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11 Apr 2011

Vantage Point–Responding to the winds of change in Libya: The African Union has it right

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April 11, 2011 Category: Commentary Posted by:

By Dr. Ron Daniels

The winds of change that have recently swept repressive regimes from power in Tunisia and Egypt and are swirling in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are blowing across the sands of Libya, posing the greatest threat to the government of Colonel Muammar El Qaddafi since he seized power in 1969. Accused of using force to break up peaceful demonstrations by ” his own people,” the United States, France and Great Britain secured a UN Resolution authorizing intervention in Libya to impose a “no fly zone” and the use of all available means to “protect civilians.” Under the guise of a “humanitarian mission” the coalition forces, with the U.S. in the vanguard, launched ferocious missile and air assaults against Qaddafi’s military installations and ground forces. In effect, these assaults have supported the opposition forces, which began as peaceful protesters but quickly picked up weapons to pursue their cause.

Given the winds of change sweeping North Africa and the Arab world, the coalition intervention in Libya has provoked considerable debate among people of African descent on the continent and the U.S. Some African leaders and analysts simply see Qaddafi as another corrupt, ruthless despot willing to use whatever means to suppress dissent/protest/opposition in order to cling to power. Therefore, intervention in Libya to protect civilians and to effect regime change is justified. On the other hand, many African-centered and Pan African analysts and activists view Qaddafi as an anti-imperialist revolutionary and fierce proponent of Pan Africanism including the idea of a United States of Africa. Therefore, the intervention must be vigorously opposed and Qaddafi’s regime supported at all costs.

It is an important debate. I am unequivocally opposed to the intervention by the U.S. led coalition in Libya. It is yet another blatant example of the hypocrisy and contradictions of U.S. foreign policy. However, I hardly view Qaddafi as a leader worthy to be upheld as a paragon of Pan Africanism. Therefore, unlike some of my African-centered comrades, my strenuous objection to the assault on Libya has more to do with hypocrisy and contradiction of U.S. policy than any notion of defending a “revolutionary hero.” Indeed, in my view, African-centered scholars and activists have an obligation to scrupulously analyze the internal contradictions and weaknesses of those who would profess to be leaders of the progressive Pan African cause. And, a crucial aspect of that critique is an examination of the moral and ethical principles of governance to ensure that the leaders we uphold are behaving in accordance with the principles of Maat, balance, justice and righteousness. At the end of the day, after grappling with how best to respond to the intervention in Libya, I believe the African Union took this into consideration and developed appropriate proposals to address the crisis.

But, first let us deal with the utter hypocrisy and contradictions of the intervention. It is impossible to ignore the convulsions in North Africa and the Arab world that are shaking repressive and despotic regimes to their foundation; regimes that in many instances have been allies of the U.S. Hence, the U.S., a nation that professes to relish democracy, has recently been caught in the awkward position of being allied with regimes that have suppressed democratic movements for decades. This was certainly the case in Egypt. Caught in this contradiction, President Obama was forced to use the billions of dollars the U.S. doles out to the Egyptian military each year as leverage to convince the armed forces to stand down and not forcibly attack the demonstrators. As a result, years of pent up aspirations by huge sectors of the Egyptian people flowered into a relatively peaceful revolt that led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak who had ruled with an iron fist for forty years.

In the case of Egypt, President Obama was able to breathe a sigh of relief with the U.S. eventually appearing to come down on the side of the people’s demand for freedom and democracy. But, other cases have been more difficult. In Bahrain, despite appeals from the U.S, King Al Khalifa, backed by 2,000 troops from Saudi Arabia, has violently cracked down on the demonstrations, killing and wounding scores of peaceful protesters.

In Yemen, where there appears to be serious divisions in the nation, troops loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh have reportedly killed hundreds of demonstrators. Of course the U.S. maintains a strategic military base in Bahrain and President Saleh is considered an important ally in the fight against the growing Al-Qaida presence in northern Yemen (it is interesting to note, that Qaddafi’s intelligence service was cooperating with the CIA in identifying and neutralizing Al-Qaida operatives in Libya – which should have qualified him as a useful asset). Despite the fact that these authoritarian regimes are brutalizing and “killing their own people,” the U.S. has done little more than “appeal” to its allies not to use violence.

