Africa’s place in resolving Libya’s quagmire

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) met at the level of heads of state and government on 8 February 2020 to discuss the situation in Libya. The meeting took place on the margins of the 33rd AU summit. It was the second African-led meeting on Libya in the space of 10 days, following the Berlin conference involving several role-players and the Geneva meeting that brought together the military leaders of the two main Libyan factions.

The AU has been asserting, with increasing vigour, that it must be included in attempts at brokering peace in and bringing stability back to Libya, one of its member states.

While the AU has a mixed track record in developing an actionable intervention plan for Libya, the 8 February PSC meeting laid out clear next steps, including sending a fact-finding mission comprising African chiefs of defence from the five regions. This will be done in collaboration with the United Nations (UN). The Assembly also decided to upgrade the AU Liaison Office in Libya so it has more diplomatic and military capacity. The AU chairperson has been tasked with determining funding options for the two decisions.

The Assembly decided to upgrade the AU Liaison Office in Libya so it has more diplomatic and military capacity

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the AU chair for 2020, also announced that his peace and security priorities would focus on resolving the crises in South Sudan and Libya.

South Africa’s decision to prioritise the resolution of the Libyan conflict, and the fact that as AU chair it has the prerogative to act on such matters, is an opportunity. South Africa benefits from a more neutral reputation than Egypt did as chair in 2019.

Many also believe that South Africa and Ramaphosa can leverage their peacemaking and mediation experience to help make peace in Libya. South African authorities may also want to repair what may have been a historical mistake when the country voted in favour of the 2011 intervention in Libya.

The AU has proposed, among others, appointing a joint UN–AU special envoy in order to come back in the fold and try to break the deadlock, which it believes the UN has been unable to achieve on its own. The AU also plans to convene an inter-Libyan conference of national reconciliation.

South Africa’s decision to prioritise the resolution of the Libyan conflict is an opportunity

At this stage, a number of important questions arise. What will be the extent of the involvement of the AU, particularly its chair, South Africa, which is a member of the AU High-Level Committee on Libya? In addition, what will be the role of the PSC, as the standing decision-making body on peace and security on the continent?

The AU will have to speak with one voice, both in order to reposition itself in the management of the Libyan crisis vis-à-vis the UN and the non-African countries present in Libya, and for it to be effective in its handling of the conflict.

Divisions and turf battles

The current situation in Libya is characterised by the presence of a multitude of local and international actors with conflicting if not diametrically opposed interests, creating the perfect cocktail for protracted instability.

The current situation in Libya is characterised by the presence of a multitude of local and international actors

There is a common misrepresentation that the local scene is dominated by only two factions, namely the UN-recognised government of national accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj and the self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar. However, at least two other major armed groups – militias and so-called Islamists – are an integral part of this complex equation. Their place in Libya’s present and, more importantly, its future is one of the divisive questions yet to be addressed. 

Differences over the fate of militias and Islamists also appear to be what divides the non-African actors involved in their support for either the GNA or the LNA. Some even support the GNA and LNA at the same time.

These internal divisions and the internationalisation of the Libyan conflict form the quagmire that the international community, notably the UN, has struggled to resolve. The AU, if it is successful in becoming a central peace broker, will have to contend with the same challenges.

Challenges for Africa’s engagement

Although there seems to be some momentum for Africa to become involved in resolving the Libyan conflict, the first obstacle remains the continent’s lack of effective participation in the ongoing processes led particularly by the UN but also involving countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

The AU is yet to convince Libyan belligerents to turn to the continent for a solution, especially with the strong presence of non-African actors

The AU is yet to convince Libyan belligerents to turn to the continent for a solution, especially with the strong presence of non-African actors in both the peace process and the hostilities in the country. Convincing Libyans to make space for a potential African or African-led process also requires bringing non-African actors to the same negotiation table.

The second challenge is that, despite appearing relatively neutral, the AU and some of its member states are not regarded as such by all Libyan stakeholders. Some member states are perceived to be sympathetic to loyalists to former strongman Muammar Gaddafi, owing to historical relations. 

Some neighbouring countries that seek to secure their national security interests along their common borders with Libya are also said to have made bilateral deals with different Libyan warring parties. The existence of foreign military bases from which a number of foreign powers launch military interventions into Libya exacerbates this perception.

In the same vein, some high-level AU officials who are political appointees and are involved in the Libyan peace process are nationals of neighbouring countries and thus may not be perceived  to be neutral by some Libyan stakeholders. There are perceptions that they represent the interests of their capitals rather than those of the AU as a collective entity, irrespective of what their personal commitments may be to the peace process.

Libya’s neighbours are also members of the Arab League, which at times have differed with the AU over Libya

For example, it endorsed the 2011 military intervention in Libya, which the AU opposed. While the involvement of neighbouring countries is vital for a sustained peace process, they are not trusted by the various warring factions.

No common position

The third challenge standing in the way of Africa’s attempt at finding a peaceful resolution to the Libyan crisis is the lack of a common position among Africans on how to respond to the conflict. These divisions were in stark display at the February 2020 AU Summit. Member states could not agree whether to deploy a joint AU–UN peace support mission to Libya, and which countries should be included in the newly established contact group for Libya, expected to provide political leadership and engage in international processes aimed at ending the conflict.

Initially, it was proposed that the contact group should be presided over by the Republic of Congo and that Algeria and South Africa, as chairs of the neighbouring countries forum and the AU respectively, be the other two members. But this was rejected by other member states, indicating continued competition for influence in Libya.

The fourth challenge for the AU is that there are a number of different African entities with a mandate to try to resolve the crisis in Libya. While the AU has an 11-member High-Level Ad-hoc Committee on Libya, it has also appointed a Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the Commission to Libya with seemingly overlapping mandates. In addition, the Chairperson of the AU Commission, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security and the Special Representative of the Chairperson of the Commission for Libya and Head of the Liaison Office are also directly involved in the peace process.

There are a number of different African entities with a mandate to try to resolve the crisis in Libya

The latest summit has added another entity to this list by creating the contact group for Libya, without dissolving the larger High-Level Ad-hoc Committee. The difference in mandates between the two has not been clarified, nor how the contact group will be operationalised and whether the committee will continue to be the main interlocutor in the mediation process in the meantime.

Securing meaningful African involvement

If the AU is going to overcome these challenges and become a viable partner in the Libyan peace process, African actors should guard against a fractured front. South Africa, as the current chair of the AU, the PSC, the African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, the AU Commission and the AU High-Level Committee on Libya have to act in a coordinated manner in their peace efforts in Libya.

Determining how those different African stakeholders will work together is crucial. The role of Libya’s neighbours that sit on both the AU High-Level Committee on Libya and the PSC, for instance, will be crucial for the success of any form of intervention by the AU.

In the end, the peace process in Libya must be brought into one single initiative regrouping all the stakeholders, whether led by the AU or jointly by the AU and the UN. If led by the AU, Libyan protagonists have to show their willingness to work with the continent. 

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