This memorandum outlines the African Union (AU) peace initiative for Libya during 2011, arguing that the proposal was unfairly derided and dismissed by the western powers. The African approach was based on a realistic appreciation of the perils of civil war in Libya and the shortcomings of forcible regime change. A combination of NATO pressure and AU diplomacy might have avoided some of the problems that emerged during and after the regime transition in Libya.

Libya’s “Brother Leader” Muammar Gaddafi was a controversial and divisive figure in Africa, and the eruption of armed resistance similarly ignited diverse responses. While the Arab world, Europe and the United States tended to view the 2011 Libyan uprising as a turbulent version of Tunisia’s democratic uprising, sub-Saharan African leaders saw the contest between Gaddafi and his rivals as a variant of the Chadian wars, threatening a lawless mercenarism that could easily spill across borders. African leaders found Gaddafi erratic, egotistical and frequently offensive, but many were leery of forcible regime change, fearing that what followed could be worse. Warnings about possible fallout from the Libyan conflict were repeated in statements by the African Union Peace and Security Council from March 2011 onwards. The AU consistently spoke of an “inclusive transition” to democracy in Libya, meaning a process in which Gaddafi would step aside peaceably.

The AU Peace Initiative

The first protests in Libya occurred immediately in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and the AU response should be seen partly in the context of those revolutions. The guiding principles for the AU were the Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes in Government (2000) and the Constitutive Act of the African Union (2002), which prohibited unconstitutional changes in government. The drafters had not foreseen the possibility of democratic uprisings, although these had occurred in Sudan (1964 and 1985) and non-violent demonstrations and civil society mobilization had hastened the democratization of many African countries after 1990. But the AU did not use these principles to buttress the status quo, but rather to stress the democratic nature of the uprisings and the continuities with the democratization wave in sub-Saharan Africa of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The first AU discussion on the Libyan crisis was at the Peace and Security Council (PSC) meeting of 23 February, and focused on the Libyan authorities’ repression of demonstrations and the threats that Gaddafi was making against the opposition. The next discussion, held at the level of heads of state on 10 March, forged the African diplomatic response to the Libya crisis. The PSC proposed a high-level ad hoc committee made up of Heads of State, anticipating that this would have the required clout and influence to facilitate a negotiated solution in Libya and rally the international community behind the AU’s efforts. The meeting was chaired by the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. He and other Heads of State had quickly recognized that the Arab Spring meant that Gaddafi could not survive. The other key intervention was from Déby: “beware of opening the Libyan Pandora’s box.” He feared spillover to Chad and other African neighbors. The themes of the meeting included the need for a ceasefire, for humanitarian assistance (including the rescue of African migrant workers), and for an inclusive peace agreement combined with a democratic transition. Instead of applying the its newly-developed doctrine of supporting democratic uprisings, the AU interpreted the Libyan conflict through its more familiar lens of responding to a civil war.

The most substantive element was paragraph 7, which became known as the “roadmap”:

The current situation in Libya calls for an urgent African action for: (i) the immediate cessation of all hostilities, (ii) the cooperation of the competent Libyan authorities to facilitate the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance to the needy populations, (iii) the protection of foreign nationals, including the African migrants living in Libya, and (iv) the adoption and implementation of the political reforms necessary for the elimination of the causes of the current crisis.

Although Gaddafi leaving office was not explicitly mentioned, the roadmap was designed as a way for the Brother Leader to step down in a timeframe of months, handing over to an inclusive interim government that would pave the way for elections. The AU set up an Ad Hoc High Level Committee, and scheduled its first meeting in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 19 March, after which the Panel members would fly to Libya.

Meanwhile, the U.S., France and Britain were following a different track, and driving UN policy. A week later, the UN Security Council met to consider the escalating crisis and especially the threat to Benghazi. The three African countries on the Security Council (Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa) all voted for Resolution 1973. If just one had abstained the resolution would not have passed. The resolution refers to the AU efforts in its preambular section, including calling for a ceasefire and noting the decision of the AU “to send its ad hoc High Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.” But the operative provisions of Resolution 1973 were different entirely.

