Libya’s largesse and Muammar Qaddafi’s role in the creation of the African Union (AU) could explain the body’s opposition to military action against the embattled strongman, experts said.
They said the economic clout of North African states also partly explained the AU’s soft stand on the uprisings in the Arab world.
“Undoubtedly the fact that five states — Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa — are each committed to paying 15 percent of the African Union’s budget renders the organization as an institution very hesitant to upset the leaders of these countries,” J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, said.
“It is all the more so the case with Libya which, because it habitually pays the dues of members in arrears, [and] is probably responsible for nearly one-third of the AU budget,” said Pham, whose body advises the US government and its European counterparts on strategy in Africa.
The AU’s panel on Libya yesterday called for an “immediate stop” to all attacks after the US, France and Britain launched military action against Qaddafi’s forces.
While underscoring the need for “necessary political reforms to eliminate the causes of the present crisis,” the AU called for “restraint” from the international community to avoid “serious humanitarian consequences” in Libya.
Apart from the purely financial considerations, there is also a symbolic aspect to the body’s stance on Qaddafi, said Fred Golooba Mutebi of the Institute of Social Research at Kampala’s Makerere University.
“The whole United States of Africa concept was driven by Qaddafi,” who was AU chairman for the 12 months to January last year, he said.
The AU was born in the 1999 Sirte Declaration, named after a summit hosted by Qaddafi in his hometown on the Libyan coast.
The declaration said its authors felt inspired by Qaddafi’s “vision for a strong and united Africa.”
“The AU as an organization has benefited significantly from Qaddafi’s wealth,” Mutebi said.
“All these ex-rebels [who are now presidents] have benefited from Qaddafi’s largesse,” he said, quoting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as a classic example.
Aloys Habimana, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, said many African heads of state resent the Libyan leader’s attempts to control the AU and head his much-cherished dream: the United States of Africa.
The AU has taken a firmer stance on three West African crises: Most recently Ivory Coast, and previously Guinea and Niger.
Habimana attributes this to the AU’s tendency “to defer to sub-regional bodies when it comes to peace and security matters.”
There is no direct North African equivalent for the regional groupings for south, west and east Africa, although the North African nations are members of the Arab League.
Handouts aside, Libya has invested billions of US dollars in sub-Saharan Africa. It has interests in more than two dozen African countries, while its petroleum refining and distribution unit Oil Libya has interests in at least as many.
However, the mercurial Qaddafi has also caused a lot of embarrassment for the AU with his histrionics and by adopting positions opposed to that of the organization as a whole.
Elected to head the body in February 2009, the Libyan leader set the tone for his presidency when he asked his peers to refer to him as “the king of kings of Africa”.
He is invariably the most flamboyant figure at any AU summit.
In Kampala in July last year, he put up his Bedouin tent in the grounds of the conference center after walking out of a session to mark his disagreement with the way discussions were going. Six months earlier in Addis Ababa, in a vain bid to keep the AU chair for an extra year by flouting AU statutes, he had a representative of his traditional leaders’ forum decked out pageant-style with gold necklaces and a scepter, to make an unscheduled and theatrical speech in favor of retaining Qaddafi.
Tom Odhiambo, who teaches at the University of Nairobi, said although Qaddafi “pays the bills for some of the small and poor African nations,” the AU habitually failed to back uprisings as its members had no “moral stature.
“Most of its members are obsessed with retaining power at all costs — the old nonsensical argument about not interfering in the affairs of a member state is just that: nonsense,” Odhiambo said.
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