Amid continuing scepticism over the possibility of a pan-African confederation, some 40 heads of state and government have pledged to speed up the birth of an African union. In a declaration released on March 2, the signatories “solemnly declare the creation of an African union by unanimous agreement.” The declaration was made at the end of a two-day extraordinary summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), hosted by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in the Mediterranean port city of Sirte (some 500 kilometres (300 miles) east of Tripoli) to realize his ambition to unite the continent politically and economically.
However, the birth of the much-touted African union will take place only 30 days after national parliaments in at least 36 out of the OAU’s 53 member-states have officially ratified the Constitutive Act. Such a process might take years, as parliamentary procedures are fraught with procrastination, filibustering and cross-pressures. By the time the Sirte proclamation was made, all OAU member-states had signed the Act, which was passed at a summit also held in Sirte in September 1999, but only 31 states had ratified it. Another extraordinary summit is to be convened in the same city after the 36th country has ratified the Act. Once it comes into effect, if it ever does, the union will replace the OAU.
The proposed African union is loosely modelled on the European Union, complete with a council of heads of state, a parliament, a central bank, a monetary fund, a court of justice and a single currency. This is a much-watered-down version of Colonel Qaddafi’s original proposal to create a federated entity modelled on the United States, with a president and a congress. Falling short of a formal declaration of African union in line with the wishes of Colonel Qaddafi, the Sirte declaration is a face-saving manoeuvre to cover the failure of the flamboyant Libyan leader to get his way.
There is an increasing realization in Africa that some sort of confederation with strong political and economic ties is imperative if the continent is to succeed in navigating the tortuous shoals of a highly complex and tough global economic environment. Many believe that Africa will continue to be ignored by the major global powers of the North unless it talks and acts in a more coherent fashion. Emblematic of the continent’s lack of cohesion is the fact that African countries, whose borders were drawn in accordance with the interests of their colonial masters, continue to trade far more with European countries than they do with each other.
Yet, in many ways, the story of the Sirte declaration embodies many of the roadblocks to such a unity. One such problem has to do with the efforts to set up polities that transcend the nation-state. Although it empowers members to intervene in a fellow state threatened by civil war or genocide, the declaration reaffirms the inviolability of Africa’s post-colonial borders. Despite decades of ‘decolonisation’, therefore, the nation-state has yet to run its course, at least in the minds of the continent’s leaders. One implication of this unrelenting rigidity of the nation-state is that African countries will continue to be vulnerable to the pressures of ethno-nationalism, and the manipulation of these tendencies by outsiders.
The nature of the mixed African support for the union indicates another consequence of the colonial legacy in Africa. The most ardent supporters of Qaddafi’s vision have been countries (small, poor or both) that benefit from Libyan aid. These include the Gambia, Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali and Niger. Saddled with debt, poverty and disease, governments in sub-Saharan Africa are highly susceptible to the allure of Libya’s financial largesse. People in 40 out of the 53 OAU member-states have to eke out a living with an income of less than US$100 per annum. Out of the 36 million people infected with the AIDS virus around the world, 25 million live in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, several major African states, such as Nigeria and South Africa, have been concerned about the initiative, which would weaken their regional influence, sovereignty and capacity for independent action. Nigeria, for example, has always played a dominant role in the existing Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In the recent years, ECOWAS has taken major strides toward enhancing integration in West Africa. These include measures to ease travel restrictions and set the stage for a single West African currency. Similarly, South Africa plays a dominant role in the existing Southern African Development Community (SADC). Likewise, the East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, who have been working recently to revive the old East African Community (EAC) that collapsed in 1977 have also been wary of possible interference in their regional affairs. Africa’s Arab countries have also shown little interest in the plan. In this regard, one delegate to the Sirte summit was quoted by Reuters as saying: “Egypt considers itself the sole gateway to Africa, Algeria as the continent’s unifier, and Morocco boycotts the OAU [over its recognition of the independence of the Western Sahara].”
Qaddafi’s active sponsorship of the cause of African unity is the latest of his frequent, sensational and erratic policy shifts. The sudden change of heart shows the world the eccentric Libyan leader metamorphosing from a champion of the cause of Arab nationalism, and the sponsor of guerrilla insurgencies the world over, into a pan-African leader and an intermediary elder statesman involved in peacemaking in war-ridden countries around the continent, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Sierra Leone and Sudan. Feuding African leaders have also been flocking to Tripoli to discuss their differences with each other. Qaddafi’s reincarnation as a mediator and element of regional stability has also seen the Libyan leader becoming an intermediary between African governments and the same guerrilla movements that he used to encourage and support.
Changed international circumstances since the end of the Cold War have definitely played a role in Libya’s decision to “turn African.” The unipolar post-Cold War system deprived Qaddafi as well as many others throughout the Third World, of the opportunity to count on the support of another superpower in their confrontations with Washington. But Libya’s shift from pan-Arabism to pan-Africanism ought to be understood mainly in the context of the UN sanctions imposed on Libya over the Lockerbie case. In a way, it was the eccentric Colonel’s way to show his anger against his fellow Arab leaders over their feeble positions vis-a-vis the US-sponsored embargo on his country. Despite his strong, albeit more often vocal than practical, support for Arab causes, the Libyan leader was dismayed that no Arab leader dared to travel to Libya by air in defiance of the UN sanctions, while scores of African heads of state did so. Many African leaders seemed indifferent to the potential consequences of their actions as they repeatedly thumbed their noses at the sanctions and their American sponsors. These acts of defiance demonstrated to the Libyan leader the futility of pinning his hopes on his indecisive and irresolute Arab counterparts to break out of the sanctions that crippled his country’s economy and blighted the everyday life of the Libyan people.
Factors rooted in the impulsive personality of the whimsical Libyan leader have also played their part. Since he seized power in a military coup in 1969, Qaddafi has aspired to play the role of an international VIP, an important world leader capable of influencing the course of events in the international arena. Libya’s African policy shift gives Qaddafi regional diplomatic leverage and an opportunity to satisfy his ego.
Qaddafi’s African turn began in September 1999, when he first raised the ambitious idea of an African union at an extraordinary summit that he hosted in Libya. The announcement came after some thirty years of experimentation with infantile and impractical political theories that claimed to be aimed at dismantling the state and its legislative institutions in order to give power back to the Libyan people. Yet these theories, textured as a grotesque amalgam of superficial understanding of Islamic political theories, classical Western political philosophy, Marxism, anarchism and socialism, only served to injure politics and civil society. Their application ultimately served to concentrate political power in the hands of a sole leader with an inherent claim to plausible deniability: the ability to pretend that he is not in charge while actually pulling all the strings.
Having concentrated all domestic political power in his hands, Qaddafi now seems to be moving to accumulate more regional power. In theory, his proposal for an African union is appealing. But it is hard to see how this vision will take shape in practice. His erratic behaviour over more than three decades moves one to suspect an intent to have one African country emerge as truly primus inter pares (first among equals); that is, a power that can largely impose its own rules and whims. The greatest peril is that the episode might turn out to be another ill-advised attempt to satisfy the moody colonel’s inflated ego, like his many farcical ventures at Arab unity that have brought the very concept of unity into disrepute.