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.

Stefan Rousseau/AP
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.

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?

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.

Among the African nations most suspicious of Western motives is South Africa, says Adam Habib, a political scientist and deputy chancellor of the University of Johannesburg.

South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, once relied on Western human rights groups and diplomatic pressure to help end the racist rule of the apartheid regime, but now it views those same human rights arguments as unwanted interference in their national interests.

“There is a disconnect about Libya and [Ivory Coast],” says Mr. Habib, who personally has argued forcefully for an intervention in Libya on human rights grounds. “It’s about intervention, it’s about how we don’t trust Western intentions, it’s about whether they [Western countries] have a hidden agenda.”

Missed opportunity?

What is unclear is why the AU didn’t take the opportunity of this conference in London to put all these frustrations and suspicions on the table, and to argue forcefully its own alternative viewpoint on how to resolve the crisis in Libya.

While there may be differences within the AU about what specific action should be taken in Libya, its vote to seek a mediated settlement shows that the AU does have its own interests and values to protect. But if it doesn’t show up for such a meeting, ask analysts like Mr. Kornegay, how does it expect the world to act in accordance with those interests and values?

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a joint statement on Monday calling on Qaddafi to step down from power before it was “too late.”

"We call on all Libyans who believe that Qaddafi is leading Libya into a disaster to take the initiative now to organize a transition process," Mr. Cameron and Mr. Sarkozy said in a statement.

Separately, President Obama said Monday night: “It should be clear to those around Qaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on Qaddafi’s side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.”

But Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni says the West is applying "double standards" by pushing for a no-fly zone in Libya, but not in other conflict zones.

"We have been appealing to the UN to impose a no-fly zone over Somalia so as to impede the free movement of terrorists, linked to Al Qaeda that killed Americans on September 11th, killed Ugandans last July and have caused so much damage to the Somalis, without success," Mr. Museveni said in a March 20 statement. "Why? Are there no human beings in Somalia similar to the ones in Benghazi? Or is it because Somalia does not have oil which is not fully controlled by the western oil companies on account of Qaddafi's nationalist posture?"

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