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African leaders to blame for western intervention

By Alex Magaisa

In a week dominated by events in Libya where, at the time of writing this article, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is losing his 42-year-old grip on the levers of power, it is pertinent that we consider the implications for the African continent and its people.

Alex Magaisa

The authors of his apparent downfall are the combined force of internal rebels and Nato air and ground support, the latter acting under the auspices of United Nations Resolution 1973 supposedly to protect civilians.

One feature that can be observed in discussions among Africans in respect of events in Libya is an apparent dilemma faced by the ordinary African which can be encapsulated in the following questions: To accept any help whatsoever to get rid of a dictatorial regime and play a blind eye to the negative consequences that might come with such assistance?

Or to refuse such external assistance on the principle of non-interference and instead continue to carry the burden of dictatorship? To my mind, African leaders who have refused and continue to refuse to reform governance systems and structures in their countries must bear the blame for external intervention and consequent interference.

If ordinary people are electing to have external intervention, it is precisely because their leaders have failed them and they have been pushed into a corner from which to make otherwise principled decisions becomes an expensive luxury. Two reactions have been apparent in the debate over the Libyan crisis and Western intervention.

Presidents Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Denis Sassou Nguessou of Congo, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania and African Union Secretary-General Jean Ping (front L-R) stand outside a tent erected at Qadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya residence in Tripoli. –Reuters Photo
Presidents Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Denis Sassou Nguessou of Congo, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania and African Union Secretary-General Jean Ping (front L-R) stand outside a tent erected at Qadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya residence in Tripoli. –Reuters Photo

On the one hand, it is clear that the ordinary African who faces a dictatorial regime which suppresses opportunities for democratic choices would probably seek and welcome any support, wherever it comes from, to rid himself of that dictatorship.

There are situations where one is under so much pressure and faces risk from his own that he would submit himself to the help of an outsider to earn what he perceives to be freedom. This is the school of thought which is predicated on the “By Any Means Necessary” principle — you do whatever it takes to remove the dictatorship.

To those who might say this is an ignorant African who is a willing tool of the West, his argument is that such a view underestimates the conditions that cause people to adopt this approach.

Oft-times, people would have suffered greatly at the hands of their own leaders; opportunities to exercise democratic choices through elections would have been reduced to nothing. The African who makes this choice does so not because there is any other alternative but out of sheer desperation.

On the other hand, the ordinary African who desperately wants to rid himself of a dictator is also wary of outsiders’ offers of assistant. He knows that it is important to remove the dictatorial regime but he worries that because there is never such a thing as free lunch — any outside help will come at a heavy price.

There will be “collateral damage” as infrastructure is destroyed and of t-times many lives are lost in the mayhem. War is always messy and destructive — those who intervene may not lose a single life, but the locals, including those who are purportedly being helped can become victims of the war.

The African worries, too, that frequently the choice of intervention is motivated by self-interest on the part of the interventionists. There is a well-founded fear that the country would forever be beholden to the outside forces. He is suspicious of the true intentions of those who come bearing arms, money and advice — that behind the veil there may be more sinister intentions.

These are questions with which one must grapple. Neither side holds exclusive rights to correctness. The African who is ready to accept intervention is not necessarily stupid — his response is a function of his extreme conditions to which he is subjected. The wary African is not stupid either — his hesitation is a result of well-considered fears of the true reasons for and the consequences of intervention.

This is especially the case when the usual interventionists’ approach to crises around the world is characterised by hypocrisy. It is a dilemma which many Africans face — to accept or reject intervention. Libya has provided a venue where these views have collided violently in the last few months.

The dilemma has also manifested at the highest levels of African leadership and politics. When the UN Resolution 1973 authorising Nato intervention in Libya was passed by the Security Council, three African countries in the Council (South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon) voted in favour of it. They were promptly rebuked by some of their peers on the continent.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame came out in support of the intervention, drawing experience from the genocide in his country in 1994, when the world stood by and was condemned while the atrocities were carried out. Uganda President, Yoweri Museveni on the other hand, was critical of Western intervention.

A few weeks after voting for intervention, South Africa President Jacob Zuma was leading African delegations to meet with Gaddafi, trying to find presumably an “African Solution to an African Problem” — something that is fast losing credibility among the people who see it more as a principle deployed by members of the African leaders’ trade union to protect one of their own at any given time. These diplomatic efforts were in vain.

Interestingly, also caught in this dilemma, the AU has largely been a bystander as one of its leading member states has itself become the subject of external intervention. Western countries have treated the AU with clear disregard, preferring instead to deal with the Arab League. The AU itself has been lethargic and fraught with divisions – signifying the dilemma faced by African leaders.

Whilst for example, South Africa and others are refusing to recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate authority in Libya, it appears Nigeria and the Gambia have already declared their recognition. The whole scenario is a farce but it also that the dilemma is evident at the highest levels.

There are many Libyans who have had cause to rejoice at the fall of a leader they regard as a dictator. But there are also others who worry about the true intentions of the Western powers that have intervened.

Libya is said to have the largest oil reserves in Africa. Yet for too long it has been under the control of a man who many in the West regard as unpredictable and hostile and his departure would have opened the way for one of his sons.

But what makes the Western, especially British, enthusiasm to remove Gaddafi more interesting is that until the Arab Spring, there were efforts to ‘rehabilitate” him. In the process, the Libyan strongman forged a close relationship with key Western figures such as Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister.

It seems ironic indeed that a country that appeared to have been on the course of re-establishing relations with Gaddafi would suddenly turn against him and cast him as a despicable dictator. Did they not know all along that he was a dictator who was oppressing the Libyan people?  Yet it seems they were prepared to work with him, the concerns of the people they are now supporting notwithstanding.

Self-interest is arguably the greatest motivating factor on the part of the interventionists.

But this hypocrisy is nothing new. Indeed, one is reminded here of the fact that President Mugabe was once the recipient of an Honorary Knighthood from Britain, including an Honorary Degree from Edinburgh University, even when it was alleged that the Zimbabwean state had carried out the atrocities in Matabeleland.

Only later, when Britain fell out with Mugabe over the handling of the land question, did they withdraw the Knighthood. But surely they would have known these facts when they awarded him the Knighthood? Yet the critical question remains: should all of this apparent Western hypocrisy matter to ordinary Africans concerned with the oppression authored by their own leaders?

Should they be concerned that Western intervention such as in Libya is motivated by other selfish interests of the interventionists? Why shouldn’t they rejoice in the fact that as the West targets its own ambitions, they as ordinary people get the collateral benefit of removing a dictatorial regime?

These are difficult but important questions for the continent.

If Africa is facing threats of control from Western powers (or re-colonisation, as some have put it) through intervention and the creation of client states, it is not the people welcoming such “support” who are to blame but the leaders of Africa who have failed the continent and its people — opening it up for external control and

manipulation under the guise of protection. And here a brief tour of history might help.

When the colonisation of Africa is discussed, it is often done in simplistic terms whereby the white settlers came to Africa, bludgeoned everyone into submission and took total control. This generalised picture obscures the fact that in some cases, Africans created conditions that made it very easy for the continent to be penetrated.

In particular, history records in such areas such what is now Botswana, kingdoms entered into pacts with imperial powers whereby the got ‘protection’ from the imperial state in return for ceding certain of their sovereign rights. Bechuanaland was never a colony but a British protectorate.

It was like others created on the basis of the principle of protection. What is interesting here is that some people actually elected to come under imperial control for their own protection. They made a rational decision to do so, for self-preservation.

Likewise, it is not surprising that today ordinary people suffering at the hands of their leaders do not seem to be concerned at the implications of Western intervention if it will “save them” from their dictatorial regimes.

It’s a price, albeit a heavy one, that they are prepared to pay. By creating oppressive and hostile living environments for their people and becoming a danger to the people they are supposed to safeguard, African states are losing their credibility and driving people to seek external help.

The irony indeed is that the same powers that Africans fought to get liberation are being welcomed by the same people to help free them from dictatorial regimes. And notably, African leaders have themselves been divided over the response to the intervention — some accepting it as necessary whilst others are stridently opposed to it.

Interestingly, the Western countries are united in their purpose and actions.

To my mind, the solution to prevent opportunities for such intervention should be very simple:  create conducive living environments for the people; invest in the nation and remove oppressive systems.

For as long as African leaders govern the continent as they have done to date, oppressing their people and creating conditions that are decidedly hostile, they are creating very good opportunities for outsiders to intervene — under the guise of helping the people but really for their own self-interest. That indeed is the tragedy that the African faces.

It is a sad affair that faced with the choice between his own dictatorial leader and a self-interested outsider, the African is pushed to choose the latter by circumstances authored by the former. Even if the consequence is destruction and loss of lives. What has happened in Libya is not an exception but very much a signal of where much of Africa is heading towards.  African leaders must take responsibility.

Alex Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent and can be reached at [email protected]