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Jean Ping: "Western countries didn’t let the African Union play a role"

Marc de Miramon interviews Jean Ping, former chair of the African Union’s Commission

Translated Sunday 15 June 2014, by Richard Pond

"Was it necessary to kill Muammar Gaddafi?" [1] The question is relevant in light of the hidden civil war that has continued in Libya since 2011. The intervention of the great powers led to the destabilisation of the Sahel region, the looting of the vast arms depots of the "Guide of the Revolution", an explosion in all kinds of trafficking and the spread of the Jihadi peril from the Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa.

As the chairperson of the Commission of African Union, what was your relationship with Gaddafi, who chaired the African Union in 2009?

JP: Abysmal. The problem with Gaddafi is that he thought he could do what he liked - and, obviously, it was impossible for me to follow him because I was accountable for my actions to the African Union’s 54 heads of state.

What motivated you to write this book?

JP: I believe it is very important to set the historical record straight. The African Union was the only organisation in the world to reject foreign military intervention in Libya, and it had proposed a peaceful way out of the crisis. We put forward a five-point plan that consisted of an immediate ceasefire, the putting in place of a consensus-based political transition, excluding Muammar Gadaffi from power - which Libya had accepted. The transition would have had as its objective the preparation of a new constitution, since Libya didn’t have one, and democratic institutions with an eye to holding elections. We weren’t looking to change one man - rather we wanted to change the whole system. We had also warned everyone involved of the risks of destabilisation of the entire Sahel region and of the African continent.

What response did you get?

JP: In Washington, they listened to us with a certain amount of interest. But they told us: "Even if Gaddafi has accepted your plan, he won’t put it into practice." Yet we were already investigating where Gaddafi could go into exile. With five African heads of state as well as the Algerian commissioner who was head of the African Union’s peace and security policy, we had tried to put into action the crisis resolution plan adopted by the AU. We had needed to go to Tripoli on 20th March 2011 and to Benghazi on the 21st. NATO’s bombings had begun on the 19th, the day before we arrived.

Reading your words, it feels like the decision to continue this war to the end had already been taken, and that the attempts at mediation were therefore condemned to failure...

JP: The resolution adopted by the Security Council was based on a series of ruses. It was originally a question of promoting civilian protections and giving humanitarian aid. There was a danger to civilian populations in Benghazi, but we were completely unconvinced that a risk of genocide existed, as certain people had claimed. We were conscious - since the recognition in 2005 of the concept of "responsibility to protect" - that the major powers would make use of the pretext of humanitarian intervention in order to obtain other objectives. With Resolution 1973 we saw China and Russia abstain. By contrast, the three African countries that were then sitting on the UN Security Council (Gabon, South Africa, Nigeria) voted in favour of this resolution. Then at the Paris summit, NATO was given the task of putting this resolution into effect. [2] Two hours after this summit, the bombings began. It’s thus possible to believe that this was a question of a plan that had already been put in place and was executed as rapidly as possible in order to bypass the African Union.

We had no written evidence, but we were convinced that the decision had been taken to liquidate Gaddafi. At my discussions with NATO officials, I wanted to know what their goals were, because we had gone beyond the establishment of an aerial protection zone towards active participation in what had become a civil war. I said to them, "Will you fix the problem by killing Gaddafi? Everywhere you’ve intervened, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, are the results persuasive?" On the other hand, in those places where there was no military intervention to resolve a political crisis - we might cite Tunisia, Algeria or indeed Yemen - we’ve been able not only to make peace but to maintain it and to find a solution that doesn’t plunge the country into chaos.

Why this determination on the part of France, the US and Britain to kill Gaddafi?

JP: I think the case of Libya has some similarities with that of Iraq, with the notable difference that Gaddafi had "settled down". He had become respectable again, he was co-operating with all the Western intelligence agencies, President Sarkozy had gone to Libya after the Bulgarian nurses had been set free... One might put forward a number of possible explanations: the ample reserves of Libyan oil located just opposite Europe; a desire for revenge against a man who had committed a number of criminal acts in the past; internal electoral reasons. Gaddafi also believed that the African continent was his own sphere of influence.

In your book, you mention the figure of 50,000 dead as a result of the NATO intervention in Libya. Where do you get that figure?

JP: These are figures that have been circulated within the African Union. It matters little who gave us them, whether it was internal sources or indeed the Red Cross. And again, these are among the lowest estimates. But in Libya, no one was counting the dead: it was a question of trying to hide something. Even if Gaddafi had gone through with military action in Benghazi, the fatalities would never had been that many.

As a backdrop to your book, we sensed that Africans felt deep humiliation faced with a form of recolonisation of the continent by European powers.

JP: I am not sure that we should talk of a process of recolonisation: has Africa really been decolonised anyway? Rather, I describe it as a bias involving wanting to force Africans to be happy in spite of ourselves. It’s a hurtful and humiliating attitude, one that can be linked to the Dakar speech that Nicolas Sarkozy made, saying that Africans had not yet come back into history. Western countries effectively didn’t allow the African Union to participate in this part of Libya’s history. But the continent of Africa has more than a billion inhabitants, which is twice the population of Europe, and Africa’s surface area is ten times greater. How can we believe that Africa’s marginalisation might continue indefinitely?

Key dates:

  • 13th January 2011. The first protests in Libya demanding reforms and even the departure of Gaddafi.
  • 17th February. Demonstrations and violent, armed confrontations in Benghazi.
  • 21st February. The struggle extends to Tripoli. Sheikh Qaradawi, éminence grise of the Muslim Brotherhood exiled in Qatar, calls for the assassination of Gaddafi.
  • 28th February. The day after the National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed, the US deploys a number of warships off the Libyan coast.
  • 17th March. The UN Security Council votes for Resolution 1973, followed shortly afterwards by NATO’s first bombardments of Libya.
  • 20th October. After several months of fighting, Sirte, the last pro-Gaddafi bastion, falls into the hands of the insurgents. The "Guide" is executed the same day, having tried to flee the city.

[1’Eclipse sur l’Afrique. Fallait-il tuer Gaddafi?’ by Jean Ping. Published by Editions Michalon, 2014. 220 pages, 17 euros.

[2Paris summit: An international summit that brought together the EU and the Arab League, in the presence of the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon and the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. No African head of state attended.

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