There is much misunderstanding today about the decision of African Union (AU) to not endorse the military intervention in Libya undertaken by France, Great Britain, and the United States in conjunction with a few Arab States. Speculations abound as to whether the uniform decision coming out of Africa indicates that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across North Africa and the Arab World, or whether the absence of Africa in the battlefield of Libya suggests military ineptitude and political bankruptcy. In fact, the African Union has not been indifferent to the conflict in Libya. The AU opted for mediation and negotiated constitutional compact, with the aim of fostering a different kind of politics. The uniform refusal of the AU to endorse Western intervention has two main explanations. The first is the practice of consensus in decision-making which has a long history within Africa. The other is profound unease on the continent about the form and foundation of the intervention itself.
I suggest that there is continent-wide skepticism in Africa about Western leadership in the eras of global governance, the rule of (international) law, the status of international morality, and the future of global democracy. This development is the result of continental experiences with the modes of enactment and execution interventions in Africa. The African position arises therefore from doubt that the coalition of Western powers leading the military effort in Libya today can be trusted to not abuse legitimate anti-Gaddafi sentiments, to not instrumentalize international law and morality, and to not subvert UN procedures and the mechanisms of global governance in order to advance hegemonic agendas and parochial ‘strategic’ interests. In short, underlying the African objection to military intervention is a longstanding tension between international organizations that represent Africa and the self-identified West around the representations of the will of the international community, the resulting global democratic deficit in times of intervention, and their effects on international morality, including the principles of humanitarianism.
In relating this conflict, I do not speak for a uniformly-defined ‘Africa’ and/or for all African entities. Nor do I wish to conflate the official West with the sentiments and traditions of all constituencies of what might be called The West. I reflect on a widely held sentiment currently expressed in Africa that specific actions by Western powers with respect to Libya paradoxically undermine the spirit and practice of participative global governance. They also subvert what should have been a moment of transformation of politics at the local, national, and global levels. In short, this is a story of how the global democratic gap or what I call the global democratic deficit has widened precisely at the moment when the national democratic deficit has erupted into violent conflict. The paradox is that humanitarian concerns come once again to serve as pretext for widening the global democratic deficit and, in the case of the Middle East, re-inscribing the term of past imperial relations under new guises.
Today’s democratic deficit may be located in many registers, two of which are of interest here: the national and the international. The domestic democratic deficit is what has prompted street uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. The global democratic deficit resides in the structures of international organizations where states, regional organizations, and other entities necessarily occupy different positions commensurate with their powers, endowments, traditions and the like. However, structures do not necessarily produce deficit, they create the conditions for it. In the present case, one can trace the deficit to the processes of decision-making regarding Libya and the institutions and traditions to which they may be traced.
Like the domestic democratic deficit against which Libyans rightly rose up, the global democratic deficit is both behavioral and structural. The connection between the non-democratic behavior of global hegemonic powers and the possibility of democratic politics at the domestic level is often direct. Take for instance the role of the West in the political culture currently brewing in the Libyan opposition. Since endorsing the TNC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, the Western coalition backing has remained silent as the organization grows intolerant by the day not only toward Gaddafi, his family, and allies but also toward Sub-Saharan African migrants accused of sympathy with the regime. Accordingly, the TNC has not only excluded negotiation with Gaddafi or his allies; it has snubbed all efforts by the African Union to mediate a political settlement. To either the West or the TNC, there could be only one solution: total and unconditional surrender of political opponents.
Africans are accustomed to a certain instrumentalization of reform by Western powers. One recalls for instance the policy of Constructive Engagement. During the Apartheid years, this official US policy was build on the assumption that effective politically mediation and settlement in South Africa rested in the capacity of mediators (honest brokers?) like the US to engage all parties even, in this case, a regime that was ideologically and politically bent on the total subordination of its local black population and the destruction of neighboring states. Africans are also accustomed to another certainty in Western interventions: this is that unsympathetic entities like the then Marxist regimes of Angola and Mozambique and the African National Congress of South Africa were directed by Western powers to necessarily accommodate opposing Western-friendly entities, whether states, corporations, or political organizations as a requirement for lasting peace. By contrast, it is also a certainty of political life in Africa that, upon Western interventions, reigning or ascendant Western-friendly entities need not accommodate unsympathetic opposing figures or entities. In other words, friends of the West need not bother with democratic niceties as the price for peace. Enemies or adversaries do the same or they are eliminated from the scene.
I know of few people who would argue that the situation in Libya was tenable or that it should have been allowed to persist. I also know of few individuals who would pretend that an operation such as the one currently undertaken by the West could be carried out without mistakes or blemish. Yet, these are not arguments against global democracy and the reasonableness that is required in interpreting international law, particularly UN Resolutions. To paraphrase a dissenting opinion by Judge Kotaro Tanaka (PDF) of the International Court of Justice, ‘different treatment under international law should be permitted only when it can be justified by the criterion of justice’; thus, one may replace justice with reasonableness but only that criterion does not logically lead to arbitrariness. In short, even a doctrine of reasonableness required by pragmatism should not be allowed to do away with the questions of democracy and the morality implied in different treatment of similarly situated events and persons.
The idea that one can be excluded from the political compact simply because of one’s position in the global system or association within an undemocratic regime is a nightmarish scenario to generations of activists who have fought for human rights, constitutionalism, and democratic inclusion; as well as humanitarians who have tended to the social calamities caused by endless civil wars and leading to the collapse of peace and the failure of state. To those who are undeterred by the idea that Africans may actually formulate coherent views of international morality, including an aversion to war, consider these facts. In 2003, even after dispatching Colin Powell to Africa to seek support for the war in Iraq, the US failed to move a single one of them. This refusal to join the Iraq war effort came at the heel of great sympathy for the US following the 1998 US Embassy Bombings in East Africa and the attack perpetrated against the US on 9/11/2001. Further, for nearly 4 years, the US has failed to find a single state from fifty three to host AFRICOM (the US military Africa Command) even as all African states have endorsed the aims of US anti-terrorism programs. Today, none of the countries, and all of them African enlisted in the US initiated Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership, all of them poor and dependent on US aid, has endorsed military intervention in Libya.