Can Zuma Pull Off a Surprise in Libya?

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South African President Jacob Zuma flies into Tripoli Monday to try to forge peace between Libyan leader Mouamar Gaddafi and the country’s rebels. Top of the agenda, according to Agence France-Presse: persuading Gaddafi to go. Zuma’s initiative, conducted on behalf of the African Union (AU), has met widespread skepticism, particularly from Western commentators who view the AU as an ineffective distraction in the Western-dominated world of global diplomacy and who recall an AU mission in April – also led by Zuma – that fell flat.

Such views are increasingly outdated. First, there is Zuma himself. The South African President has little formal education but his deficiences as a student of politics and diplomacy are mitigated by his skills as a personable negotitator and a canny political operator. Zuma has a particularly good track record on mediation. In the late 1990s, he ended the bloody rivalry between his ruling African National Congress and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, which cost hundreds of lives in the first few years of post-apartheid South Africa. In 2004 he brokered a power-sharing peace deal to formally end the 1993-2000 civil war in Burundi.

Second, Libya provides an example of how regional bodies like the AU and the Arab League are increasingly important to how the world is run. US misadventures in Iraq have made unilateral military intervention globally unacceptable. Hence, NATO’s bombing campaign is not a Western mission. Rather, despite a looming humanitarian disaster on the ground as Gaddafi’s troops moved to crush the rebels in the east of the country in February and March, Europe and the US waited to act until after the Arab League asked for a no-fly zone over Libya on March 12, and after the  UN acted on that request by passing a resolution. (Qatar also took part in the subsequent military operation.) Likewise, in the other crisis of that month, it was the AU which on March 24 first called on the UN to “use all means necessary to protect life and property” in Cote d’Ivoire, a resolution which then led to a UN military operation (albeit one using French troops) to oust the former President Laurent Gbagbo.

The elevation of regional bodies like the Arab League and the African Union helps prevent a Kosovo-like UN deadlock in diplomacy’s upper reaches, where the West wants action and Russia and China veto it: Russia and China can hardly claim to be standing up for voiceless locals against Western imperialism if regional authorities are asking for intervention. More importantly, it reflects a changing world where power is dispersed. In the last few years, the AU has become a primary diplomatic player in Africa. While it often still has to ask others to foot the bill, it has sent sent peacekeepers into Darfur and Somalia, and mediators into Sudan, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire. What gives the AU particular heft in Libya is that one of the organization’s most vocal supporters is Gaddafi, who helped found it and sees it as a precursor to a United States of Africa.

As AU head Jean Ping never tires of pointing out, it is time for Africans to take care of African problems. In that context, employing Zuma and the AU to try to convince Gaddafi to go is logical and increasingly credible. Gaddafi has given no hint of wanting to step down peacefully. But weeks and now months of NATO’s military operation have not forced him out either. And he is still talking to Zuma – which is more than can be said of leaders in either Europe or the US.