As Libya descends into chaos in the worst violence the country has known since the ousting of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, African diplomats are saying: we told you so.
Jean Ping, the former chairperson of the African Union Commission, told the Mail & Guardian this week that the AU strongly opposed the Nato intervention in Libya three years ago because it believed it would cause untold harm in the region and could lead to civil war in the country.
The Nato countries completely ignored Africa’s position, including attempts by leaders such as President Jacob Zuma to find a peaceful solution, because of their “sense of superiority”, he said.
“I visited all the European capitals, I went to Washington and to Nato to warn against an intervention. We knew Libya could explode and that is what is now happening,” Ping, who is also Gabon’s former foreign minister, said telephonically from the West African country.
Ping, who has broken away from the ruling party in his country and could oppose President Ali Bongo in upcoming presidential elections, has been speaking about Libya to international media these past few weeks. “We saw this elsewhere, in Somalia, where foreign intervention led to so much collateral damage. We knew what we were talking about,” he said.
Attempted airport takeover
Militias fighting for the control of the oil-rich country have intensified their violent clashes since their attempted takeover of the Tripoli airport in mid-July. A huge number of planes were destroyed in the attack and subsequently, on August? 2, a fuel depot was hit by a rocket attack and a number of gas tanks were set on fire.
On Monday, a bomb was dropped on the capital, allegedly by forces affiliated to the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, but the origin of the bombardment is still not clear.
According to reports hundreds of people have been victims of the violence – almost as many as in the run-up to the French-led intervention to save lives of those threatened by Gaddafi’s army in the eastern city of Benghazi in early 2011. Thousands of people have also fled to neighbouring countries since the start of the violence a month ago.
Ping recalled that the AU had to ask Nato for a periodic cessation of the arial bombing of Tripoli when Zuma visited the city in May 2011.
The aim was to try to persuade Gaddafi to step down in the wake of the violent protests that were seen as the continuation of the Arab Spring that started in neighbouring Tunisia.
Independent consultant and AU expert Mehari Maru agrees with Ping, saying the AU position was misconstrued as support for Gaddafi. He said it is now time for the organisation to “show real leadership”, to try to salvage the situation, together with other actors such as the European Union, the Arab League and the United Nations.
“There are some who say the AU shouldn’t be cleaning up a mess created by others, but the AU has to get over the feeling of being vindicated,” Maru said. “It can play a very important role in Libya.”
But stabilising the situation in Libya is a hugely difficult task, said Maru. The conflict, which poses a real risk to security across North Africa and the Sahel, involves heavily armed groups, well financed in the oil-rich country.
Ideal base for terror groups
Lawlessness and the availability of arms also make Libya an ideal base for terror groups and criminal networks engaged in smuggling in the region. In addition, Europeans are concerned about the passage of illegal immigrants to their shores.
Maru said in Somalia the AU could rely on “pockets of stability” and some legitimate authority by clans in the country to begin a peace process, there are no such pockets in Libya. “Gaddafi undermined all sources of legitimate power,” he said.
The AU has so far been slow to act. On July 30, current AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma expressed her “dismay and concern” about the deteriorating situation and condemned “these acts of violence, which have claimed many lives and led to the senseless and massive destruction of property and infrastructure”, according an AU press release.
The AU has appointed a special envoy, Dileita Mohamed Dileita, from Djibouti, who visited Libya recently and has briefed the 10-member AU Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa.
Libya expert Riccardo Fabiani from Eurasia, a London-based risk analysis group, said this week that even if the AU as an institution cannot at this stage do anything to intervene, the countries in the region have an important role to play.
The new Libyan Parliament, set up following elections in June, can also play a role to mediate between the two camps, which are largely divided into a pro-Islamist and an anti-Islamist camp.
The former group is represented by the so-called Misrata militia, allegedly supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. They are fighting the Zintan militia, linked to Haftar, reportedly with some backing from the anti-Islamist regime in Egypt.
“The Parliament can be a stabiliser, but it has also taken inflammatory decisions against the Islamists lately,” Fabiani told the M&G. The Islamists boycotted the opening of Parliament in the western city of Tobruk on 4 August.
A possible international intervention by UN peacekeepers in the current crisis in Libya has been mooted, but Fabiani thinks this will be premature.
“What is needed is a UN intervention to make sure the two sides first work out a number of issues, like the use of violence in Benghazi and to convince them that there are no short-term solutions,” he said. “UN peacekeepers would help, but I’m not sure the militias are ready to accept that.”
France to ‘clear’ Islamic extremists from Sahel
Foreign diplomats have fled the Libyan capital Tripoli in large numbers because of intensifying violence between militia groups these past three weeks.
France, the country that spearheaded the military intervention to remove former leader Muammar Gaddafi, also closed its embassy on July 30 and called on all French citizens to leave the country, according to a statement by the French foreign ministry.
French media are now increasingly asking whether the intervention in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011 was a mistake, and what the real motives were behind the move.
A report in the British Daily Mail in 2012 first suggested the government of former president Nicolas Sarkozy was bent on getting rid of Gaddafi, following allegations that Gaddafi sponsored Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
Sarkozy has denied these allegations. But even if the new French administration under François Hollande is now washing its hands of the chaotic situation following Gaddafi’s demise, the spillover has had dramatic consequences on the security situation in the Sahel region.
France, as the former colonial power, has been asked by some countries to step in.
It announced on July 14 that it is launching a new military operation in the Sahel entitled Operation Berkhane. The operation comprises 1 300 French troops stationed in Chad, south of Libya, 1 000 troops in Mali and 300 in Niger.
France also has special forces in Burkina Faso and military bases in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon, with smaller contingents on standby.
The aim of Operation Berkhane, according to Hollande, is to track down Islamist extremist groups that have been causing havoc in the region. This new operation, which will span the entire Sahel region, will replace Operation Serval, launched last year to drive out armed groups occupying the north of Mali.
“Thanks to Operation Serval, which has now been completed, Mali is no longer a sanctuary for terrorists. Our mission has been successfully completed,” Hollande told journalists following the traditional July 14 Bastille Day celebrations in France.
The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 and the widespread availability of heavy arms amassed by Gaddafi, but also those used in the Nato-supported ground offensive against him, are seen as one of the major causes of the war in Mali.
According to a French defence specialist in Paris, many terror groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are using the south of Libya as a base.
“The south of Libya has become a vast, uncontrolled area for criminal networks and armed groups,” said the specialist, who preferred not to be named. – Liesl Louw-Vaudran