World Defense Review


Published 16 Mar 10

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Libya as an African Power

Last Tuesday, just days after asserting that "we've said all we're going to say publicly" and refusing a chance to retract his offhand comments about Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley was back telling the press that he and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman had called on the Libyan ambassador to explain that the "comments did not reflect U.S. policy and were not intended to offend." Repeating his apology, Crowley expressed remorse that his words had "become an obstacle to further progress in our bilateral relationship" and his "hope that we can use ongoing dialogue at high levels to continue to advance the U.S.-Libyan relationship." That this public mea culpa for what were, quite frankly, embarrassingly maladroit remarks for someone who is supposed to head the Bureau of Public Affairs, was even necessary is quite extraordinary. But that the State Department moved so quickly to repair the breach, dispatching Ambassador Feltman to Tripoli this week for bilateral consultations, is a clear sign of how far relations between the United States and Libya have come since 2003, when the Qadhafi regime renounced its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and agreed to offer compensation to the families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

This episode, however, is just one of many that could be cited as evidence that there has indeed been a change in Libya's foreign policy, one that behooves those not wedded to ideological conceptions of the world to acknowledge. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in what is emerging as one of the most strategically important geopolitical spaces in the twenty-first century, Africa. While considerable attention has been given to the activities of China, India, Russia, Japan, and other new or returning international actors in Africa, there has not been much focus on what regional powers on the continent are doing. Among these is certainly Libya, which has been consolidating its ties to and expanding its influence with other African countries.

For the first two decades after the "Al Fatah" Revolution of 1969 overthrew the Senussi monarchy, Libyan foreign policy was centered on the Arab world and the achievement of Arab unity. Hardly a year passed without a chimerical attempt to unify with Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, or some other Arab state. Most of the time, the other states were all too happy to play along with the schemes for a while in order to benefit from Libya's oil wealth—the country has the largest petroleum reserves in Africa—without making any binding commitments. For example, according to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, former editor-in-chief of Egypt's government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, the Egyptians accepted over $10 billion from Libya between 1970 and 1973 to prepare for its 1973 war with Israel only to turn around in 1977 and fight a border war with their neighbors to the west.

The Arab unity cherished by the Libyans proved bitterly elusive when, in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing and, beginning in 1992, the imposition of a United Nations embargo on flights to and from Libya and other sanctions, not one Arab country, including some of the beneficiaries of Colonel Qadhafi's largesse, was prepared to stand by Tripoli. Making things worse, the collapse of the Soviet Union at almost the same moment deprived Libya of the support of a superpower. As a result, the Libyan regime began once again to pay greater attention to Africa where it had supported numerous independence movements—including those of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—in the 1970s. Less constructive were Libya's military actions in Chad related to the contested Aouzou Strip, although Tripoli withdrew in 1981 and accepted the International Court of Justice decision in favor of N'Djamena's sovereignty in 1994.

As I documented in my two books on the West African wars of the 1990s and reported here several years ago, some of the initial forays in the Libyan return to Africa in the early 1990s were nothing short of catastrophic for Africans, especially the backing of warlord Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front/Sierra Leone (RUF/SL) which unleashed more than decade of havoc across West Africa from which the subregion is just barely recovering.

Eventually, however, Tripoli turned to more conventional statecraft exchanging financial aid for diplomatic engagement. After several years of being shunned internationally, Colonel Qadhafi was receiving state visits by the heads of state of countries in the Sahel, including Presidents Alpha Oumar Konaré of Mali (later chairperson of the African Union Commission), Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, and Idriss Déby Itno of Chad, and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia. The breakout came in 1997 when the annual summit of Organization of African Unity foreign ministers was held in Qadhafi's hometown of Sirte (some of the diplomats attending were only able to do so because Libya paid their country's arrears to the pan-African organization, thus restoring their voting rights). The foreign ministers also set up a five-member committee to mediate between Libya and the West over the Lockerbie dispute. On the heels of the summit, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni and South Africa's President Nelson Mandela both visited Tripoli. African backing proved critical to the breakdown of the sanctions regime and the subsequent agreement to hand over two Libyan suspects for trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law for the Pan Am bombing.

Meanwhile, Libya's strategic engagements across Africa multiplied—a state of affairs symbolically demonstrated by the change in name of the country's state broadcaster from the "Voice of the Greater Arab Homeland" to the "Voice of Africa." In 1998, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (Communauté des Etats Sahélo-Sahariens, CEN-SAD) was established with permanent headquarters in Tripoli. The charter members of the CEN-SAD were Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Sudan. The following year, the Central African Republic and Eritrea joined, followed by Djibouti, The Gambia, and Senegal in 2000. In the ensuing years, sixteen other countries, some quite far from either Sahel or Sahara—Benin, Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Tunisia—have become members (as did the Somali interim "government" that was active in 2001). According to the treaty establishing it, CEN-SAD's objectives include the establishment of an economic union based on the implementation of a community development plan that complements the sustainable development plans of individual member states; the removal of all restrictions hampering the integration of the member countries through the adoption of necessary measures to ensure the free movement of persons, capital, goods, and services of their nationals; the promotion of external trade through investment in community members; and the increase of land, air and maritime transport and communications links among member states and the undertaking of common infrastructure projects.

While there is an annual CEN-SAD summit, so far the most effective institution of the intergovernmental organization seems to be the Sahel-Saharan Investment and Trade Bank with an authorized capital of 250 million euros, most of which has been contributed by the Libyan government, although a modest peacekeeping mission, consisting of troops from Djibouti, Libya, and Sudan was sent to the Central African Republic in January 2002, remaining there until relieved in November of that year by a force from the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States (CEMAC). Unfortunately for the Central African Republic's democratically-elected president, Ange-Félix Patassé, the CEMAC force proved incapable of preventing his overthrow four months later while he was attending the annual CEN-SAD summit, meeting that year in Niamey, Niger.

Even the creation of the African Union in place of the tired Organization of African Unity has a Libyan connection that is usually glossed over. In response to an initiative promoted by Tripoli, the OAU Assembly of African Heads of State and Government met in extraordinary session for only the fourth time in its nearly forty-year history at Sirte in September 1999. In the resulting "Sirte Declaration," the African leaders professed to have been "inspired by the important proposals submitted by Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, Leader of the Great Al-Fatah Libyan Revolution, and particularly, by his vision for a strong and united Africa, capable of meeting global challenges and shouldering its responsibility to harness the human and natural resources of the continent in order to improve the living conditions of its peoples" and resolved to "establish an African Union" better able to "cope with the challenges and to effectively address the new social, political, and economic realities in Africa and in the world." The declaration was followed by summits at Lomé in 2000, when the Constitutive Act of the African Union was adopted; at Lusaka in 2001, when the plan for the implementation of the African Union was adopted; and at Durban in 2002, when the first Assembly of the new organization was held. While the still-maturing AU has fallen short of both Qadhafi's vision of a borderless "United States of Africa" and its own lofty ideals, my friend Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of Pretoria is probably correct in his assessment that, overall, the AU has "presented Libya with a prime platform from which to project its foreign policy objectives towards the rest of the African continent and presented Colonel Qadhafi with the perfect vehicle to further his continental ambitions."

Since its reengagement with Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya's economic reach across the continent has grown considerably, powered by the substantial revenues from the country's energy sector coupled with a relatively small population among which that wealth has to be shared. Thus, while weakness in global prices for hydrocarbons in 2009 reduced economic growth to about 4 percent, down from the near 6 percent experienced in previous years, Libya remains economically one of the best positioned African states. With foreign investment and technology to rehabilitate equipment and infrastructure that has deteriorated considerably since the peak period of the early 1970s, Libya could potentially double its oil production and thus be in an even stronger position to economically engage its African counterparts.

Tripoli has put part of the riches it already has to use assisting African countries, especially since the establishment several years ago of the Libyan Fund for Aid and Development in Africa, a branch of the Secretariat of the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation which focuses on basic infrastructure, agricultural, power and water projects and similar development initiatives as well as responds to humanitarian crises on the continent whenever the need arises. Appropriately enough given the destruction that the RUF cadres Libya once trained and armed literally cut through Sierra Leone, one of the Libyan Fund's projects in the West African country has been an attempt to revive its agricultural sector. A similar effort is underway in Liberia where, in early 2008, Libya formed a joint venture with a local nongovernmental organization, the Foundation for African Development Aid (ADA), to invest $30 million in a 15,000-hectare farm in northwestern Lofa County that the group had received from the Liberian government. The plan, which was implemented last year on an initial 1,700-hectare plot, is to introduce high-yield hybrid rice into Liberia and to grow it commercially on a large scale, thus potentially bridging the gap between current local production and demand, thus minimizing the country's dependence on food imports.

