The recent failure of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to become chairwoman of the African Union (AU) Commission was predictable. SA does not appear to have given much thought to the traditions of diplomacy and has committed three key blunders.

First, SA ignored the "golden rule" of international organisations that nationals of large countries do not occupy the top post. This rule applies as much to the AU as it does to the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the United Nations (UN). In the 38-year history of the AU/Organisation of African Unity (OAU), its nine leaders have come from Guinea, Cameroon, Togo, Niger, Tanzania, Cote d'Ivoire and Gabon. A Nigerian, Peter Onu, acted as OAU chief from 1983 to 1985, but was never confirmed in the post. In Sadc, the executive secretary has typically come from countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mauritius and Mozambique. The UN's eight secretaries-general have been nationals of Norway, Sweden, Burma, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea.

SA, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria and Libya each provide 15% of the AU's operating budget and are considered to be among Africa's big powers. But even if some states are more equal than others, smaller countries always obsess about the sovereign equality of all member states. Suggestions that SA and Nigeria become veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-member AU Peace and Security Council were therefore rebuffed in 2004, while both regional powers failed to get their regions to support dropping the African insistence on a veto in order to expand the UN Security Council a year later. Africa's Lilliputians thus remain wary of overbearing regional Gullivers.

The second blunder was to challenge an incumbent that it assumed had become unpopular. In African diplomacy, damaged incumbents are typically convinced to step down while a consensus candidate is found. While Jean Ping has not covered himself in glory during his four years in office, one must acknowledge the limits of a position in which African leaders largely call the shots, while the chair of the AU Commission tries to co-ordinate the often divergent interests of its 54 members.

Ping's predecessor — the erudite former Malian president, Alpha Oumar Konare — failed as spectacularly as Ping to build a dynamic AU. Only two of the nine OAU/AU heads — Guinea's Diallo Telli and Tanzania's Salim Ahmed Salim — were re-elected. Both were impressive, but neither transformed the organisation's institutional deficiencies.

The third issue that counted against SA was its maladroit diplomacy over Cote d'Ivoire and Libya last year, and particularly the alienation of its previously close strategic partner, Nigeria.

In the first case, SA prevaricated after the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, tried to steal a presidential election. In the latter, SA failed to prevent a majority of African states recognising Libya's National Transitional Council. In both cases, SA found itself on the wrong side of history.

The problem with this debacle was not Dlamini-Zuma, who would doubtless have brought much energy to this post. The obstacles involved her nationality and SA's clumsy and heavy-handed approach in acting like a bull in a continental china shop. Attempts to portray the vote as a francophone-anglophone battle are too simplistic, as these are not monolithic voting blocs in which countries bleat like linguistic sheep. SA's reported celebrations after its candidate withdrew and Ping failed to be re-elected, were tactless and impolitic.

The fact that Dlamini-Zuma failed to achieve a simple majority in all three rounds and that the Gabonese diplomat was able to muster 60% of votes in the fourth, falling just short of the two-thirds required for re-election, means he will have many supporters that will be angry with SA's petulance. Having a lame-duck AU Commission for six months can be good for neither SA nor Africa.

SA will surely now be blamed not just for a rudderless continental body, but also for having divided the AU. It is important that SA urgently repairs this damage and perhaps throws its weight behind an able candidate from a smaller southern African country. If SA is interested in AU institutional reform, it could still target the deputy chairmanship in the future. Talk of putting up another South African candidate for the chair at the next AU summit would only add folly to this chronicle of a fiasco foretold.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.


Recent debate about the intervention in Libya that toppled the 42-year autocracy of the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi has not always clarified matters. It is important to untangle five myths regarding this intervention.

The first — ubiquitous in Western media — is that Gaddafi was widely popular in Africa and having played the flamboyant paymaster of the African Union (AU), the organisation will now suffer greatly from his demise. It should be noted that the Libyan leader was feared and viewed with widespread suspicion across the continent. Libya became isolated within the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) following Gaddafi's 1980 military intervention in Chad. He called for a jihad by Congolese Muslims against the autocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and for the partition of Nigeria. He backed vicious rebel groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as Tuareg rebels in Mali.

