The 12 year conflict in Libya remains exclusively a game of, mainly, Western countries, Russia and some regional powers, like Turkiye. Africa, of which the oil rich State is part, has been sidelined. African countries and their continental institutions, like the African Union (AU), have become mere spectators, while the show of guns and violence in their fellow country is run by others. Even mainstream international media analyse the conflict from a Western-Russian perspective, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This is not due to African diplomatic failure or lack of action to help solve the Libyan crisis. In fact, the AU was first regional responder to the civil war that erupted in Libya in 2011 when NATO supported rebels overthrew Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and murdered him.
An AU high level committee, headed by South Africa’s former President, Jacob Zuma, visited Libya in April 2011, just weeks after violence erupted, where they met Mr. Gaddafi in his Tripoli headquarters before it was reduced to rubble by NATO’s seven-month bombardment and, later, bulldozered altogether. In that meeting, the Libyan government accepted the AU initiative calling for ceasefire and negotiations aimed at ending the conflict before it fragmented into little occasional wars that are still ongoing. However the rebels’ side, installed in Benghazi eastern Libya, rejected the AU initiative, insisting they would only negotiate after Gaddafi steps aside and leaves the country.
Years later, we would learn that Western pressure, spearheaded by France, asked the rebels to reject the AU’s efforts, in return for continued Western support. After the Gaddafi government was destroyed and Libya itself became chaotic and lawless, the AU tried again to play a role in finding a political solution to end the crisis. The longer the Libyan crisis goes on the more difficult it becomes to settle. Its repercussions still resonate across African borders, particularly in the Sahel countries.
Over the years, Libya became a safe haven for terror organisations, an arms and human smuggling hub and an attractive hotspot for further foreign meddling, transforming what started as an internal conflict into a proxy war between foreign forces supported by major countries like France, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Unable to end the conflict earlier on, the AU and individual African states shifted their focus to diplomacy, setting up the AU’s High-Level Committee for Libya headed by Republic of Congo President, Denis Sassou-N’huesso. The Committee believes no progress could be made in Libyan settlement without inclusive internal national reconciliation, bringing together all Libyan factions to agree on a common initiative to go forward. Recently Mr. N’guesso criticised what he called “turbulent roles” played by international actors fuelling the conflict in the country.
The AU has, for years, been lobbying the UN to appoint an African diplomat as the UN’s Secretary- General’s envoy to Libya, which came about last year by the appointment of Abdoulaye Bathily, of Senegal, to that post.
Many African countries want to help Libya as a way to recognise its former leader’s position across the continent. The late Gaddafi was well-respected in Africa, enjoying great support among its youth and key founder of the AU, which was founded under his leadership before being officially inaugurated in South Africa in the 1999 summit. He spent decades pushing for African unity, complete with single African currency, unified army and across-continent development programs much of which he was willing to finance. Many African leaders were angered by the NATO intervention in 2011. Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, as many other leaders, did not like what Mr. Museveni called the “western invaders” attack on Libya. In 2020, he said Africans can “chase the invaders” out of Libya, even by force. He also sounded critical of the lack of will of the AU to take a stronger position on Libya.
However, many believe that leaving Libya to the AU is unlikely to lead to any positive outcome. The AU has failed to end many conflicts in Africa and the most recent example is Sudan, where the AU has, so far, failed to make any progress to end the fighting in Sudan. In fact, the mediating initiative has already been taken by the United States and some of its regional allies, instead of the AU, of which Sudan is a member.
If the AU has the will and capacity to deliver on Libya, now is the time for the organisation to be more active in supporting Mr. Bathily’s efforts. After his meeting with President N’guesso, last January, Mr. Bathily said his host was very supportive of the political “process in Libya”. Mr. N’guesso re-emphasised his focus on reconciliation in Libya as a pre-requisite to any elections in the country. Mr. Bathily believes elections in the country could take place before the end of the year. In his first press conference at the UN mission in Tripoli, last March, he said successful “elections” are not impossible before the end of 2023. He also said that agreement about the legal bases for such elections is possible by June this year.
The AU could still take initiative in Libya if it acts decisively by supporting the UN efforts and taking actions on pledges it has already made in 2020. Such pledges included sending a fact-finding AU mission to Libya and upgrading the AU office in Tripoli to be a more active diplomatic channel, but little has been done, so far. AU countries also need to speak in one voice and get involved in international efforts to stabilise Libya, as long as such efforts are in line with the UN’s work. The AU and individual African states should not support any position taken by any country in Libya that might hamper Mr. Bathily’s efforts. They also need to do more lobbying within the UN diplomatic halls to unite the international community behind their man: Abdoulaye Bathily.
The AU, if it wants to be involved, should be present with rigor in any discussions of any African crisis, such as Libya, otherwise it will always be overlooked and sidelined.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize. This article was originally published in Middle East Monitor