Considerably more important than its role as a donor of development assistance has been Libya's role as an investor in Africa. A government entity, the Libya African Portfolio for Investments (LAP), overseen by the country's main sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), numbers among its companies the Libyan Arab African Investment Company (LAAICO), which has a mandate to promote business growth in Africa by investing in sectors as diverse as agriculture, mining, manufacturing, real estate development, telecommunications, and tourism. Currently, LAAIC has holdings in some more than two dozen African countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo (Brazzaville), Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Another LAP company, the Oil Libya Holding Company (formerly Tamoil Africa), is engaged in refining, marketing and distribution of petroleum products in a similar number of African countries. In Morocco, for example, the Libyans have invested more than $5 billion to acquire about 200 gas stations, approximately 10 percent of the local market. Yet another LAP asset, LAP Green, has had telecommunications operations in Côte d'Ivoire, Niger, Rwanda, and Uganda. Last month LAP Green acquired 80 percent of Gemtel in South Sudan and the company has been shortlisted among the suitors seeking to acquire a 75-percent stake in the Zambia Telecommunications Company (Zamtel) being offered by the Zambia Development Agency.

As their own access to the high tech markets of the world has been reopened, Libyan firms have become deeply involved in promoting technology in Africa. For example, RascomStar-QAF, a company registered in Mauritius but financed by LAP, has the agreement to provide the first dedicated satellite telecommunication project for Africa under the aegis of the Regional African Satellite Communication Organization (RASCOM). The joint project is intended to provide telecommunication services, direct TV broadcasts, and internet access in rural areas of Africa.

Uganda is a good example of a case where Libya's investments have served its strategic objectives while simultaneously helping the target country's economic and social development. There are few African countries where Tripoli's past interventions were so much on the wrong side of history. In late 1971, following a meeting with Qadhafi, Ugandan despot Idi Amin expelled several hundred Israeli advisors and later broke diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The following year, during Idi Amin's first confrontation with Tanzania over an abortive counterattack by former President Milton Obote, Libya airlifted arms and Palestinian commandos to defend the regime. In 1978, after the blustering Ugandan tyrant made the mistake of formally declaring war on Tanzania, more than three thousand Libyans—a mix of regular army and militia—fought in the front lines trying, unsuccessfully, to stop a combined invasion of the Tanzanian People's Defense Force and various Ugandan opposition forces, including the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) led by Yoweri Museveni. As the invaders advanced with little resistance, Idi Amin went into exile, first in Libya and later in Saudi Arabia. As for the Libyan expeditionary force, it was forced to retreat and was eventually repatriated through Kenya and Ethiopia.

Since that period, however, relations have improved dramatically, in part because, as Museveni recounts in his autobiography Sowing the Mustard Seed, Libyan Ilyushin-76 planes parachuted in 800 rifles and 800,000 rounds of ammunitions the Ugandan leader's National Resistance Army (NRA) had purchased during a critical moment in the subsequent struggle against the repressive regime Obote had established after Idi Amin fled the country. Currently at least $500 million in Libyan capital is participating in Uganda's growing economy. Libya owns a 49-percent stake in the National Housing and Construction Company (NHCC), a public enterprise with a mandate to increase the housing stock in the country, rehabilitate the housing industry, and encourage Ugandans to own homes in an organized environment. Libya also owns 69 percent of Uganda Telecom Limited (the Ugandan government owns the other 31 percent), where its capital has been used to aggressively expand the company's market share. In a joint venture with the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), Libya has invested in a soluble coffee plant that adds value to Ugandan production by making it compliant with European standards. Libya also has the contract to build an extension of the Mombasa-Eldoret oil pipeline in Kenya to the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The extension will be designed to permit reverse flow once Uganda begins its own petroleum production. Earlier this year, a team from Oil Libya visited Uganda to explore the possibility of building an oil refinery.

In recent years, perhaps aided by their country's economic heft, Libyan diplomats have proven themselves surprisingly adept mediators of African conflicts. Their successes include the brokering of the deal that led to the departure of Chadian forces from the Congo and the facilitation of the thaw between Uganda and the regime in Kinshasa. Tripoli has also hosted discussions between the Sudanese government and the various factions in Darfur.

