Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

This is the third part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


The oblivion of commentators to these possible African objections has been less than helpful to understanding the actualized Western intervention itself; emergent African ideas on democracy and security; and the actual place of international morality in international affairs. Underlying the African apprehension to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa, on one hand, and self-identified representatives of the West, on the other, over the meaning of international community as well as the source, nature, and proper means of implementation of the collective will. The dispute over the meaning of international community and the collective will has been particularly salient in Africa because, as a political space, Africa has been more subject to military interventions than any other geopolitical space in the modern era. These interventions have reflected contemporaneous relations of power, permissible morality, and objects of desire: from proselytism to fortune-seeking, trade, extraction of raw material, and the strategic pursuit of hegemony. Indeed, it is hard to remember a time since the onset of the slave trade when there was no open conflict between the majority of its states and the West over some dimensions of global governance that implicated the notion of the commons or international community.

The postcolonial era has not brought about any change to this situation. Since the end of World War II and the institution of the United Nations system, the plurality of African political entities have confronted self-appointed representatives of the West over the ethos of UN procedures (involving transparency and open access to the channels of decision-making) and the mechanisms of dispute mediation (including the determination of the principles and applicability of humanitarian interventions in a number of cases). One need only recall the political, legal, and military confrontations between African states and former Western colonial powers over Apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West (which involved the legality and morality of colonial trusteeship); the French war on Algeria (which involved the legality and legitimacy of settler colonialism); the wars of decolonization in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (which involved the principles of majority rule through open elections which communists might win); the unilateral declaration of independence by the white minority in Southern Rhodesia (which involved the principle of white-minority rule in postcolonial Africa); and the legality and morality of apartheid (which involved the principle of self-determination and majority rule). The underlying antagonisms contaminated deliberations throughout the UN system (particularly General Assembly proceedings) and involved all major issues from the Palestine Question to the Law of the Sea to other matters of trade and intellectual property. They reached a climax at the time of exit of the US and Great Britain from UNESCO, which was then directed by Ahmadou Mathar Mbow, a Senegalese diplomat and statesman.

These and other contests have shared a few singular features. One is a Western insistence on representing the essential core and therefore will of something called international community. In any case, the label of international community has often been reserved for Western entities in relations to others, who remain the object of intervention on behalf of the international community. This is to say that the term ‘international community’ has had political functionality in relations of power and domination in which Europe (and later The West) subordinated ‘Africa’. The relevant tradition can be traced back to the opening moments of the modern era, particularly during the ascension of The West to global hegemony. While it has undergone changes over time, the embedded imaginary of international community and its will have been built around artificially fixed identities and politically potent interests. Accordingly, the identity of the West, and therefore the international community, flows from a theology of predestination, formally enunciated as the Monroe doctrine in the US or the Mission Civilizatrice in France.

The primary requirement for enacting this identity and theology was that other regions of the world had to surrender their sovereignty to the West under treaties and practices of capitulation, protectorates, mandates, and formal colonial rule. The accompanying institutions proceeded from favorable military and economic relations with others. They were followed by the constitution of local networks whose endorsement of the colonial project gave it legitimacy as consent. In this manner, consent and legitimacy coexisted with subordination and asymmetric power. Today, networks of states and civil organizations have given legitimacy to the reality of the power of the West to legislate, execute, and adjudicate the will of an international community all at once. Indeed, it seems even some intellectuals and journalists today implicitly designate the West as ‘International Community’ and to oppose it to ‘Africa.’ Although it often seems like a simple linguistic slippage, this conflation of the West with the International ascribes universal properties and therefore higher moral qualities and faculties to the West and, by contradistinction, the opposite to Africans. All that proceeds from this contrast is fair then, no matter the transgression or violence.

