Africa’s Feeble Response to Libya

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Why has Africa’s response to the Libyan regime’s shooting of protesters – and hiring of African mercenaries to actually pull the triggers – been so weak? So far, the continent’s reaction amounts to this: the African Union has condemned “the disproportionate use of force against civilians,” which pretty much implies that cracking down on civilians is ok, just don’t shoot too many of them; and little Botswana has severed ties with Libya.

On Thursday, the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh condemned Africa’s “shcoking” and “unacceptable silence” on Libya. And yesterday, a coalition of rights groups met in Johannesburg to denounce Africa’s “appalling lack of pressure.” ”The response from African governments and the AU took so long and was so feeble that it emboldens Gaddafi in clinging on to power by any means possible,” said Ingrid Srinath, head of one of the groups, Civicus. “African countries have a particular responsibility. Libya is a member of the AU. If the AU is going to be the last to respond, what does it say about its legitimacy?”

So what gives with Africa? Three things. Firstly, there are still plenty of leaders in Africa whose human rights records are just as dirty as Gaddafi’s. Secondly, Gaddafi has friends on the continent. The Colonel gave money, weapons and training to many rebel groups in Africa – from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Chad and Niger to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in South Africa. Gaddafi also championed African unity and self-sufficiency, a stance supported by many African heads of state. African leaders may have found Gaddafi’s sometimes bizarre policy proposals and endless honoring of himself – in 2008, he organized a gathering of African royalty in Libya where he had himself crowned Africa’s “king of kings” – a little embarrassing. But money talks, as do oil and MIG fighter planes, and Gaddafi’s generosity bought him enduring loyalty.

Thirdly, for all Gaddafi’s grand talk about Africans taking caring of African problems, that is still a nascent phenomenon. The African Union is finding its feet today, taking a lead in diplomatic efforts in Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire, and peacekeeping in Somalia and Darfur. But the AU still finds condemnation difficult. Instead, it tends to denounce as racists those who do point fingers at African leaders, notably the International Criminal Court.

But even if Africa may prefer not to get involved in Libya, in one way it already is. South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon currently sit on the UN Security Council, which meets again today to try to pass a resolution on sanctions to be taken against the Libyan regime. Many are calling for the UNSC to invoke the doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” which demands foreign intervention to prevent mass human rights violations when the government concerned is unwilling or unable to do so itself. Is that a responsibility that resonates with Africa’s leaders?

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