The crux of the disagreement between the AU and NATO occurred when the Ad Hoc Committee met in Noakchoutt on 19 March, hosted by President Aziz. Mauritania provided a plane to fly to Tripoli the following day, but that was the day on which the no fly zone came into effect. The Panel members received a curt message from the U.S. and the UN saying that, should they proceed with their visit, their security could not be guaranteed. The communiqué published at the end of the meeting reflected the disappointment and anger of the participants for not having been allowed to travel to an African country for a peace mission.

The Ad Hoc Committee met again in Nouakchott on 9 April. This time the UN gave permission to fly to Tripoli and they met with Gaddafi the following day. It was reportedly a stormy meeting with recriminations on both sides. The African leaders that they had no option but to enter into dialogue with opposition groups, they said that the Libyan Government similarly had no choice but to negotiate with the TNC, and that any solution had to be based on the aspirations of the Libyan people to democracy and respect for human rights. The members of the Ad Hoc Committee also argued that Libya lacked the means to stand up to the international coalition and its leader should therefore be realistic about its options. Finally, they told Gaddafi that the delegation would continue to Benghazi whether he liked it or not: they were not seeking his authorization. Gaddafi accepted, in principle, the AU roadmap including the ceasefire and negotiations. The next day the AU leaders (with the significant absence of Pres. Zuma) flew to Benghazi, where the TNC leadership rejected the plan. Mustafa Abdel Jalil announced that the roadmap was not acceptable because it did not include the immediate departure of Gaddafi. “Gaddafi must leave immediately if he wants to survive,” he said.

The AU’s principal diplomatic advantage was that only African leaders could make the case to Gaddafi that he should both stop his assault on civilian populations and step down, with any credibility. A combination of African access to Gaddafi and NATO leverage over the TNC could have provided the basis for a negotiated settlement. However, this possibility was never pursued.

In addition to the TNC’s rejection, the AU roadmap had several major problems. First, the nature of Gaddafi’s departure was not specified. In particular, it was not clarified whether he should depart the country or go into internal exile. Following the adoption of the Roadmap, the AU began discreet talks with leaders across Africa to find a country willing to receive Gaddafi. A number of hopeful openings were registered, and the AU passed on information about these efforts to its international partners. Another idea floated was that Gaddafi could retire to Sirte or Sebha, where the AU would provide a small military force to guard him.

Another problem was that while the AU had proposals for a ceasefire, including monitors (e.g. in Misrata) or an inter-positioning force (e.g. on the front line near Benghazi), member countries did not show enthusiasm in coming up with the military observers and troops needed. Not a single African country volunteered to send observers to Misrata when the AU proposed the idea at its Extraordinary Summit on 25 May, and none was ready to send the battalions needed to enforce a ceasefire.

Third, Africa was divided. While most of the continent wanted Gaddafi gone with minimal disruption, a few leaders were still sympathetic to the “Brother Leader,” among them Museveni and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. South African President Zuma’s position was ambiguous. Some other African leaders were so antipathetic to Gaddafi that they would have no truck with compromise. Sudan was heavily involved in supporting the TNC. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi not only nurtured personal disgust towards Gaddafi, but was also furious over Libyan support to Eritrea, and insisted that Gaddafi should step down. Nigerian leaders were also eager to see Gaddafi depart.

Lastly, not unrelated to the TNC position, the NATO countries were opposed. This hampered the AU financially as well as politically. The European Union funded a major part of the AU’s conflict response budget, including a small but flexible fund for rapid response to political emergencies. The response to AU’s request for funding was delayed for weeks.

At an Extraordinary Summit meeting in May, the AU called for an immediate pause in fighting, for ceasefire monitors, and for a Framework Agreement for Political Solution. Five days later, President Zuma flew to Tripoli to present the proposals, focusing on a ceasefire to be monitored by the AU, UN and Arab League, leading to a transitional period culminating in elections. The key question was, would Gaddafi be ready to step down? The African leaders who had interacted with him in April were convinced that his commitment to the roadmap remained, including his promise not to be part of the transition. However, the meeting with Gaddafi was a disappointment: he restated his commitment to “not being part of the negotiation process” but also insisted he was not ready to leave the country. Gaddafi’s family members and close supporters had reportedly vetoed the plan for transition. The next day in Benghazi, Mustafa Abdul Jalil again said that there was no possibility of talking to Gaddafi, who had irredeemably lost credibility and was just playing games. The clearest statement from the chair of the AU Ad Hoc Committee followed a week later, when President Abdel Aziz told AFP that Gaddafi “can no longer lead Libya. His departure has become necessary… He must be made to leave without causing more damage.”

