Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi was on Sunday, February1, 2009 elected Chairman of African Union after a secret ballot. A hard-earned leadership perhaps after many years of arm-twisting tactics deployed by the sixty-seven year old Maghreb maverick to lead the Union.
Many Africans are aware of Gaddafi's desire to unite the continent, and many support him, not least because he has the financial muscle to buy his fellow African leaders to toe his line, but there is a sudden feeling of urgency fueled by the global financial downturn, which, if not heeded might wipe out the continent's dwindling fortunes as a power broker, at least on the economic front.
By choosing Gaddafi to head the African Union, the 53-member body hopes to lessen the economic burden that awaits the continent in 2009and beyond, as well as put an end to the disasters in Dafur, Zimbabwe and Somalia and the disgrace in Guinea, Mauritania and Madagascar. But would overbearing Gaddafi spread his country's wealth around or teach his colleagues how to spend wisely? The latter of course, is the common sense option.
At least there is evidence of such economic prudence. Gaddafi's hold on Libya, for four decades has been far more beneficial to Libyans than was achieved by other despots such as Mobutu or his latter-day incarnate, Mugabe. Their forte was only to kill and maim for selfish political gains. Libya, with its "repressed" ranking by the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, had in the past three years attracted more foreign investment and made positive efforts at building its international image than any of the forty-four African countries that were either ranked "mostly free" or "mostly unfree" by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal Index.
The CIA World Fact Book reports that Libya posted a real GDP growth rate of 7.3% and a GDP per capita of $14,900 in 2008, outdoing Mauritius, the 'freest economy' in Africa, at 5.8% and $12,400 respectively. By the end of year 2012, Libya would have spent $149 billion on infrastructure, coincidentally, the same amount looted through grand corruption by other African leaders in a year. There is a lesson to be learnt from the Libyan 'miracle' especially having just come out from the cold of international isolation.
That lesson is not protectionism, but rather more openness to trade, ideas and good governance -a message that was overshadowed by empty talk of a grand political union for Africa at this year's conference.
However, the status quo works to Gaddafi's advantage, as not only is his radicalist and illusory union project bolstered, but his honestly expressed desire to be the grand master of this grand vision his forebear, Kwame Nkrumah dreamt of. Continental union was the founding principle of the original Organisation of African Unity but it never stood a chance due to competing egos among the leaders at the time.
Whilst African leaders are not known for sharing power, much less yielding it to an 'outsider', it remains to be seen whether Gaddafi's plan for a political union, with him as the first "King of Kings" (a title he imposed on himself) will materialise. Meanwhile, Gaddafi is knowingly attempting to usurp the sovereignty of constitutionally elected leaders by working with traditional authorities from across the continent to prosecute his agenda. Traditional leaders are barred by many national constitutions from participating in active party politics. Despite complaints by some political leaders against elevating traditional rulers to the level of the presidency, Gadaffi showed up with some of the traditional rulers at the AU meeting, choosing to seat with them whilst reading his inaugural speech.
Perhaps it is a manifestation of the hidden disdain he has for his colleagues who neglect the real issues that unify Africa- poverty, disease, malnutrition, corruption, war and now higher food prices and a clear danger of higher energy prices.
Gaddaffi should not think that ideology and fine concepts will do the trick for Africa. We have had plenty and they have kept us backward when hundreds of millions in Asia were building a better life. Our growth and prosperity depends on proven common sense and breaking the economic shackles that still enslave us.
We need to focus on creating more opportunities for economic development that benefits all, whilst respecting basic freedoms of ordinary Africans. Gaddafi has achieved the former with Libya, whilst learning to cope with differing opinions in his backyard. It is time he taught the rest of Africa how to fish from rivers they own rather than push us into artificial pools of crocodiles, some named Union, Federation and Coalition.
Franklin Cudjoe is editor of www.AfricanLiberty.org and executive director of Ghanaian think tank, IMANI. This year, IMANI was named the sixth most influential think tank in Africa by Foreign Policy magazine.
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