Francis Kornegay: "Mbeki’s Lament"

In the September edition of The Thinker, former President Thabo Mbeki laments the deferral of the promise of the African Union (AU) on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. His critique of the AU is to be taken with the utmost seriousness in as much as it is much more than AU-centric.

President Mbeki expands into a much broader critique of Africa’s ruling political class and leadership as a reflection of the challenges facing the AU as well he should. For the AU’s deferral of its promises are embedded in the problems and contradictions of Africa’s leadership among its myriad 54-odd states and ‘statelets’. 

And who better to delve into this morass than our former President himself as someone who remains a certified member of this class?

But it is interesting to read through his critique of the African ruling class to which he belongs without a sense that he is skirting around issues much closer to home in South Africa itself where, in fact, he has been a lead actor in a scenario not those that have unfolded and are ongoing elsewhere in Africa; post-apartheid South Africa, after all, exceptional though it may be compared to other African states is, after all, an African state.

In what he sees as failures of a ‘liberation coalition’incapable of delivering on post-independence (and post-apartheid?) expectations of achieving “fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion, and the ‘social, cultural and economic development’ of the African masses,” Mbeki attributes this to fact that there has been“entrenched in much of Africa the pursuit of political power by a so-called‘political class’ merely to use such power to extract rent from society as a whole.”

Powerful stuff! Especially since this is, in essence, the critique that younger brother Moeletsi Mbeki never tires of leveling against South Africa’s post-apartheid black elite, implicating the role that his older brother has played in a factional politics of rent-seeking that is ongoing with no end in sight at the expense of the ‘social, cultural and economic development’ of this country’s African masses.

This is not a place where the former President dares tread. Let little brother deal with the home base! Instead, older brother Mbeki couples his generalised critique of Africa’s rent-seeking ‘political class’ and‘liberation coalition’ with what has become his predictable rant against a perceived return of “former colonial and imperialist powers” to “transform all other countries into their neo-colonies” while “the AU has failed to develop and implement a strategy to counteract these moves.”

And here, we should know where he is going with this as he intones: “This is the failure of the AU to ensure respect by the entire international community of Africa’s right and duty to resolve its problems – to respect the aspirations that as Africans we should devise the solutions to our problems.”

Obviously, Mbeki has not gotten over the Libya debacle and Western powers’ affront to an aspirational African continental sovereignty which Africa’s leaders, Mbeki included, have been and are far from consolidating within the AU’s existing framework. Here, Mbeki’s former comradely colleague within the African National Congress, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as South Africa’s incoming Chairperson of the AU Commission has her work cut out for her.

But does Mbeki himself and his intellectual acolytes, obsessed as they are with an imperialist ‘empire strikes back’ threat perception, really grasp the magnitude of all that was in play in determining the predictability of the Libyan debacle? Apparently not. So let’s try and unpack the structural parameters of the Libyan debacle. It implicates both Africa and the West and could very well be repeated.

Quiet as is kept, we must look at the incompleteness of the AU. It is not whole. This is in terms of its pillars amongst its constituent regional economic communities (RECs). Then, on the Western side, there has to be factored in the manner in which the bureaucratic determinants of Africa policy decision-making are structured in Washington and in Europe’s capitols, Brussels included.

Now, lets piece together the anatomy of the Libyan debacle apart from its geopolitical ‘great game’ dimensions. Here, one must begin on the African side of this equation for this is where the crux of the problem lies and where the solution must be found. Let’s do a ‘what if.’

What if, when the Libyan crisis broke out, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) had been a functioning REC for North Africa within the AU system? The fact that it wasn’t then and isn’t now as Dlamini-Zuma takes the reigns of leadership in Addis is instructive of why the AU found itself marginalised in the international politics of the civil war that ended in the demise of the Qaddafi regime.

This prompts a simple question. If the UMA was a functioning regional pillar of the AU, would not it have been impossible for the AU to be sidelined in the Arab League’s diplomacy of intervention in Libya under the UN Resolution 1973? North African states, after all, are members of both the AU as well as the Arab League.

In the absence of a functioning UMA as a pillar of the AU, the default non-Western body that the US-UK-France P3 of the UN Security Council would look to for legitimizing would be the League of Arab States. As such, it was the Gulf Arabs within the Arab League, with their axes to grind with Qaddafi, who occupied the driver’s seat in stirring Western intervention in Libya under the UN mandate. An out-of-area region within the Arab League, from the Persian Gulf, arrogates unto itself the role of arbiter in the Maghreb state of Libya which is nominally at least a member of the UMA.

And of course, Egypt, in the throws of its own Arab Spring upheaval was in no position to counteract what amounted to Gulf Cooperation Council intervention in an AU member state in the Maghreb. This scenario would have been impossible were the UMA a functioning REC pillar within the AU. Indeed, under the auspices of the UMA, the AU would have been first among equals in what should have been a joint AU-Arab League arbiter of external intervention in Libya.

Of course it is common knowledge why the UMA is dysfunctional: the largely forgotten conflict in the Western Sahara. This is a conflict that remains in stalemate with Morocco, having left the Organization of African Unity being without membership in the AU as well.

Morocco, therefore, is not a member of the UMA which is recognized by the AU as the regional body for the Maghreb. Further complicating matters are long-standing tensions between Morocco and Algeria related to the Western Sahara stalemate.

This, in a nutshell, is why the AU does not have a functioning REC in North Africa which would and should become the regional focal point for any international initiatives pertaining to issues in the Maghreb inviting external intervention. Otherwise, it should be no mystery why the US and Europe chose to interact with the Arab League in building support for establishing a No-Fly Zone over Libya – which takes us to the Western side of the equation of structural determinants influencing how the Libyan crisis unfolded.

In Washington, if any crisis breaks out in North Africa, it will not be Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson who will be called on navigate a US response. Rather than the Africa Bureau at State Department it will be State’s Bureau of Middle East and North African Affairs which will be turned to for strategic policy support.

This bureaucratic structural bifurcation of Africa in Europe as well as in the US – which, indeed, can be considered a partitionist policy of ‘divide and rule’ – sets up a predictable and automatic policy process leading straight pass the AU to the Arab League in response (or anticipation) of whatever regional development is unfolding in the Maghreb.

In Brussels, the European Union (EU) relations with Africa and the Maghreb are dictated by the asymmetrically uneven EU-Africa Strategic Partnership and the EU-Mediterranean Partnership (EUROMED). This policy bifurcation is replicated among the EU’s member states which have their own strategies which may or may not be in synch with Brussels.

So where’s the so-called recolonizing imperialist conspiracy here? The anatomy of the Libyan tragedy is a no-brainer given the fact that the AU does not have its pillar of regional governance in place in North Africa. If it did, there would have had to be joint consultations between State Department’s Middle East and North Africa and Africa Bureaus on Libya.

Ditto for the EU. While Mbeki continues lamenting the marginalization of AU on Libya, the structural anatomy of that crisis is indicative of the challenges facing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as incoming AU Chairperson. The UMA-Western Sahara conundrum can no longer continue to be ‘forgotten.’ Resolving this problem is the key to setting Africa on the decolonizing road to continental sovereignty.

  • Francis A. Kornegay Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
  • This analysis was first published by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, 20 October 2012. 

| © The South African Foreign Policy Initiative 2012 | Developed by Octoplus