>Earlier this week, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi probably picked up an expensive-looking pen and drew a fresh line of ink through yet another item on his bucket list:
#1234: Rehabilitate my image in the West
#1235: Get crowned King of Kings… (or at least King of all African Kings)
#1236: Become leader of the African continent (or at least AU chairman)
#1236: Unite the African continent
When I reported on Qaddafi being ‘crowned’ African Union chairman early last week, my blog was flooded with more comments than I will admit to being used to, and the verdict on his AU chairmanship was as split down the middle as a Ghanaian first-round election result. On the one hand are those who think that Qaddafi’s chairmanship will give much-needed momentum to the realization of African unity that the African Union is supposed to be moving towards (whatever form that unity eventually takes). On the other hand though are those whose opinions of the man run the gamut from mild distrust to utter disgust.
One friend pointed out to me Qaddafi’s responsibility for the death of a number of her family friends. Libya’s human rights record indeed remains somewhat dismal to this day. Others accuse him of sponsoring wars the continent over, and look to his shoddy human rights record, his schizophrenia over being Arab or African, and the gulf between his lofty pan-Africanism and the treatment of black African immigrants in his own country. Stories haunt newsrooms here of Ghanaians being mistreated there. As recently as last month, two Ghanaians were executed for murder there – another remaining on death row – after former President Kuffuor was unable to secure their release through diplomatic channels.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Richard Dowden – director of the UK’s Royal African Society – offered another perspective: that Qaddafi’s AU chairmanship “… says a lot about what African leaders think of the African Union. It was hoped that it would give great new leadership to Africa, create a sense of pan-Africanism even if they were not going to unite politically… it has got all these aspirations to be a club of democrats [but Gaddafi] is a man who has been a dictator for 40 years.”
As Qaddafi himself once famously put it, “revolutionaries do not retire” (words no doubt sweet to a certain former Ghanaian revolutionary leader’s ears). Whether or not this is so, the self-proclaimed ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution’ clearly has many more people to persuade of just how brotherly his revolution really is.
The African problem with Qaddafi extends as far back as the Seventies. It may come as a surprise to many that Libya was one of the founding members of the OAU in 1963. After the 1969 coup that brought him to power though, Qaddafi had pan-Islamist ideas and was interested in the uniting of Arab nations. To that end he not only called for the creation of a Saharan Islamic state – trying (and failing) to set up first a Libyan-Egyptian-Syrian superstate and then a merged territory with Tunisia – but also underlined his unfriendliness towards sub-Saharan African leaders by offering resources and support to any movement that approached him with an anti-government cause and an empty bank account.
To be fair to him, many sub-Saharan African leaders at the time were not worth defending. Qaddafi’s largesse however extended to almost any minority or left-leaning political group at the time. He offered support to both Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid African National Congress and to the Irish Republican Army (IRA); to ‘Lula’ da Silva (yes: he who is now Brazilian president) and to paramilitaries in Nicaragua; to Namibia’s SWAPO, and to Taylor in Liberia and Sanko in Sierra Leone. Today, he is still rumoured to sponsor rebel movements in Darfur, Cote D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. As diplomatic relations with Tunisia and Egypt (the latter by then a friend of Israel) evaporated, he even began sponsoring subversive activities in other Arab countries.
Come the Lockerbie bombings, after which the world reached the end of its collective patience with Qaddafi and imposed economic sanctions and a diplomatic blackout on Libya, it would take the intervention of two Africans – Nelson Mandela and our own Kofi Annan – to open Qaddafi’s fist (as Obama might put it), leading to the beginning of Qaddafi’s rehabilitation within the international community.
Qaddafi had already thrown his (often unwelcome) weight behind pan-Africanism by this time and (contrary to the perception that he changes his mind between being Arab and being African – which are not in fact mutually exclusive) he has been fairly consistent ever since. He has shown African leadership before, personally financing and convening the session that would lead to the Sirte Declaration in September 1999 (Sirte being where Qaddafi was born) calling for the establishment of a more effective African Union to replace the OAU. The latter had already become known in international circles as the ‘Dictators Club’.
Qaddafi has since been arguably the strongest advocate in the Union for the realization of a number of pan-Africanist dreams: a single African military force, one currency and a single passport to facilitate free movement of Africans all over the continent. (In response to this someone commented on my blog saying, “Of course the guy would advocate for a unitary passport for Africa: how else would he move his fleet of Hummers from his tent on the dessert to Jo’burg…”)
In a sign of the kind of acceleration that Qaddafi has in mind, the AU is already putting in place new structures that, while not taking away sovereignty from member states, may mark the start of that very process. In Qaddafi’s own words:
“It is a government of the union. It is an authority, a government. There will be secretaries … coordinators for various policies, like defense and foreign affairs and defense policies and foreign policies that are divergent and we will coordinate everything and our defense policies for Africa.”
It is perhaps fitting that this should begin one hundred years after the birth of a man who dreamed a similar dream. Qaddafi appears to have tapped into Nkrumah’s ability to dream big, both when it came to pan-Arabism and now with pushing forward the pan-Africanist agenda. Qaddafi is however not Kwame Nkrumah. While Nkrumah certainly had his fair share of flaws, Qaddafi has a history far more chequered to undo and as a Ghanaian I hope that simultaneously improving human rights and Ghanaian-Libyan relations makes his bucket list.
Making the African Union work towards genuine unity would also be a good start though.