I read it as an expression of a strand of Africanist discourse which has wended its way through debates about Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, and now Libya, among others. Specifically, the question of the need for ‘African solutions for African problems’, and whether and how Western intervention- in this case militarily but also through other methods, such as sanctions against Zimbabwe- undermines Africa’s attempt to manage its own affairs.

Perhaps I should state at the outset that I share the aim of the letter’s authors for African self-determination, peace, democracy, and shared prosperity. Accordingly, it is imperative that all of our contributions to these pressing questions be evaluated based on their merit in meaningfully and practically advancing these fundamental human necessities.

There are three main areas in which I would like to engage the Mbeki letter: the question of humanitarian intervention in general- is it the solution to this, or other African problems; the implications for realpolitik, how does Mbeki’s advocacy affect the leaders involved; and finally the question of African agency.

Firstly, let’s look at the facts on the ground. I found interesting the way the Mbeki letter framed the initial crisis which prompted the UN Security Council to respond. According to the letter:

“The Security Council allowed itself to be informed by what the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its June 6, 2011 Report on Libya characterises as the “more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators”.”

If we are going to debate appropriate solutions for African problems, we must first be clear on what these problems are. In this case, and according to the same ICG report the Mbeki letter cites, mounting democratic protests against the regime- initially peaceful, though with a violent element as well- were met with violent repression by Qadaffi. The report is unequivocal that Qaddafi was prepared to use all available means to remain in power: 

“…unlike his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, Qaddafi made it clear he had absolutely no intention of standing down and declared that he would fight until the bitter end and by whatever means necessary to hold on to power.”

The report doesn’t quantify how many citizens were harmed by the state’s violent response, and describes as sensational reports that the air force was used for mass slaughter. But the report continues: “That said, the repression was real enough, and its brutality [this author: i.e. firing on civilians at the funerals of civilians fired upon at protests] shocked even Libyans.”

The report also tells us that the nature of the Libyan regime practically ensured a violent, life or death struggle. All political, military and institutional power had been organized around Qadaffi and a trusted family, clan and tribal network. In practical terms, Qadaffi was the state:

“These various features of the political order help explain why the logic of civil war set in so quickly after the first demonstrations. The protest movement’s early demand that Qaddafi leave unavoidably implied not simply his departure and regime change, but rather the overthrow or collapse of the entire order that he established. The distinction between the state on the one hand and the regime on the other, which was crucial to enabling the Tunisian and Egyptian armies to act as neutral buffers and mediators in the conflict between people and presidency, was impossible to make.”

So the facts according to the report cited by the Mbeki letter were that Qaddafi’s government’s response to the type of popular democratic protest- which were initially peaceful in the main- was violent repression, killing and injuring hundreds, and as long as those mass protests were to continue to insist on Qadaffi stepping down, that violent repression could be expected to continue. This was of course, exacerbated by the protests turning violent, and an element of the opposition choosing to take up arms against the Qadaffi regime, drawing an even more forceful military response. Thus, in effect, the African problem requiring solution here, was that the democratic demands of a significant plurality of Libyans, locked them into a life or death struggle with Qaddafi.

Having established the problem, we can then discuss what is the appropriate solution. The first tension I identify in the Mbeki letter, is a disagreement on whether it is ever at all appropriate for anyone in the international community to intervene with force. First the letter seems to dismiss the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) as an emerging principle in international law, despite its broad resonance with the norms of intervention endorsed by the AU, such as provisions to intervene in member states in cases ofwar crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity”.

I would think despite disagreements on the precise definitions of the above terms, we can agree that while the actions of the Libyan security forces was not genocidal, it certainly constituted unconscionable crimes against the Libyan people. At the point at which an African state wages war against its own citizens, with no public institutions capable of constraining it- unlike in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases- what are we to do?

It is this immediate need to stop hostility, which the Mbeki letter does not adequately confront. It appears to disagree with any forcefully imposed response, which is at odds with the position of the Arab League and the South African government, among other regional actors, who agreed with imposition of a no fly zone and related efforts to constrain Qadaffi’s military, while opposing the use of the resolution to effect regime change.

So while I don’t necessarily endorse the NATO response, I don’t think the Mbeki letter acknowledges a current, fundamental weakness in Africa’s current peace and security framework, which is that we aren’t very good at stopping belligerents from terrorizing civilians. Under the AU, well meaning leaders struggle to build the collective will to intervene forcefully against autocrats, and often are constrained by financial resources and military capacity.

The solution from Mbeki et al is the AU roadmap, which is, essentially, an AU-facilitated process of negotiation, first to establish a ceasefire, and secondly to establish a democratic transition among the parties. While SA and the AU have a proud record of resolving conflict and brokering peace, this too often does little to address the immediate problem of people under threat. As we saw with Darfur, there is a danger of autocrats negotiating in bad faith, and continuing violent repression, while clinging to power. We’ve seen powerful leaders like Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe run circles around AU negotiators, while flouting the democratic norms the AU is attempting to entrench. Qadaffi was likely to be able to do the same, especially because of his entrenched support within the AU, due in part to his dispensing of petro-patronage to political leaders and parties around the continent through the years.

So while negotiation is noble and necessary, it is not the answer to every problem. President Mbeki may have principled reasons for steadfastly proposing negotiation as the answer to the occasional conflicts and democratic breakdowns which mar African civilization, but we must acknowledge that they too have weaknesses, limitations, and unintended consequences, the most important of which is a rising human toll while wily despots hide behind the painfully slow processes of diplomacy.
My second concern is more practical. Gadaffi in Libya joins Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire as discredited African leaders with dwindling support, under pressure from the West, who find safety in the form of Mbeki’s insistence on African solutions- in other words voluntary negotiations which one can draw out, or ignore the spirit of as necessary- for African problems.

I understand that Mbeki and those who share his foreign policy approach have principled concerns about African agency and the preferability of good faith engagement to a hard line stance. I am concerned though, that a worrying pattern of inaction is beginning to emerge: African leader violates fundamental legal, democratic and human rights principles, to condemnation in Africa and abroad. Mbeki says the situation is being exaggerated, and the situation must be handled by the AU. Western nations seek to sanction or otherwise pressure African leader to step down. Mbeki insists on an African-led, neutral approach. Citizens of said African nation languish.

Finally, the question of agency. After centuries of disempowerment, being literally robbed of our agency and ability to determine our own destiny through slavery, colonialism, apartheid and neocolonialism, self-determination is rightly a fundamental principle of Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance. However, like all things, that self-determination must be reconciled with practical reality. My Africanism is second to none, but it does not extend to me insisting on Africans suffering for my Africanist pride. If a genuine African solution exists- one that actually solves the problem affecting real African people, not just the concerns of African elites and those not in harm’s way- by all means let us implement it. Where one is not forthcoming, I will not see African’s suffer and languish in nations hobbled by illegitimate rulers to satisfy my own sense of pride and indignation.

Agency is critical, no question. But if we are zealous about protecting African agency, perhaps we should be tougher on those African leaders- Qadaffi, Al Bashir and Mugabe among them- who deny the agency of their people through illegitimate autocracy and despotism. If we would be as sensitive to the agency of ordinary African citizens in relation to their leaders as we are of our own agency in relation to the West, African solutions would be far less elusive indeed.