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This time for Africa: Zuma visits Tripoli – again

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2011-05-29

South African President Jacob Zuma’s Monday meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi provides the African Union (AU) with the opportunity to seize the initiative on the Libyan crisis. But the AU does not have a strong track record to rely on.

South African President Jacob Zuma hopes to leverage his party’s long-standing ties with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during a visit to Tripoli Monday aimed at trying to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis. The big question though is whether Zuma will overcome personal ties to ask an old friend to go.

The visit comes as the Libyan stalemate drags on despite intensified NATO airstrikes and a renewed call for Gaddafi’s exit at last week’s G8 summit in the French resort town of Deauville.

Rebuffing the latest statement calling for Gaddafi to step down, Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaaim noted that, “the G8 is an economic summit. We are not concerned by its decisions," before adding, "We are an African country. Any initiative outside the AU (African Union) framework will be rejected."

While the South African president’s meeting with Gaddafi is not part of an official AU mission, Zuma is a member of an AU special committee on Libya and his latest visit is evidence of the regional bloc's intensified diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.

Sidelined in the latest crises on the African continent – including the recent crisis in Ivory Coast – the AU is attempting to seize the initiative in the Libyan conflict.

At a special AU summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa last week, AU Commission chief Jean Ping accused “some international players” of “denying Africa any significant role” in the Libyan crisis.

"Africa is not going to be reduced to the status of an observer of its own calamities," said Ping in his opening address. "This summit must send a clear, unambiguous message to our partners…on the need for them to recognise and support Africa's ownership of efforts to restore peace on the continent."

At the end of the two-day summit, the AU endorsed a “Roadmap” peace plan calling for a ceasefire and negotiations between all parties in the Libyan conflict. The summit statement also included a call for an “immediate end” to NATO strikes in Libya.

But the AU has been down the road of attempting a peaceful solution to the Libyan crisis before – with very little success.

The so-called Roadmap peace plan calling for an immediate ceasefire leading to transition talks culminating in elections was drafted more than two months ago.

Back in March, the AU Roadmap was roundly rejected by the Libyan opposition NTC (National Transitional Council) based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi for its failure to call for Gaddafi’s exit.

The NTC’s concerns apparently fell on deaf ears at last week’s AU summit with the final three-page summit communiqué omitting any calls for Gaddafi to step down.

‘Brother Leader’ promises Zuma a ceasefire, then flouts it

Zuma’s earlier attempt to mediate a peaceful solution to the Libyan crisis ended with little success, much embarrassment and plenty of anger in Libyan political opposition circles and on the streets of Benghazi.

In early April, Zuma emerged from a meeting with Gaddafi in Tripoli to tell reporters that an AU delegation that he was leading had “completed our mission with the Brother Leader” and that Gaddafi had agreed to a ceasefire.

But within hours of the delegation leaving Tripoli, the Brother Leader’s forces launched renewed attacks on Misrata. 

The next day, Zuma did not join the AU delegation for talks with NTC leaders, where they were greeted by angry demonstrators screaming, “No Gaddafi!” on the streets of Benghazi.

Shedding the ‘Dictator’s Club’ jab, but not the dictators

For more than a decade, Libyans have watched with quiet exasperation as their leader has played the African stage with characteristic Gaddafi flair: supporting rebellions, courting warlords and political leaders, then shifting support, lavishing gifts and honours on tribal chiefs – in short, using Libya’s oil wealth in his quest for continental influence.

Founded in 2002, the AU was formed as a successor to the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), a grouping that was dubbed the “Dictator’s Club” for its failure to protect African citizens from their own political leaders.

But while the AU has displayed more teeth and played a more activist role than its predecessor, the 53-member grouping is still comprised of a disproportionate number of dictators – in some cases, the sons of dictators – that make it difficult for the organization to fulfil its goal of advancing democracy and human rights.

"Some of these leaders are indebted to Gaddafi, and therefore maybe they're not the most honest brokers when it comes to negotiating a ceasefire," Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN

Gaddafi’s old ties to South Africa, from apartheid days

Aided by his country’s substantial oil revenues and reeling from international sanctions following the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, Gaddafi has frequently turned to his fellow African nations, providing large chunks of the AU’s running fees.

The AU, in return, has been a grateful recipient, flouting a post-Lockerbie UN flight ban on Libya and overriding US protests over Libya’s 2003 presidency of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Gaddafi remains a popular figure in South Africa’s ruling party circles following his support for the ANC (African National Congress) during the apartheid era.

Like Zuma, South African statesman Nelson Mandela also refers to Gaddafi as “Brother Leader” and during a 1997 visit to Tripoli, Mandela slammed the international sanctions against Gaddafi over his involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombings, saying, "We cannot be unmoved by the plight of our African brothers and sisters."

Jumping in with the winning side

Despite South Africa’s close ties to Gaddafi, Pretoria voted for the two UN resolutions authorizing the Libyan no-fly zone.

While South Africa has never explicitly called for Gaddafi’s exit, in recent weeks, there have been signs that Zuma may broach the all-important issue during his Monday meeting with the Libyan leader.

Speaking to the AFP on condition of anonymity over the weekend, two sources in Zuma's office said the talks would focus on Gaddafi's "exit strategy."

South Africa was once touted as a possible destination for Gaddafi. But that seems unlikely following the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Gaddafi and his sons since South Africa is a signatory to the ICC, which entails extradition responsibilities.

Nevertheless, as the Libyan stalemate continues, there are renewed hopes for Zuma’s latest mission.

“I personally think it’s important to try because there’s a general view that the military position has been in a stalemate and it’s clearly costing civilian lives,” said Patrick Smith, editor of The Africa Report, in an interview with FRANCE 24 last week. “Any initiative that ended hostilities and ended with a settlement acceptable to all sides would be welcome,” he added.

In a column on the website of Libya TV, a Qatar-based TV station run by Libyan expatriates, Sharif Nashashibi, chairman and co-founder of the British-based Arab Media Watch, said he hoped Zuma’s second visit would herald a shift in South Africa’s Libya policy.

At the very least, Nashashibi argued, practical considerations would help Zuma overcome personal ties. “The fall of Gaddafi is inevitable. South Africa’s president will hopefully be visiting him with this realisation in mind, because if he stands by the losing side, South Africa will miss out on one of the biggest, richest, untapped markets on the continent,” said Nashashibi. “As such, Zuma needs to woo Libya’s opposition, not the other way round – what better way than achieving Gaddafi’s departure?”


Date created : 2011-05-29


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