Gaddafi, King of Africa

4 February 2009

Gaddafi, King of Africa

 By Gwynne Dyer

How could they tell him no? Muammar Gaddafi, resplendent in the gold brocade robes that he probably made from his mother’s curtains and wearing his usual bug-eye sunglasses, was urging all the other African leaders to join him in creating the United States of Africa. The world’s oldest teenager had just been made chairman of the African Union, and this was his Big Idea.

The African presidents and prime ministers heard him out patiently– which took some time, for Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for the past forty years, is used to people hearing him out patiently at quite some length. If they are Libyans, they then say “Yes, sir. Excellent idea,” so his expectations in this department have also grown over the years.

The other African leaders were not going to say that, and indeed some of them had been reluctant to let Gaddafi become the head of the African Union. It was North Africa’s turn this year, so it was awkward to say no, but on the other hand Gaddafi is so eccentric and downright bizarre….

Last August, for example, he invited some 200 traditional kings, princes, sultans, sheikhs and chiefs from all over Africa to come to Libya.

Most of these tribal leaders are not wealthy men, and joining his “forum of traditional leaders” meant free trips and lots of gifts, so they came to Benghazi — and dutifully declared that Gaddafi was Africa’s “king of kings.” His usual egomania, certainly, but Gaddafi (who wore the purple curtains on that occasion) was also trying to build support for his “United States of Africa” project.

Few of the other African Union leaders who met in Addis Ababa last week approve of Gaddafi’s forum of traditional rulers or think that a “United States of Africa” is a good idea. (Uganda even banned a meeting of Gaddafi’s forum last year, on the grounds that unelected “leaders” should not claim a political role.) But in the end, despite all their misgivings, Gaddafi got the job of AU chair anyway.

Once in the chair, Gaddafi lived up to his reputation: the summit went into an unscheduled fourth day because he simply would not stop haranguing the other leaders about the “United States of Africa.” They tried to escape by setting up a committee to consider the idea and report back in three months, but he wasn’t so easily diverted.

At the final evening’s session, Gaddafi rambled on for hours about his great idea. It was well after midnight when Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni walked over to him and whispered in his ear that it was past everybody else’s bedtime. As they departed, Gaddafi remarked that “silence gives consent” — so unless they openly oppose him at the next summit, the United States of Africa will then automatically come into existence.

It won’t. The African Union works by consensus, and almost all of its 53 presidents and prime ministers think the US of A is a terrible idea.

Cynics might say that’s just because their own jobs would vanish in an Africa with a single army, a single currency and a single passport. But the men and women in that room probably had close to a thousand years of political experience as African leaders between them, and they were not all cynics.

Gaddafi obviously sees himself as the first president of the United States of Africa. He has always felt that Libya is too small a stage for his talents, and once his early attempts to become the leader of the Arab world failed, he turned his attention to Africa instead. But that’s only his private ambition, and the other AU leaders don’t have to make him the president of the US of A. What’s wrong with the idea in principle?

It was Gaddafi himself who pointed to the fundamental problem when he said, at the same summit, that Africa is essentially tribal. Multi-party democracy leads to bloodshed because the parties get tribalised, Gaddafi explained, and therefore the right model for Africa is his own country, Libya, where there are no parties and no elections.

It’s a crude formulation of the problem, but he’s right that Africa’s biggest problem is too many small ethnic groups and few big ones.

Almost every country is a mosaic of rival ethnic groups. The political turmoil that has caused is probably the main reason why African countries, most of which were richer than comparable Asian countries in the same empire when they got their independence forty or fifty years ago, are now far poorer.

One African friend long ago suggested to me that the only solution was a pan-African dictator, a Stalin who would kill off all the ethnic demagogues and unify the continent under a single “African” identity. But even Stalin did not succeed, as the Chechens, the Ukrainians, the Georgians and dozens of other post-Soviet ethnic groups demonstrate.

The alternative approach, which is to build a national identity slowly while trying to maintain a non-tribalised democracy, is hard work, but it kills fewer people and it can succeed in the end. The model for the African Union is the European Union, a relatively loose association of democracies with long separate histories, not the United States of America with its single shared identity. It is probably the right model.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Once…diverted”; and