Paulo Duarte/AP
African Union Chairman Moammar

Gadhafi’s AU Chairmanship Underscores Colonel’s Controversial History

February 04, 2009 07:30 AM
by Josh Katz
Moammar Gadhafi is the new chairman of the African Union. But many question whether the controversial Libyan strongman should lead.

Gadhafi Heads African Union

Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi became the new chairman of the 53-nation African Union on Monday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He takes the reigns of the one-year rotating position from Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the BBC reported.

The International Herald Tribune notes that Gadhafi’s induction as chairman seemed more like a “coronation than a democratic transfer of power,” as he was “dressed in flowing gold robes and surrounded by traditional African leaders who hailed him as the ‘king of kings.’” And many observers are fearful of Gadhafi’s volatile history, which includes reputed terrorist involvement and dictatorial policies. But Gadhafi has recently taken strides to improve ties with former enemies like the United States.

Gadhafi was the frontrunner for the position. His goal is to bring together the African nations in a “United States of Africa,” which could be a force in the international community. He wants a single currency, army and passport for all the African countries, and says he will initiate a vote on the subject when the AU meets for its next summit in July, the Tribune wrote.

Most members of the union do not want to rush into such a decision, however, and many leaders would prefer to hold onto their sovereignty. But Gadhafi says the AU will follow a new approach to decision making, according to the BBC. His “silence is approval” method means that “at least two-thirds of AU leaders would have to actively oppose Col Gaddafi's proposals, rather than simply ignoring his ideas.”

But J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, feels that Gadhafi’s term could be beneficial. "The Libyans may want to show some utility in their leadership," he said, according to the Tribune. "They have got cash they can use. They have an intelligence service they can use. They have got oil. This is a continent that is really hurting right now. I wonder to what degree people looked at this and thought it may be goofy, but maybe something good will come out of this."

Gadhafi’s chairmanship represents a break from former African Union leaders, who hailed from democratic countries such as Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria, according to the Tribune. He also leads with a transformed AU leadership, where persuasive individuals like Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo are no longer making the decisions.

Key Player: Moammar Gadhafi and the African Union

Moammar Gadhafi

Moammar Gadhafi was born in the Libyan desert to a Bedouin family in 1942. The man who President Ronald Reagan called “mad dog of the Middle-East” is also famous for his “flamboyant dress-sense,” and his team of “gun-toting female body guards,” according to the BBC. He is currently the longest-serving Arab head of state, leading for about 40 years.

Gadhafi graduated from the University of Libya with honors and then went on to complete a British military education. He drew inspiration from Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and his pan-Arab ideals. At the age of 27, Gadhafi overthrew Libyan King Idris I in a bloodless coup in 1969. He then began his “cultural revolution,” expunging the country’s colonial and foreign roots and installing "Jamahiriya,” or "state of the masses,” in which the people allegedly govern through local councils. However, international observers generally consider Libya a military dictatorship, according to Time magazine.

He has backed revolutions in Chad, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Morocco, the Philippines and Iran, and has helped fund the activities of the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian “Black September” movement, infamous for the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, Time writes.

The U.S. bombed the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 after Libya was implicated in the killing of American soldiers in a German disco. Gadhafi’s adopted daughter died in the American attacks.

Libya was also involved in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. The UN hit Libya with heavy sanctions when Gadhafi chose not to extradite suspects, according to Time.

With his country suffering from international economic sanctions, he pulled Libya out of isolation in 2003 when he took responsibility for the Pan Am terrorist attack, paying more than $2.7 billion to the families of the victims. Months later, Gadhafi halted efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction, according to the BBC. His ascendance to the leadership of the African Union is also evidence of his international turnaround.

Although it is not clear who will succeed the aging Gadhafi, observers surmise that one of his sons, the reformist Sayf al-Islam Gadhafi, is the probable choice, the BBC reported.

African Union

The African Union was established in 1999 by the Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity to accelerate “the process of integration in the continent to enable it to play its rightful role in the global economy while addressing multifaceted social, economic and political problems compounded as they are by certain negative aspects of globalization,” according to the official Web site of the African Union.

Related Topic: African Union reprimands Madagascar for political upheaval

The leader of the opposition party in Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, claims to be in power, which elected president Marc Ravalomanana denies. Meanwhile, dozens have died in a week of violent protests. The African Union is condemning the opposition activities in the country, reminding Madagascar that there are rules prohibiting coups. The organization has already prohibited two other African states, Guinea and Mauritania, from a three-day summit. Those two nations have had military coups during the last several months.

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