More positively, Gaddafi established a $5-billion fund that invested in hotels, cellphones, mosques, and mining companies across Africa. Many governments took his money without supporting his quixotic dreams of a federalist "United States of Africa". While the "Brother Leader" did the most to ensure that the AU was born in 2002 and bought influence by paying off the debts of several African states, Libya (like South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria) contributes no more than 15% of the AU's operating budget.

The second myth is that South Africa's Libya policy has been a total failure, resulting in the isolation of both the country and the continent. Francis Kornegay's piece "A sovereign Africa needs more dialogue" (September 23) makes such an argument. Some of the obfuscatory petulance of this sort of analysis has also seen Greg Mills hyperbolically referring to South Africa as a "rogue democracy" in these pages (September 2). South Africa did not achieve the negotiated outcome it wanted in Libya, but it is important to recognise its tireless mediation efforts. President Jacob Zuma conducted several rounds of "shuttle diplomacy" to Tripoli.

One must also note some of the dynamics that led to Tshwane's adopting an anti-Nato stance. The Zuma administration was clearly stung by criticism from within the ruling ANC, in which Gaddafi still enjoys much popularity as a revolutionary leader, that South Africa's support of the United Nations resolution to protect civilians opened the door to Nato's regime-change agenda.

These pressures explain the hardening of Zuma's approach to Libya. Thabo Mbeki was also involved in a campaign, with 600 "concerned Africans", to oppose the Nato intervention because the AU had been sidelined.

That Kornegay, an African-American, would disparage Africa's intellectual and political class for lacking "political imagination" and "thrashing about in frustrated rage" shows a profound lack of understanding of the nuances of this debate, as well as a breathtaking insensitivity towards the genuine anger felt across the continent at what many perceived to be an anachronistic "neo-colonial" intervention. Whether one agrees or disagrees with these African perspectives, it is important to explain rather than simply dismiss them.

The third myth is the moral and political failure of the AU. Kornegay writes of "African self-isolation and marginalisation" and Mills questions the organisation's concern for African lives. The AU clearly has institutional and other weaknesses, but it spoke with remarkable clarity during this crisis. It condemned the killing of civilians early on and called for a mediated end to the conflict that would culminate in an inclusive government.

That the AU could not implement its roadmap was largely the result of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) refusing to negotiate with Gaddafi's regime, as well as Nato's adoption of a military approach to the crisis. Kornegay talks of the AU having been "marginalised", but in fact the organisation was divided. These splits mirrored the European Union's own difficulties in responding to the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s. Such differences are not unusual in multilateral diplomacy.

It is therefore important to disaggregate the 53 AU states, about 20 of which recognised the NTC soon after Gaddafi's fall. The Libyan case unfortunately revives the historical diplomatic rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria. Both — as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council — voted to support the Nato intervention in Libya. Nigeria was among the first African countries to recognise the NTC. South Africa and Nigeria will have to re-establish the common strategic approach they demonstrated during the presidencies of Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007 if Africa's voice is to carry weight in future crises. It is unfair to describe the Libya case solely as a failure of the AU (as Kornegay and Mills imply), because both the Arab League and the UN had an equal stake in resolving the dispute peacefully.

The fourth myth is the sense of Nato's invincibility. This view tends to gloss over the fact that, with the disappearance of its Soviet raison d'être, Nato is in the throes of a serious existential crisis. Of its 28 members, only eight agreed to take part in the bombing raids. Germany not only abstained from the Security Council resolution that sanctioned the Nato attacks, but also declined to contribute to the military mission. Poland refused to join the intervention and criticised it as having been driven by a thirst for Libya's oil. With Nato's European countries continuing to rely heavily on an American sheriff who is increasingly reluctant to rally military posses for foreign adventures, their declining military spending will surely render future "out-of-area operations" unsustainable. If the AU was divided over Libya, so too was Nato.

The fifth myth of the Libyan intervention is that, after four decades of Gaddafi's ossified dictatorship, NTC horsemen have ridden into Tripoli to establish a new dawn of multiparty democracy.

Murmurings about the council's nepotism and corruption are already growing louder. The assassination of the NTC's military commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, remains unexplained, which also suggests that the revolution has started devouring its children even before it has consolidated its grip on power. The massacre of scores of black African migrants by NTC forces (condemned by the AU and human-rights groups but bizarrely described by Kornegay as "inevitable") further damages a regime tainted by xenophobic extremists who have callously disregarded the principle of the "responsibility to protect" that was used to justify the intervention that put them in power.

