Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has been elected as leader of the African Union (AU), a position long sought by the eccentric dictator who wants to push his oil-rich nation into the international mainstream after years of isolation.
Qaddafi, once ostracized by the West for sponsoring terrorism, has been trying to increase both Libya’s global stature and its regional influence — mediating African conflicts, sponsoring efforts to spread Islam on the continent and pushing for the creation of a single African government.
Still, some African leaders offered tepid praise for the choice of the strongman who grabbed power in a 1969 coup.
Rights group, however, called him a poor model for Africa at a time when democratic gains are being reversed in countries such as Mauritania and Guinea.
Qaddafi attended Monday’s session dressed in a gold-embroidered green robe and flanked by seven extravagantly dressed men who said they are the “traditional kings of Africa.”
Qaddafi told about 20 of his fellow heads of state that he would work to unite the continent into “the United States of Africa.”
Qaddafi arrived at the summit on Sunday with the seven men, one carrying a 1.2m gold staff, and caused a stir when security officials did not admit them because each delegation gets only four floor passes.
All seven “kings” were seated behind Qaddafi when he accepted the chairmanship.
“I think the coming time will be a time of serious work and a time of action and not words,” he said.
The AU chairmanship is a rotating position held by heads of state for one year and gives the holder some influence over the continent’s politics but carries no real power.
Diplomats who attended the closed-door meetings in which Qaddafi was chosen said several countries vigorously opposed him, seeking alternatives from Lesotho and Sierra Leone.
However, the AU’s chairmanship rotates among Africa’s regions, and a North African had not chaired the continental body since 2000, when Algeria held the chairmanship.
Meetings to select the chairman are held in private. The leader is usually nominated and then chosen by consensus. AU officials would not give details of the proceedings, including which countries objected.
Even in public the reception to his appointment — and the acceptance ceremony in which he invited two of the traditional kings to speak — was measured.
“I think his time has come,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said. “He’s worked for it. I think it’s up to us to make sure it comes out best.”
Still, Qaddafi appeared to cast his selection as a victory.
“Silence means approval,” he said during his acceptance speech.
“If we have something and we are silent about it at the next summit it means we’ve accepted I,” he said.
Since he seized power Qaddafi has ruled the oil-rich state with an iron hand and the often quixotic ideology laid out in his famous Green Book, which outlines Qaddafi’s anti-democratic and economic policies.
“The Libyan government continues to imprison people for criticizing Qaddafi,” said Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer with Human Rights Watch who watched Qaddafi take the helm of the AU.
“Hundreds more have been ‘disappeared.’ Libya has no independent NGOs and the government tightly controls all forms of public expression,” he said.
Libya has never held the chairmanship in the 46-year-history of the AU and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity.