Why Is Much of Africa Giving Libya's Rebels the Cold Shoulder?

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A picture of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is seen on the ground of the ransacked Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 26, 2011.

Who said money couldn't buy friends? Even though over 40 nations and the Arab League have now recognized the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council as the new Libyan government following longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi's fall this week, Africa's regional bloc, the African Union, is refusing to do so. On Friday, the pan-African organization that Gaddafi largely bankrolled and at times led rebuffed calls to extend legitimacy to the NTC rebels, calling instead for an "inclusive" government in Libya — presumably meaning one that includes members of Gaddafi's regime, although not necessarily the deposed leader himself. To many, the move is sure to deepen perceptions that the African Union is more of an old presidents' club than a serious international force.

Often dismissed as a clown or lunatic, in Africa Gaddafi was a serious player, and the continent's longest-standing ruler. Money goes a long way in places without much, and the eccentric leader used his country's oil wealth to spread his fingers everywhere. His luxury hotels dot capital cities across the continent, and he funded pet rebel groups across the continent. But, besides his hefty purse, Gaddafi also was a symbol for some of African pride. His often incoherent but vehemently anti-Western diatribes on the international stage often found a sympathetic audience among disillusioned African youth. Unlike other North African leaders, who prefer to stress their Arab ties and downplay their African ones, Gaddafi embraced a continental role, keeping pan-African visions alive. His much-ballyhooed pipe dream of a United States of Africa might have failed, but it paved the way for today's African Union — which in turn thanked him by angrily denouncing the NATO operation that paved the way for his downfall.

But, Gaddafi's influence over Africa can also be overstated. The man's egomaniacal and erratic ways never lent themselves to cuddly feelings among his peers, many of whom he enraged with his bullying style and meddlesome ways. His awkwardly eccentric flourishes — like his personal corps of Amazonian bodyguards — proved an unwelcome headache for a continent trying to refurbish its image. Gaddafi's embarrassing gaffes include referring to President Obama as his son; and rebels have found a photo album of his devoted to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom Gaddafi once called his "darling black African woman." Nor did he win many fans among his African peers by crowning himself Africa's King of Kings.

The truth is, after a decade of steady economic growth and the rising clout that goes with that, Africa had already begun to leave the flamboyant Libyan leader behind. "Gaddafi's role in the African Union has diminished greatly in recent years, and any reduction in Libya's financing of the AU will probably be made up by other economic powerhouses like South Africa and Nigeria," says Phil Clark, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Although Gaddafi does have a few friends, many — if not most — of Africa's leaders are not sad to see him go.

So why the cold shoulder to the rebels many now hail as Libya's liberators? Although Africa's leaders might not mind a post-Gaddafi world, they are none-too-happy about how that brave new world was ushered in. To understand why, take a look not in Addis Ababa, where the AU is headquartered, but in Pretoria. South Africa, the continent's strongest economy, voted in favor of the United Nation's resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, but became an immediate and vocal critic of the NATO operation, accusing the West of using a humanitarian smokescreen to hide cold, hard regime change.

South African President Jacob Zuma then spearheaded an AU effort to get the two sides in Libya to negotiate, but the international community largely ignored the efforts, and the NTC rejected his mediation as biased. "The rebels, encouraged by NATO, snubbed the African Union," says Isakka Souare, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. And now, the AU and Zuma are snubbing them back.

Even after the fall of Gaddafi, South Africa is not backing down. The nation is obstructing U.S. efforts to unfreeze Libyan assets for the NTC government, and on Wednesday, South African deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe upped the ante even higher by calling for an International Criminal Court investigation into NATO's coordination with rebel forces, according to local reports. Angered and resentful at feeling sidelined on its own turf, South Africa is now "dragging their heels and forcing others to take them seriously," says Thomas Cargill, an analyst at global policy think tank Chatham House in London. What to the outside world might seem an indefensible position in support of a brutal dictator who ruthlessly killed his own people, in South Africa seems a spirited attack on neocolonial imperialism, and vindictive intransigence for a perceived slap in the face.

But Cargill says the anger might have a more positive end result: forcing African countries, and South Africa, to put more resources into an African Union that up until now is still supported in part by the European Union. The Africa Union's losing fight in one of its first realpolitik heavyweight bouts might spur the continent to begin taking itself more seriously. Ironically, it could be Gaddafi's fall that makes his dream of a more powerful African Union a reality.