Gaddafi was the glue that held together a motley crew of secularists, Islamists and ethnic factions. With his impending demise, Afghanistan and Iraq may well be the future that awaits post-Gaddafi Libya.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts (Jacana)

Gaddafi swapped his pan-Arab robes for pan-African ones, but he was viewed with suspicion in the continent

As the fall of the 42-year-old regime of Libya's eccentric leader Muammar Gaddafi approaches, one of his most important legacies will be his mischief in Africa. After seizing power, Colonel Gaddafi modelled his rule on Egypt's pan-Arab leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, he failed to win support from Arab governments offended by his populist appeals to the "Arab street". Angered by the lack of Arab support, in contrast to strong black African backing following western-inspired United Nations economic and travel sanctions on Libya in 1992, Gaddafi swapped his pan-Arab robes for pan-African garments. These sanctions were eventually lifted in 1999 with the help of the South African leader, Nelson Mandela.

Despite claims of his popularity in Africa, Gaddafi was viewed with widespread suspicion. Libya became isolated within the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) following Gaddafi's 1980 military intervention in Chad. Most governments boycotted an OAU summit in Tripoli in 1982. Gaddafi sent troops to bolster brutal Ugandan autocrat Idi Amin's regime between 1972 and 1979. He called for a jihad by Congolese Muslims against the autocratic western-backed regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. In the 1990s, Gaddafi provided military training to vicious rebel groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and backed Tuareg rebels in Mali. In 2000, widespread xenophobic attacks in Tripoli and Zawiyah against thousands of black African migrant workers led to several deaths, damaging Gaddafi's pan-African image. Following religious-related massacres in Nigeria last year, he called for the dismembering of the country into separate Muslim and Christian states.

More positively, Gaddafi established a $5bn fund that invested in hotels, mobile phone companies, mosques and mining companies across Africa. He also did more than any other leader to ensure the creation of the African Union (AU) in 2002, hosting several meetings, and forcing Nigeria and South Africa to react to his frantic drive towards creating a federal body. The "Brother Leader's" quixotic vision of a United States of Africa – an all-African army and common monetary union – was, however, rejected by most African leaders. Gaddafi's delusions of grandeur were evident in his coronation as the "King of Kings" by 200 traditional African leaders in a bizarre ceremony in 2008.

The Libyan leader's ambitions, however, often failed to match political realities on the ground: all seven regional integration schemes that Gaddafi attempted in Africa failed. While using his oil wealth to buy influence within the AU, many governments took his money, but did not necessarily support him. Gaddafi finally ascended the chair of the African Union in 2009, but only after South Africa's Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo had left the political stage, leaving leaders of lesser stature unable to obstruct his ambitions.

His patronising bid to serve a second consecutive term as AU chair was, however, soundly rejected. He tried unsuccessfully to serve as a peacemaker in Ethiopia/Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau, and was accused of coddling fellow military putschists in Guinea, Mauritania, and Madagascar. Thabo Mbeki famously clashed with Gaddafi, while his successor as president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has enjoyed better relations with him, enabling him to serve as an AU envoy to Tripoli during this crisis.

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The Libyan case, however, has revived the historical diplomatic rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria. Though both countries, as non-permanent members of the UN security council, voted to support Nato's intervention in Libya, Nigeria recently became the first African country to recognise the national transitional council: sweet revenge for Gaddafi's call for the partition of Nigeria. The Zuma administration, has, however, been stung by criticisms within the ruling African National Congress (in which Gaddafi still enjoys much popularity as a revolutionary leader) that South Africa's support of the UN resolution to protect civilians had opened the door to Nato's regime change agenda. Mbeki has also been involved in a vocal campaign, with 200 African personalities, to oppose the Nato intervention for having sidelined the AU. These pressures explain Zuma's cautious approach that delayed the unfreezing of some of Libya's assets, and South Africa has sought to stay close to the AU position of not recognising the country's transitional council.

Ironically, while Gaddafi became increasingly isolated in his bid to lead Africa, his status as an international pariah appeared to have ended with the unilateral dismantling of his weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003. He subsequently co-operated with European governments to deter African migrants seeking to reach Europe. Salivating western leaders from Italy, Britain and the US (now among Nato countries seeking to topple his regime) queued up outside his tent in Tripoli to sign lucrative oil contracts. Lord Palmerston had famously noted that countries have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but permanent interests. The strange disappearance of Libya's self-styled "King of Kings" and his abandonment by his former African and western friends certainly confirm this dictum.

Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town

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Events in Libya suggest that the end of the regime of the world's longest-ruling autocrat, Muammar Gaddafi, is near. It is worth tracing the life and times of this eccentric despot.

After seizing power in an act of regicide against King Idriss in 1969, Gaddafi initially modelled his rule on that of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the celebrated champion of pan-Arabism. Overcome by emotion, Gaddafi fainted twice during Nasser's funeral in Cairo in 1970.

As the martyred South African liberation heroine Ruth First noted in an insightful 1974 study titled Libya: The Elusive Revolution, the contradictions of Gaddafi's revolution were many.

He simultaneously pursued a social revolution and a revival of Islamic fundamentalism; 11 young soldiers held power while claiming to represent a mass-based popular revolution; the Libyan leader condemned the corruption of the monarchical ancien régime while cutting lucrative deals with global oil cartels; and Gaddafi's traditional, religious approach led him to live in a Bedouin tent and criticise Western decadence, even as he relied on its technology and companies to finance his domestic revolution and foreign adventures.

Gaddafi's Green Book of 1975 rejected liberal democracy in favour of what he described as direct democracy through "popular committees", though these were accused of terrorising the population. In his early rule the Libyan leader achieved some social progress through his oil wealth and 1,5-million foreigners flocked to his country from Africa and the Middle East.

In the politics of the Maghreb Gaddafi's role was mercurial. Just before his country took over the presidency of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in 2003, the Libyan leader said: "It's time to put the union in the freezer." A year later Tripoli announced that it was leaving the AMU after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation offered rapid reaction training to Maghrebi states. Only pleas from Morocco and Tunisia prevented Gaddafi from carrying out his threat.

Gaddafi would prove equally controversial south of the Sahara. He became diplomatically isolated in Africa after his 1980 military intervention in Chad, losing support among his peers for supporting dissident groups against "neocolonial" regimes on the continent.

Gaddafi sent troops to bolster the regime of brutal Ugandan autocrat and fellow Muslim, General Idi Amin, between 1972 and 1979. In the 1980s the self-styled Libyan revolutionary provided military training to the warlords of two of West Africa's most vicious rebel groups in the 1990s: Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh. He also reportedly trained and armed Tuareg rebels who triggered a conflict in northern Mali in 1990.

Gaddafi would eventually swap his pan-Arab robes for Pan-African garments in anger at the lack of Arab support for Libya after Western-inspired United Nations economic and travel sanctions were imposed on Tripoli in 1992. By contrast with the muted Arab response, strong black African backing was offered in his hour of need. Indeed, the sanctions on Tripoli were eventually lifted in 1999 with the help of Nelson Mandela, who mediated with Washington and London.

Former president Thabo Mbeki famously did not get on with Gaddafi, while Jacob Zuma appears to have attempted to appease him.

Gaddafi sought to become the heir of Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah's pan-African vision. He was the moving force behind the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union (AU), hosting several meetings in his home town of Sirte. At the AU summit in Ghana in 2007, Gaddafi championed a "United States of Africa" with an all-African army, a common monetary union, as well as a central bank. But the eccentric "brother leader's" vision was, like Nkrumah's, rejected by most African leaders.

Gaddafi also used his oil wealth to buy influence within the AU by paying the debts of member states. With strong leaders like Mbeki and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo having left the political stage Gaddafi finally became chair of the AU for the first time in January 2009. This was largely a wasted year, as the Libyan leader continued to pursue his quixotic federalist dreams without the support of African leaders. As AU chair, Gaddafi was also accused of coddling fellow military putschists in Guinea, Mauritania, and Madagascar.

As his four-decade autocratic reign appears to be coming to an ignominious end, Gaddafi, the self-proclaimed "King of Kings", seems to be drifting into delusional madness.

Having toppled a monarch to promote social justice, he recently compared his 41-year rule with that of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, wondering why similar protests were not being raised about her long reign.

Coming from a lower social class, Gaddafi had always aspired to greatness and coveted King Idriss's crown. A social climber and arriviste, he donned ill-fitting borrowed royal robes to which his birth did not entitle him. As the fin de régime approaches, the Libyan despot appears to be a poor parody of the very system that he toppled.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War


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