Several people sent in questions to Alex de Waal in response to his article, “African Roles in the Libyan Conflict of 2011” available in the March 2013 edition of International Affairs. Below are de Waal’s responses.

1)    There seems to be a theme in this article about the notion of the “international community” (or more accurately the P3) needing to simplify people or nations into good or bad, instead of seeing the nuanced perspectives which may lead to openly negotiating with leaders like Gaddafi or working with nations like Sudan. Do you think this need to categorize leaders and nations prevents the international community from acting in the most responsible way? Will this framework create obstacles to working with the AU in the future?

The closer one is to any particular political problem, the more difficult it is to characterize it in simple terms such as good and evil, good guys and bad guys. It is particularly easy for U.S. policymakers to use these simplified categorizations when dealing with Africa, because Africa rarely “speaks back” with its own interpretations, and many African governments and rebels are adept at using these categories to their own advantage, often cynically so. Rwanda has been particularly skilled at this and the Libyan opposition had a relatively easy task in demonizing Gaddafi. The way in which news and analysis of Africa is strongly filtered by advocacy organizations encourages this tendency.

The African Union, like all inter-state organizations, has a bias towards the status quo. But it has also adopted a number of quite progressive principles (such as the prohibition on recognizing governments that take power by unconstitutional means such as a military coup, and the obligation of neighbors to intervene to help resolve armed conflicts), and has an increasingly good record of actually implementing these commitments.

Presently, the AU’s approach is mid-way between the conventionally statist approaches of Russia, China and most Asian nations, and the more liberal and engaged policies of Europe and North America. As China and other Asian nations grow in influence, African governments are increasingly tempted to try to rebuff western approaches. At the same time, simplified moral positioning can lead western countries to cut themselves out of the picture. For example, western nations’ decision, not to engage with Sudanese President Omar al Bashir following the ICC arrest warrant against him, excluded them from tactical engagement with Sudan. I would expect that western responses to the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as President of Kenya, despite his impending trial at the ICC, will prove a test case of whether such simplified narratives can survive contact with hard material interests. Western governments would be advised to give space for the AU to take a leadership role on many of these issues: it will serve them both well.

2)    For a number of reasons outlined in the article, AU member states were unable to overcome their internal divisions and bridge a negotiated solution to the Libyan crisis. Given the precedent set in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, and the evolving situation in Mali, how should the AU better position itself to lead on future mediation/ peacebuilding efforts on the continent?

Good question! First, the AU Commission itself needs to be more efficient and professional. I am optimistic that under new leadership we can expect some improvements (see my response to question 5, below). A particular challenge is that the AU needs more and more senior special envoys. The growth of democratic government on the continent means that there are more former heads of state who have stepped down after serving their two terms in office, available for roles as mediators. There are also more former ministers, some of them young and energetic, available.

Second, AU member states have to lead the way. They should pay their dues to the AU so it is not so heavily reliant on external funds (notably from the European Union). They should not cast off their unwanted bureaucrats onto the AU or regard it as a retirement slot for the exhausted or incompetent. They should coordinate better between the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council, and strengthen the PSC. This can begin by taking closer ownership of the PSC: unlike the UNSC where the member states do the diplomatic work including the drafting of resolutions, presidential statements and press releases, in the case of the AU it is the Peace and Security Department that does this.

The role of the PSC on Sudan and South Sudan may be an augur of what is to come. Partly because the AU High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan took the PSC very seriously, and PSC Communiques were regularly adopted almost verbatim by the UNSC, the standing of the PSC has risen, and the Sudanese government (in particular) is devoting more attention to the PSC and how its decisions are made. The PSC has 15 members, none of them permanent, and if each government that is represented on the council provides strong staff support and political backing to its ambassador, then PSC debates and communiques will take on greater standing, and in turn AU special envoys and high representatives will have greater clout.

3)     Sudan’s role in Libya was previously made public over a year ago by the President of the National Transitional Council Mustapha Abdeljalil. What is new your analysis?

The Sudanese role has been publicly acknowledged by both countries’ leaderships, but it hasn’t got much coverage even inside those countries, let along internationally. Part of the reason for this is that not much detail has been provided and the individuals involved in the operations have not come forward to tell their stories. (Which is not surprising as they are intelligence operatives and soldiers.) Part of the reason is that any story that doesn’t fit with the generally accepted grand narrative of events, tends to be ignored unless it is put forward by someone with a high profile.

4)    Has Libya today “turned its back” on Africa purposefully or as a result of benign neglect in the face of other priorities?

At the moment, the Libyan government has deliberately oriented itself towards Europe, the U.S. and friendly governments in the Arab world, and has shunned the AU and most of Africa (except Sudan and those countries that stood out in support of the 2011 revolution). However, the crisis in Mali, the AQIM incursion into Algeria, and the growing problems of illegal trafficking, mean that Libya will be obliged to engage more constructively with sub-Saharan Africa.

5)    Is the AU self-aware of de Waal’s critique that it fails at public diplomacy? Is it doing anything to improve?

The Libyan conflict caused considerable turmoil within the AU, leading to the hotly-contested election for the chairperson of the Commission. The claim, by South Africa among others, that Chairperson Jean Ping had mishandled the Libya file in 2011 was one of the reasons why he was challenged by Mrs. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, with the first election (January 2012) resulting in a draw and the second (July 2012) in Mrs. Zuma’s victory. After the next AU summit, in May, we can expect a considerable shakeup of the administration of the Commission, and hopefully an improvement in its public diplomacy.

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