Muammar Gaddafi & the African Union: For a United Africa!

In the late 1990s, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya started propagating his vision of a unified Africa. His ideas inspired leaders across the continent, eventually forming the African Union.

Apr 12, 2023By Ilias Luursema, MA & BA Middle Eastern Studies

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By the 1990s, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), an international organization consisting of nearly all African states, was failing to achieve meaningful results. The OAU had been focusing on realizing political and economic integration among its members, but progress was slow. It was only in 1998, when the leader Muammar Gaddafi stepped forward, that plans to reform the OAU began to materialize. Under his initiative, African unity was firmly put back on the agenda.


Gaddafi is known as a controversial figure. His alleged involvement in the bombing of planes and buildings, and his support for organizations classified terrorist by many nations are a stain on his reputation. It is often overlooked that Gaddafi was also an inspiring leader capable of unifying influential figures under his vision. He defied the world’s major powers and stood with marginalized nations and peoples. As a leader, he was beloved by many, and in Africa in particular.


Who Was Muammar Gaddafi?

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The Muammar Gaddafi Story, via BBC


Muammar Gaddafi was a military leader and politician who served as Libya’s de facto head of state from 1969 to 2011.


Colonel Gaddafi seized power in a 1969 military coup. After overthrowing the monarchy, he declared the establishment of a Libyan Arab Republic modeled after his own revolutionary ideals.

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Gaddafi’s rule was widely considered authoritarian and oppressive, as he controlled the country through a mix of military force and political repression. Under his reign, however, living standards in Libya improved considerably.


Utilizing Libya’s large oil reserves, Gaddafi implemented a welfare state and developed the country of Bedouins into Africa’s wealthiest nation. To this day, many Libyans look back at the period of Gaddafi’s reign positively.


Internationally, Gaddafi was widely considered to be a hard-mouthed contrarian who defied the established world order. As a result, few countries stood with Gaddafi in 2011 when protests against his rule started.


In February 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, people in Libya’s Eastern province of Cyrenaica took to the streets. When Libyan security forces failed to shut down the protests, people around the country rose up in revolt.


In the months that followed, government forces began to reclaim rebel-held territory. Reports of mass civilian casualties began to spread, prompting the United Nations (UN) to convene a meeting. After voting on whether to intervene, the UN authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas.


Having received the green light, a NATO-led coalition intervened in Libya and quickly defeated Gaddafi’s forces. Gaddafi tried to flee the country, but his military convoy was intercepted by insurgents, resulting in the Libyan leader’s death.


Gaddafi’s Break with The Arab World

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Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie Bombing, via Wikipedia


From the beginning of his reign in 1969, Gaddafi pursued a policy of pan-Arabism, an ideology that aims to unify the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa into a single political entity.


After decades of working toward Arab Unity, Gaddafi abandoned the cause in 1998. The reason was a perceived lack of progress toward unity and a lack of political support from Arab nations for Libya, which was under international sanctions at the time.


In the 80s and 90s, Libya had become isolated on the international scene as a result of it developing chemical and nuclear weapons, supporting groups that were deemed terrorist by many western nations, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army, and Libyan involvement in the bombing of European planes and buildings.


Libyan involvement in the bombing of a plane, which crashed over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, led the United Nations to impose sanctions on Libya in 1992. These punitive measures included imposing an air embargo and restricting trade.


Few countries stood with Libya and defied the sanctions. The lack of support from Arab countries, in particular, was striking. Gaddafi, who had dedicated much time and resources to the Arab cause, felt betrayed.


Let down by Arab nations, Gaddafi was in dire need of a new source of foreign policy support. He found allies in African countries, which proved willing to defy sanctions and stand in solidarity with an isolated Libya.


Africa Stands with Gaddafi & Defies UN Sanctions

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The 2011 Libyan Crisis, via ACCORD


On the 8th of June 1998, At the 34th annual summit of the Organisation of African Unity in Burkina Faso, African leaders collectively agreed to defy the UN sanctions imposed on Libya.


During the following months, the heads of state of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Gambia all ignored the air embargo and undertook visits to Libya.


