callously disregarded the principle of the “responsibility to protect” that was used to justify the intervention that put them in power.

Gaddafi was the glue that held together a motley crew of secularists, Islamists and ethnic factions. With his impending demise, Afghanistan and Iraq may well be the future that awaits post-Gaddafi Libya.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts (Jacana)

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