The presumed exclusive universality of Western faculties, science, technology, and culture often masks an accompanying violence. This violence occurs whenever the West positions itself as necessary provider of value and adjudicator of all relevant interests and an African entity challenges this claim. In the event, the West has relied on a combination of military, economic, and cultural power disguised through linguistic devices, techniques, and symbols couched in the seemingly neutral language of diplomacy and mediation. Unfortunately for the West, the modes of significations of imperialism and their regimes of moral solicitation often reveal the centrality of the modern technologies of violence (of death in particular) to the extant forms of intervention. The realities may be occasionally lost on outside observers but they need no translation in Africa. There, it is understood that the figurations and configurations of diplomatic significations as well as their legitimacy hinge on an acceptance of the interests of the West by others.

This is to say that today, just as in the past, the contours of every encounter and dispute between the figurative West and Africa must necessarily be determined by the terms, significations, and values assigned to them by the West. Take the Congo Crisis, for instance. In the 1960s, just months after declaring independence from Belgium, Congo Kinshasa slumbered into a deep crisis. The crisis has multiple causes and dimensions but they can be encapsulated by a three-way dispute between Patrice Lumumba, the elected Prime Minister; Moise Tshombe, the designated President; and an army officer named Joseph Desiré Mobutu. Then, as now, Western powers pushed for a number of UN Security Council resolutions as bases for resolving the conflict. These powers authored UN Security Council resolutions 143; 145; 146; and 157 which among other things authorized peacekeeping activities by a multinational force in the former Belgian colony. The initial resolution spoke of stabilizing a chaotic political situation on behalf of the people of Congo but the implementation suggested a desire by Western powers to instill a new order that would undermine the exercise by the Congolese people of the principle of self-determination. Specifically, Western powers sought to subordinate peacekeeping to Cold War calculations in which Patrice Lumumba, the nationally elected Prime Minister, would be elbowed out of power in favor of the designated President, Moise Tshombe and his allies: the Belgium-allied army officer, Mobutu, and the secessionist leader of the resource-rich Katanga, Joseph Kasavubu.

As events unfolded, it soon appeared to the governments of Egypt, Ghana, and Guinea that the bland and neutral language of UN resolutions masked other motivations: to protect client elites and to institute a particular social and economic order deemed necessary by those small elites and external powers. On the ground, Western powers quickly moved from the initial aim of the mission (ensuring stability and self-determination) to support of the leadership of an unelected clientele. In reaction, Egypt, Ghana, and Guinea ordered their troops to disobey UN orders and to support the elected prime minister and head of government, Patrice Lumumba. The African states denounced Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the UN, and the Eisenhower Administration, for subverting UN procedures and mandates in an open attempt to subordinate the postcolonial desire for self-determination to Cold War contentions. Similar scenarios unfolded in Rhodesia (under the US so-called Tar Baby option) as well as during the South West Africa dispute and the anti-apartheid struggle (under US Constructive engagement policy). In these and other contexts, the principle of African self-determination was subordinated by the West to extraneous considerations including Cold War calculations and the desire to protect the interest of local allies. Thus in Southern Africa, for instance, the Nixon and Reagan administrations sought to devised political arrangements that would maintain white minority control of the economy upon the end of the Ian Smith regime in Zimbabwe and that of Apartheid in Namibia and South Africa.

There are parallels between those contestations and today’s disagreement between the African Union and the West over Libya. Granted, Gaddafi is not Lumumba or Mandela. This is not the point. The point is whether Western powers are at this moment in history constitutively disposed toward global democracy and, subsequently, whether they can be trusted to adhere to the formal procedures and norms of international organizations; to comply with their own self-ascribed mandate as stipulated by their own resolutions; and to be accountable to others for their own transgressions. To the extent that my memory serves me well, I do not recall any Western actions in Africa that have been subjected to the established rules of democratic consultation, political transparency, or even accountability. Nor, it seems, can any of the African leaders today, who did not want to endorse another open-ended mandate against a state whose behavior they could not control and from a Western military organization that has not generally been accustomed to external examination.