When in September of 1998, at an Arab League meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders decided not to follow the OAU in defying the sanctions, Gaddafi reacted by proclaiming that the ‘’Arab world is finished’’ and by stating that “Africans and not Arabs are Libya’s real supporters.”


The year 1998 was a breaking point for Gaddafi. He abandoned the Arab cause and began vigorously organizing efforts to realize African unity.


In prior years, Gaddafi had worked to improve relations with African countries. He had sent Libyan peace-making missions to the Democratic Republic of Congo and diplomatic missions to resolve the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and between the Sudanese government and armed opposition groups. These initiatives brought tangible results and improved Libya’s reputation in Africa.


In addition, Libya’s large oil reserves provided Gaddafi with the resources necessary to buy influence in Africa. These warming relations, in combination with a general aversion many African countries had against the ruling world order, contributed to the decision of African nations not to sanction Libya.


African support notwithstanding, the UN sanctions crippled the Libyan economy. This led Gadafi to hand over two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing for trial in April of 1999, resulting in the UN lifting sanctions and ending Libya’s period of isolation.


Gaddafi Calls for The Establishment of An African Union

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How Africa has been frozen out of Libya peace efforts, via BBC


In July 1999, Gaddafi took the stage at the annual summit of the Organization of African Unity in Algiers. He announced that it was time for Africa to unite and proclaimed the need to review the 1963 OAU charter and amend it.


For this purpose, he invited Africa’s leaders to a summit he would host in the Libyan city of Sirte.


On the 9th of September 1999, at the summit in Sirte, Gaddafi presented his vision of a borderless United States of Africa. He envisioned that the continent would be ruled by one government under a single president and that it would have a united defense force and one foreign and trade policy. To realize this, he called for the establishment of an African Union.


At Sirte, Gaddafi laid the foundation for the transition of the Organization of African Unity into the African Union. He promised to establish new organs within the African Union, including a Peace and Security Council, a Pan-African Parliament, and an Economic, Social, and Cultural Council.


Gaddafi’s initiative was lauded by African leaders, who in 2001 paid tribute to him by thanking him for his role and efforts as “the son of Africa.” They reaffirmed their confidence in his “determined efforts, aimed at realizing Africa’s collective vision for unity, cooperation, development, peace and security on the continent.”


Gaddafi Loses Influence

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Gaddafi wearing an insignia showing the image of the African continent, via Wikipedia


Gaddafi’s proposal for establishing an African Union manifested in 2002, with the organization’s inauguration in South Africa.


To realize his vision of a united Africa, Gaddafi donated millions of dollars of Libyan oil money to the AU’s operating budget.


Gaddafi also paid the AU share of several poorer African nations in order to win votes for the idea of a United States of Africa. His generosity proved insufficient, however, as Gaddafi’s influence in the AU and support for his vision began to dwindle soon after the organization’s inception.


Whereas Gaddafi’s initiatives to revive African cooperation were widely appreciated, his plans for a United States of Africa never found the resounding support they needed among African leaders, who often paid lip service to his vision but did not commit to realizing it.


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Muammar Gaddafi addresses the 64th session of the General Assembly on 23 September 2009


Gaddafi never gave up on his idea of a United States of Africa. As the years passed, he even seemed to grow more erratic in his grandiose visions. In 2008, for example, he crowned himself “king of kings of Africa” in front of 200 traditional African rulers.


Gaddafi was rewarded for his contributions to the African Union in 2009 when he was elected chairman of the organization. His chairmanship was marked by repeated arguments between Gaddafi and other African leaders, and he failed to garner sufficient support for a second term.


During the Libyan revolution, the African Union argued for an inclusive transition that saw Gaddafi step down peacefully. This plan was not widely supported internationally. In the end, NATO decided on a military intervention, which resulted in the Libyan leader’s death.

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By Ilias LuursemaMA & BA Middle Eastern StudiesIlias holds both a BA and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His academic research focused on migration and the Libyan crisis. He now works as an independent researcher, writer, and editor and contributes to projects on topics that include history, politics, and economics.