It was always a risk for African nations to name Libya's Muammar Kaddafi as chairman of the African Union last February. True, he's no longer in the business of blowing up civilian airliners or attempting to build nuclear weapons, and the post was only for a year. How bad could it be? As his tenure as Brother Leader comes to a close, we finally have the answer: in his efforts to embarrass himself and the pan-African institution, he outdid even himself. This weekend probably marks the end of his term, as African heads of state gather in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. They're likely to reject a last-ditch Kaddafi effort to stay on in the AU's top post, for a very long list of reasons.
At last year's summit, Kaddafi—resplendent in copper-colored robes—brought an entourage of golden-crown-wearing African tribal kings to celebrate his ascension. They duly issued a declaration praising Kaddafi's Green Book on Libyan revolution and reiterated a pledge that the Brother Leader is a "king for kings, sultans, princes, sheikhs, and mayors of Africa" in honor of "his sincere keenness to salve them from the evils of ignorance, sickness, and underdevelopment."
In accepting the post last year, Kaddafi compared himself to Barack Obama. "God has created us as blacks," said Kaddafi. "But The Green Book says that black people will prevail over the world, and today the Kenyan son has imposed himself over the United States of America."
Such began a year of silliness in which Kaddafi used his time at the U.N. World Food Summit in Rome to summon "500 beautiful Italian girls" from an Italian escort agency for a personal lecture on Islam; helped the already obscure Pan-African Parliament discredit itself further by eliciting a standing ovation from 40 of its members for the Lockerbie bomber; and proposed abolishing Switzerland.
Kaddafi has never been content being the mere strongman of a sparsely populated patch of sand floating on a giant pool of oil. But when his dreams of a pan-Arabism withered in the 1990s, he became an evangelist of the pan-African movement—and the driving force behind the idea of an immediate formation of a United States of Africa.
And while Kaddafi views himself as the Thomas Jefferson of Africa, few others do—given his history of funding terrorists and assorted African rebel groups, not to mention his outspoken criticism of democracy in Africa. But he nonetheless took the helm of the AU last year proclaiming that Africa was at a key crossroads and he was the man to lead it to unity. "For him, in his mind, he considers that being chairman of the AU is equivalent to being the president of the United States of Africa," says Delphine Lecoutre, a French political scientist at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University.
Nevermind that the AU is more like a smaller and more dysfunctional version of the United Nations than a real government. No doubt, Africa's people would benefit from greater unity, but Kaddafi's dream of a U.S. of Africa is as likely as the union of Israel and Palestine into a united state of Isratine.
Still, Kaddafi's harm to the AU went beyond making cartoonish speeches at the U.N. or calling an August summit in Libya with the intention of ensuring that foreign leaders would attend celebrations of the 40th anniversary of his coup. He has also meddled in the internal affairs of other countries and undermined the policies of the organization he's supposed to lead.
When Mauritania's democratically elected government was toppled in 2008 by the country's military, the AU's peace and security council placed sanctions on the coup leaders and the junta government was expelled from the continental body. But any pressure on coup leader Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz evaporated after Kaddafi, as AU chairman, traveled to the West African country in March and said the deposed president should accept the coup as a "fait accompli." As Lecoutre points out in a forthcoming paper for the Institute for Security Studies, Kaddafi then pressured the AU's security council to lift sanctions on Mauritania in advance of the July elections, which were won by Abdel Aziz, despite opposition claims of fraud.
In September, Kaddafi was blamed for fomenting deadly ethnic riots in Uganda—whose president, Yoweri Museveni, has long been a Libyan foe—by financing the Baganda, a dissident ethnic group. Then in December, Libya was the sole dissenter in an African Union-backed vote at the U.N. Security Council to place sanctions on Eritrea for arming Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents battling AU peacekeepers in Somalia. Libya, as it happens, has its own history of financing Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
Kaddafi's fellow African leaders made efforts to contain him. After the Addis Ababa summit last year, they struck a speech by one of Kaddafi's "kings" from the official record. Prior to the March G20 summit in London on the financial crisis, other African leaders quietly signaled to the British that they could choose between Kaddafi, as head of the AU, or Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, chairman of the near-dead New Partnership for Africa's Development, in inviting an African representative to the meeting. The British chose the latter.
Likewise, African leaders sidelined Kaddafi when they sent the pro-Western Meles to represent Africa at the year's other major international talks: the climate-change summit in Copenhagen last month. "In terms of Africa's credentials abroad, [Kaddafi] is not a good face to show," said one African diplomat, who requested anonymity so as to avoid Libyan diplomatic repercussions. "Can you imagine Kaddafi going to dinner with the queen? The guy was trying to put bombs on planes."
Bingu wa Mutharika, a former U.N. economist who is president of Malawi, looks set to succeed Kaddafi in the AU's top job. His will no doubt have a much more boring tenure. Which is exactly what Africa needs.