Herein lies the contradiction/hypocrisy of the U.S. and its allies. If “killing your own people” is the criteria for intervention, then why not intervene in Bahrain or Yemen. Force has also been used to put down demonstrations in Algeria, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Are they on the hit list for military intervention as well? Of course the U.S., France and Britain argue that a massacre, bloodbath or slaughter was imminent in Libya as Qaddafi’s forces moved to crush what became an armed insurrection. However, there was absolutely no evidence that any more people were killed or about to be killed in Libya than in Yemen. Nor was there any evidence that anything on the scale of the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was about to occur. Moreover, the entire world witnessed the brutal suppression of massive peaceful protests in Iran after a dubious election, and no military action was taken. It is estimated that thousands of peaceful Chinese protesters were killed in the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre, but no military action was taken against the People’s Republic of China. In fact, China is one of America’s most important trading partners and a holder of a huge amount of U.S. debt.

I certainly do not want to minimize the loss of human life in any of these countries, but “killing your own people” is hardly the criteria that has been used to determine whether to use military force to deal with authoritarian regimes. It is more likely that a “selective standard” is being employed. The calculation seems to be based on which nations can be attacked to score propaganda points and pursue economic interests without fear of effective resistance or retaliation. In this instance, Libya appears to have met the criteria. No doubt there are underlying economic motives as well. France and Britain have a higher dependency on Libyan oil than the U.S.; therefore, they pushed most strenuously for intervention. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Obama’s National Secretary Dennis McDonough argued that Libya was not “vital to U.S. interests.”

In the end, however, with the blessing of the Arab League, President Obama was persuaded that the image of the U.S. as a defender of civilians and promoter of democracy could be safely burnished by spearheading the attack on the leader President Reagan called the “mad dog of the Middle East.” As I stated at the onset, I find absolutely no justification for the attack on Libya.

However, my fervent objection to the military intervention in Libya should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement for the self-anointed “Brother Leader” and self proclaimed “King of Kings of Africa ” or his regime. In the first instance, I am not overly impressed with Qaddafi’s credentials as a Pan Africanist. Though he has certainly liberally spread Libya’s oil wealth throughout the continent, his behavior has been inconsistent even erratic in his selection of causes. My recollection is that Qaddafi supported Idi Amin, the delusional dictator of Uganda, one of the most murderous rulers in Africa since independence. Interestingly enough, some of my Black Nationalist comrades also viewed Amin as a hero because he summarily kicked East Indian business interests out of the country – apparently causing them to turn a blind eye to Amin’s atrocities.

Brother Leader also backed Charles Taylor whose reign as President wreaked havoc on Liberia and the region, especially Sierra Leone. Most recently, the Pan Africanist “King of Kings” also played a role in creating and supporting the Janjawid, the Arab militias that terrorized the people of Darfur in the Sudan for years. Our Pan African heroes should be made of much more credible stuff. I can’t imagine Fidel Castro aligning Cuba with such despicable leaders and questionable causes!

As the proposals for mediation, which the African Union has recommended, there are real problems in Libya as reflected in the demands for reforms by a significant segment of the population. Therefore, even if Qaddafi were the “baddest” revolutionary Pan Africanist of all time, the question would remain, how are principles of social justice and human rights incorporated into the system of governance, and how does the regime respond to demands for change/reform? Another way of looking at the question is to think in terms of what kind of nations/societies we are striving to create as an outcome of revolutions; what kind of society do you want to live in and what kind of freedoms, liberties, social, economic and human rights would you like to enjoy, and shouldn’t they be available to all human beings as delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

It is not entirely clear why protests erupted in Libya, a very complex nation where tribal and regional tensions and conflicts have been a reality for generations. To his credit, Qaddafi came to power as a secular reformer seeking to modernize the economic and social systems and build a more cohesive society. He has been the glue holding a fractious nation together. Unlike Egypt and other North African and Arab nations, where poverty and high unemployment among aspiring professionals was a contributing factor to the upheavals, Libya has the highest standard of living on the continent. This is because early on Qaddafi used oil revenues to provide education, health care and jobs to the population.

