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How AU's boycott of London Libya meeting may hurt Africa's interests

The African Union may be frustrated that the Western powers didn't give their Libya mediation efforts a chance, but analysts say the AU's refusal to join today's international meeting in London limits Africa's influence.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / March 29, 2011

Conference host Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague (front c.) poses for a group photo with other foreign ministers at the start of the Libya conference in London on Tuesday, March 29.

Stefan Rousseau/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

The United Nations-backed no-fly zone imposed on Libya is easily the most important new intervention on the African continent today. So why did the African Union refuse to send a representative to participate in today's international conference in London about the way forward for the air campaign against Mr. Qaddafi's forces?

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The AU has not issued an official statement explaining its position, but its choice to boycott the conference of NATO nations participating in the air campaign – as well as diplomats from dozens of other countries – leaves many human rights activists and political analysts puzzled.

“It’s an embarrassment that they would just not show up,” says Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue in Johannesburg. “It might be that they just don’t have a single African position on this issue.”

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Perhaps. But the no-show also reflects a growing unease among African leaders about what they see as a reassertion of influence by the richer nations in Africa's affairs, and a frustration that their own African voice is not being given sufficient weight internationally.

“The AU was at the point of putting together a panel of five presidents to be sent to Libya to work out a peaceful solution, but that was stopped because of the UN’s decision to create a no-fly zone,” says Petrus De Kock, a senior researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Cape Town, South Africa. “So by boycotting this event, they are showing they are frustrated at being sidelined. As a continental body, they should have been given more of a voice in an issue that is in their jurisdiction.”

Mounting frustration

Feeding this frustration is the sense that the West is meddling too much in African affairs, from the increasing tendency to refer African cases of human rights violations – such as Kenya’s post-election violence cases – to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands to the continued economic influence of former colonial powers such as Britain and France in resource-rich but underdeveloped African nations.

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