‘When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong’–US president Barack Obama on Libya, but Africans could already have told him.
Western powers are now coming to terms with what many Africans knew: that externally crafted solutions, especially those based on neo-realist assumptions, struggle to work on the continent.
Five years after his country was at the vanguard of a military column that in 2011 toppled veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi, US president Barack Obama now admits the overall plan for Libya has not worked, and the country is now “a mess”.
More significantly for Africa, the US leader blamed the disintegration of the mission to stabilise the North African country on a lack of support from nearby Europe and allies in the Gulf.
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans—given Libya’s proximity—being invested in the follow-up,” Obama said in new interview commentscarried in the American magazineThe Atlantic.
But he also inadvertently answered himself: by acquiescing that longstanding tribal divisions in Libya had also an obstacle to the success of the operation, he admitted that the West did not understand the terrain that they sunk billions of dollars in for a mission that uncomfortably mutated from the original UN mandate.
The long-shot of it all is that Libya is now a launch-pad for transnational non-state actors, risking Africa’s core values, contributing to the disintegration of the pan-European project and threatening American domestic and international interests.
To get a glimpse of the international import of this, Libya-anchored terrorism is an issue that is playing a role in the current search for Obama’s successor.
Yet how different would the Libyan scenario have been had the African effort to broker a deal been allowed more time to gain traction?
It is a classic international relations security dilemma, where the attempts of nation-states to secure their own interests spawn rising insecurity for others.
Critics say the African Union lacked the realpolitik tools to get an agreement—lack of threat of force, and its decade-long links with Gaddafi, who helped birth the retooled bloc with the Sirte declaration.
Yet African efforts to lead the resolution were essentially a footnote, despite the continent fronting its leaders to broker a deal, and the instinctive knowledge of the internal political terrain within the country.
The bloc’s early effort saw it condemn the government’s crackdown on protesters as the revolution started to take form, set up a High Level Committee on Libya, and a road map that would down the road have strengthened the continent’s collective security aspirations.
However, all these were blown out of the water by the global geopolitics around Libya—they never had a chance when the west saw a chance to impose regime change, and strengthen their resource and power play interests around North Africa.
The famed Resolution 1973 was passed unanimously, with South Africa which was a member of the rotating UN Security Council voting for it.
Tower of Babel
Its options may have been limited: set around the urgency to protect civilians, the international momentum was overwhelmingly with the resolution, but as the Libyan administration was increasingly targeted, African concerns came to the fore.
Several African countries voiced their discomfort with the operation, even as others provided pit-stops and other crucial resources such as their airspace to the operation.
The resulting Tower of Babel exposed the fissures on the continent, helping to provide the perfect foil to help remove Gaddafi from office.
The AU may on its own admission been too leaden-footed around the issue, because its regional blocs lacked the capacity to dictate the resolution of the issue. It appears to be learning from its missteps, having seized the lead on other regional hotspots such as Burundi and Mali.
It has also been looking to fast-track initiatives such as the African Standby Force (ASF) to reduce the lead time in responding to conflicts.
But an organisation that is still majority-funded by external donors has little sway when the interests of its benefactors are threatened.
This is why the effort to increase African capacity to chart its development path—which is interminably interlinked with its security—and solve its conflicts is key. Part of it has come from continuing efforts to reform the Security Council, but there are also rich indigenous efforts to carve out this space in Africa.
The Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africais a particularly significant effort, taking place April 16-17 in Ethiopia. It will be looking to give a unique and consultative voice to the continental push to assert its own interests in international security debates and avoid being an observer in events that determine its future.
With some of Africa’s foremost minds such as former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, heads of state, scholars, policy makers and defence and security experts involved, it is not short of the intellectual and political heft needed to go beyond talking, and craft solid paths to further build on the progress the continent has so far made.
Only by decisively tackling the security challenge with homegrown solutions can Africa fulfill its rich economic process and bequeath the next generation the continent it deserves.
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