The AU pressed on, hoping that the way in which the war had apparently descended into stalemate would make both sides accept the need for a negotiated solution. But by this time the logic of the battlefield was ascendant, and in August, TNC fighters entered Tripoli and the war swung decisively in their favour. Key African government such as Nigeria and Ethiopia recognized the TNC in the following days, and called for the AU to do the same. Thereafter, the AU’s diplomatic efforts were at best remedial, reiterating its proposal for a national dialogue and an all-inclusive transitional government.


The AU roadmap for a negotiated transition to a post-Gaddafi order in Libya had no guarantee of success. The internal political dynamics in Libya made it a difficult proposition, like the negotiated end to civil wars in many African countries. However, the approach of an inclusive negotiated settlement was not given a serious chance. It was killed by France, Britain and the United States.

The outcome has damaged Africa. The AU was unable to convince Libyans, Africans or the world that it was a credible interlocutor for peace in Libya. Africa did not present a united position, and did not provide the financial, military or diplomatic resources necessary for the AU initiative to prevail. Africa did not even provide a good account of its intent and strategy to the general public, as a result of which the AU position has been widely misunderstood, and the AU itself has suffered a crisis of leadership. Africa’s weakness has benefited nobody. The Libyan people, the new government and NATO may regret that the African option was not pursued.

The African dimensions to the Libyan war shine a spotlight on any justifications for NATO’s intervention in terms of R2P. The blocking of the AU diplomatic initiative indicates that the decision to escalate the military intervention beyond the defence of Benghazi to an agenda of regime change, could not be justified as a last resort. There were options for a negotiated settlement that could have been pursued. Indeed, a partnership between the UN and the AU could have benefited Libya and both organisations.


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9 Responses to The African Union and the Libya Conflict of 2011

  1. […] 4. Alex de Waal on the AU peace initiative for Libya during 2011, arguing that proposal was unfairly de… […]

  2. wilfred says:

    this is wonderful piece. I have always argued that the AU needs a robust publicity division which should always bring out its plans. Even now AU has a plan for Mali but no one knows anything about African mission in Mali (ecowas)..how can I subscribe to be receiving these insightful angle to issues in Africa?

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  3. David Pwayidi says:

    am just about to follow you guys on twitter but I have a few questions after reading this piece. One, what does the author Mr Alex de Waal think was the role the African Union played in the management of the crises and what is his assessment of that role? Or better still did that role depict an Africa for Africans scenario that the AU seeks to provide?

    It will be great to hear from you.

  4. Alex DeWaal says:

    Dear David, I wish that the AU had played a stronger role in managing the Libya crisis. I feel that the AU had essentially the right approach, but its potential was undone by its weakness vis-a-vis the western powers, and its own poor public relations. The starting point for the “African solutions to African problems” approach is that Africa should take the lead in defining its own problems, on the basis of which it can also advocate for solutions, and take the lead in pursuing those solutions.

  5. sakhile says:

    how can the AU’s inability to deal with the Libyan question without European and American interference be explained?

  6. abdirahman says:

    thank you for the piece mr. waal, i think NATO’s intervention was pegged on political interest of the US and not for the sake of R2P

  7. PRof. D A H Amar says:

    I think it is a great piece of work that is away from western propaganda. Gadaffi is a great man that has done every thing for africa. he was behind the foundation of the AU, and he was the defender on African peoples rights, he was the most fighter against colonialism in Africa.
    However, what the media said happened in Libya 2011 to justify the war against Libya and the great leader M Qaddafi all based on PURE LIES by Mr Cameron, Sarkouzi and Obama and many others to kill the project of the Union and Liberation of Africa.

    TODAY WHERE ARE PEOPLE Who Talking about R2P in 2011????????.

  8. lindsay kiptiness says:

    The way the Libyan crisis was handled is a classic case of the divided house that is Africa. African solutions to African problems is a myth projected by some despots keen to preserve the regime. if Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa had voted against UNSC Resolution 1973, perhaps Gadhafi would be alive today and civil war would not be raging in Libya today and many lives lost due to the civil war would have been saved.

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