Nothing from the ground war and the politics of intervention in Libya today ensures that the unfolding of events will produce different outcome than they did in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa. Once again, intervention began with admirable pretenses based on an otherwise unimpeachable resolution. To wit, the mandates of this spring’s UN Security Council Resolution 1973 are: 1) the ‘immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians’; 2) ‘the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people,’ aided by a Special Envoy to Libya and the Peace and Security Council of the African Union; 3) compliance by ‘Libyan authorities comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law’; 4) the protection of ‘civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory,’; and 5) the recognition of the primary responsibility of ‘the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region.’ These measures were to be complimented with the enforcement of a no-fly zone and an arms embargo.

The dimension of the resolution seldom discussed outside Africa is one that disenfranchises Africa from the processes and mechanisms of dispute settlement in Libya. To be sure, the UN resolution recognizes that the actions of the Libyan government had been condemned by the League of Arab States, the African Union, and the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But its authors trampled upon international conventions by determining that all concerns be directed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States in recognition of the ‘the important role of the League of Arab States in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region.’ In other words, the Western coalition had the power to decree the law and prescribe its interpretation, but also could negate the efforts of those working for a ceasefire and peaceful resolution.

From the perspective of the Western coalition, the sin of African states was one of gullibility: to have believed that the first three mandates of the resolution mattered. Africans, in other words, could not understand that the task at hand was to remove Gaddafi and that resolutions merely make references to mediation to appease equally gullible domestic constituencies and the media. What is even more telling is that the Western coalition, all of them former colonial powers, decided unilaterally and as a matter of sovereign right that Libya was an Arab, not an African state and hence, the African Union had no authority over the North African region. These actions were not merely contemptuous of Africa and Africans. (Africans are used to that.) From an institutional perspective, the scale and speed with which the West dispensed with decades-old UN procedures of integrating regional organizations into dispute resolutions was extraordinary.

It appears today however that Resolution 1973 has only vague bearing on the current course of Western intervention. Whereas it was proposed as an element of the resolution of the conflict between Gaddafi and his opponents, the implementation of this UN act has become less than satisfactory to African leaders on the whole. As a result, Africans became skeptical of not only the scale and nature of Western intervention but also the justifications offered by the coalition acting against the Libyan regime. The first justification at the time of intervention was that the situation in Libya presented a unique danger for the civilian populations. Western media commentators echoed the running sentiment that Gaddafi could not be trusted to deploy tanks around cities and towns because he would be tempted to totally obliterate them. Yet, only a few years ago, the Western media treated their African listeners to arguments on Gaddafi’s pragmatism. The occasion was the Libyan leader’s decision to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Then, there was no question that Gaddafi was capable of exercising judgment and restraint. The more disingenuous argument to date has been that Gaddafi’s regime was less trustworthy than those of Yemen and Bahrain (and lately, Syria) on the use of military violence against civilians. It is clear to any observing commentator today that state violence in Yemen and Bahrain more directly transgress international humanitarian conventions that prohibit targeting people because of their ethnicity (rival tribes in Yemen) or religion (Shi’i Muslims in Bahrain).

The other justification for intervention was that Gaddafi attacked unarmed civilians. In the initial moments of the revolt, a peaceful demonstration was indeed met by certifiably criminal state power. However, the revolt in Libya did not remain nonviolent to anywhere near the same degree as events elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. In Libya, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, EU member states and the US encouraged the so-called democratic movement in Libya in its transformation into an armed insurgency centered on Benghazi. As the insurgency grew, it took over towns upon towns in its failed march on Tripoli. It did not concern the Western coalition that the insurgent were attacking city dwellers. It sufficed that the victimized urban denizens were described as supporters of the Gaddafi regime. In short, whereas adversaries of Western-allied regimes received unmitigated signals from the West to refrain from violence (an injunction often ignored in some cases), Libyan insurgents were hailed as brave and heroic when they attached supposed supporters or assets of the regime. The seeming contrast with Western responses to like repression in the same region arising from the same concerns is not happenstance or a momentary lapse from consistency. It is the way the West has conducted foreign policy since its ascent to hegemony at the beginning of the modern era.

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One thought on “Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

  1. Pingback: Looking Beyond Spring (Grovogui) « AUTONOMIZANDO

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