A relatively high standard of living apparently was not enough to satisfy the aspirations of a significant segment of the population. Emboldened by scenes of revolt in other nations, Libyan dissidents mobilized large demonstrations, which started in Benghazi and eventually spread to Tripoli. Though regional and tribal antipathies may well have been a source of some protests, the overriding demands were for political reforms to open the system to greater engagement without repression and an end to corruption. These demonstrations were not puny; they were massive, and it appeared that the Qaddafi regime might be toppled by peaceful means until he ordered a crackdown by the police and the military. His son Seif Al-Islam threatened a bloodbath if the protesters did not halt their actions. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the opposition made the fateful decision to abandon peaceful means in favor of armed resistance. This is an important point because the move to armed insurrection transformed the dispute into a civil war. This does not nullify the rebel’s cause, but it does give Qaddafi greater license to use force to suppress their rebellion.

Despite the defections of some high level officials and some military personnel, it is clear that Qaddafi and his sons still command a degree of loyalty and support among some of the tribes, the bureaucracy, some units in the military and the population. In fact there was at least one report where “civilians” in a town took up arms to repel the rebels. So, it is conceivable that Qaddafi may be able to survive the military assault by the coalition and the armed opposition of the rebels. If Qaddafi is able to cling to power, how he responds to the demand for reform remains the crucial issue to monitor for progressives eager to support his regime.

And, here is where I part company with some of my ideological kinfolk. The Qaddafi regime, indeed, any government has an obligation to devise processes and channels for responding to grievances from its people without resorting to repression and violence. The violent suppression of peaceful protests and demands for change is simply unacceptable. Moreover, these demands cannot be ignored or dismissed because the government professes to be “anti-imperialist” or “revolutionary.” Respect for human rights must be an essential aspect of the character of a revolutionary Pan African government. Despite its “revolutionary” and “Pan Africanist” activities, credible international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long documented the repressive nature of the Qaddafi government. So, the winds of change, which stunned Brother Leader, have been gathering for some time. As is the case with other repressive regimes in North Africa and the Arab World, it was inevitable that those restless for reform in Libya would gain encouragement from what they witnessed throughout the region. Reforms were demanded and reforms should be forthcoming.

The African Union recognized this when it stepped forward to mediate what has become a civil war. According to published reports, at a high level meeting March 26 in Addis Ababa the AU called for a cease fire, dialogue between the parties and a “road map to resolve the crisis, including the formation of a transitional government, the holding of elections and the building of democratic institutions to meet the aspirations of all Libyans. ” Implicit in this roadmap is an awareness of serious problems in Libya and the right of those seeking change to have their voices heard. The AU’s position is noteworthy because they had the courage to propose reforms in Libya despite the fact that Qaddafi is a major financial contributor to the organization and a number of the member governments. The AU chose to do the right thing, and they are to be commended for doing so. Unfortunately, the U.S. led coalition elected to use the blessing of the Arab League to provide cover for the attack on Libya rather than heed the advice and recommendations of the AU.

Those who care about the Libyan people should demand that the U.S. and its allies consult with and take into account the perspectives of the AU regarding the crisis of a sister nation on the continent. Equally important, I hope progressive Pan Africanists will increasingly commit to utilizing moral and ethical principles of governance, as embodied in the concept of Maat, to judge the character and internal weaknesses/contradictions of leaders and governments who would claim the mantle of revolution and Pan Africanism. We cannot ignore the flagrant flaws and transgressions of authoritarian, repressive and despotic regimes in the name of some grander anti-imperialist cause. The goal of our revolution must always be to create communities, societies and nations based on a solid foundation of justice and human rights!

Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected].

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