The Qadhafi regime's decision in 2003 to abandon its WMD program, settle the Lockerbie claims, and give up its hitherto support of international terrorism (the United States removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2007) led to the lifting of numerous economic and trade restrictions as well as the ban on American citizens doing business there. The potential economic and political rewards of deciding to work with instead of against Washington may actually strengthen Tripoli's capacity in dealings with the rest of the African continent, especially the poorer states of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Given some of the anti-Western, post-colonial rhetoric that has emanated from Tripoli over the years, it may be surprising for some to learn that since the thaw in bilateral relations with Washington, Libya has even demonstrated greater openness to the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) than some other states on the continent. AFRICOM Commander General William E. "Kip" Ward actually traveled to Libya twice in 2009 and met with Colonel Qadhafi—at the very least it was a warmer reception than the one the general received just two years earlier from South Africa's former defense minister, Mosioua Lekota, who not only refused to even respond to a formal request for a meeting, but went on to publically threaten any African countries that broke ranks with his self-declared boycott of the command. In any event, in January 2009, the United States and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding on defense contact and cooperation. Theresa Whelan, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, characterized the accord as signaling that the two countries now have military-to-military relations and would work together in fields of mutual interest such as peacekeeping, maritime security, counterterrorism and African security and stability. Apparently, while Libya remains opposed to the introduction on non-African military forces to the continent on a permanent basis, the objections do not preclude potential cooperation with the security capacity building mission of the AFRICOM.

Thus last May, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell arrived in Tubruq for a three-day port visit that was the first of any U.S. military vessel to Libya in more than four decades. During the visit, which occurred under the aegis of the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, the crew of the Alameda, California-based Boutwell conducted various training and leadership exchanges with Libyan maritime enforcement personnel and also participated in several cultural exchanges. Subsequently, a group of Libyan defense and military officials were hosted on a visit on the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower as it cruised through Mediterranean. The visits were returned in September when a delegation of three senior Libyan officers visited AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, as well as U.S. Air Force Africa headquarters at Ramstein Air Base. During the officers' visit, General Ward gave an unprecedented interview to Al-Musallh, the official journal of the Libyan armed forces, in which he described his discussions of African security matters with Qadhafi and "we look forward to working together in ways that help us achieve those common objectives for peace and stability."

And it is not just African security, strictly speaking, that is at stake. Libya is a major transit hub for clandestine immigration and human trafficking of Africans and Asians to Europe—it should be recalled that the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first European landfall for many of these migrants, is closer to the North African shore than it is to Sicily. Hence any effort to reduce human trafficking, save lives, and defeat the criminal gangs engaged in this abuse will clearly require Tripoli's cooperation.

In the interest of renewing links to professionals in the Libyan military and security services after a nearly four-decade hiatus, the Bush administration requested $350,000 in State Department-administered International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding for Libya in fiscal year 2009. The Obama administration requested the same amount for the current fiscal year, specifying that the funding would be used for English language education as well as courses on civil-military relations, border security, and counterterrorism (Libya has been invited to join the U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership). In addition, the Obama administration budget also allocated, for the first time ever, a token $250,000 in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to provide assistance to the Libyan air force in developing its air transport capabilities and to the Libyan coast guard in improving its coastal patrol and search-and-rescue operations. As significant as these steps may be, there is no reason why bilateral cooperation should not extend to other spheres. As Saif Aleslam al-Qadhafi, noted at the start of the U.S. rapprochement with his father: "Libya does not envisage limiting relations to fighting terrorism. It proposes joint efforts, for example, to meet the needs of Africa by eradicating disease and promoting investment."

Muammar al-Qadhafi recently stepped down from his one-year term as chair of the African Union, having used his tenure to continue his advocacy for a "United States of Africa" where colonial borders are erased. While the idea may well prove to be another one of the Libyan leader's pipedreams, there is no denying that Libya has been largely successful in redefining itself as an African country and reinventing the "Brotherly Guide" as a champion of African peoples and causes. Given his many instances of rogue behavior over the years—including not a few in Africa—as well as his continuing eccentricities, there is reason to be cautious, if not wary, of both Qadhafi's intentions and the sustainability of a foreign policy that remains heavily influenced by a larger-than-life personality. Nevertheless one thing that American policymakers, analysts, and businesses cannot afford to do as they increase their own engagements with Africa is to ignore the significant role that Libya has carved out for itself as a political and economic force on the continent. To this end, engagement, constructive but without sacrificing the critical faculties, is the best course for advancing U.S. national interests in Africa as well as those of the peoples of the continent.

J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.

© 2010 J. Peter Pham

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