Organizers of this week’s African Union summit printed Moammar Gadhafi’s portrait and mounted it on the flags decorating the highway to the conference venue back when the world expected him to rule for life.
His proud face flaps incongruously in the wind here, the only sign of a man who has long dominated this gathering of African leaders and who is unable to attend because his very future as Libya’s leader is in question.
It’s a jolting image that reminds delegates of how much has changed on the continent in the past six months, and also underlines the organization’s ambivalence toward one of its most prominent members.
The summit is scheduled to open Thursday without Gadhafi. It’s fitting, though, that in order to reach the conference hall, delegates will need to pass under his defiant gaze, for even though the longtime dictator is not in attendance, the problem he poses looms large for the 53-nation body.
“There is a very strong number of countries in the African Union who believe that Gadhafi’s time is up and that he should go, and there are some who — to a greater or lesser extent — do not share that view,” Britain’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told reporters in London before heading to the talks.
Diplomats from all over the world are descending on Malabo, the capital of this minuscule nation located on an island off the western edge of Africa, in an effort to persuade Gadhafi’s peers to force him from power.
Gadhafi inspires deeply conflicted emotions on a continent where numerous strongmen still cling to power, including several who came to office in coups backed by Gadhafi as well as others whose regimes could be destabilized if the wave of popular unrest spreads south.
Compared to the rest of the world, the African Union has been one of the most conciliatory voices toward Gadhafi, condemning NATO airstrikes even as evidence mounted that Gadhafi’s military was carrying out massacres of civilians.
Yet even in the hours since delegates began arriving in Malabo, the mood appears to be shifting as old alliances erode.
On Wednesday in nearby Gabon, President Ali Bongo, whose father converted from Christianity to Islam in an effort to court Gadhafi’s favor, held a news conference to urge Gadhafi to go.
“For the good of his people, for the good of his country as well as Africa, it would be good if he were to choose of his own volition — and I do mean of his own volition — to step down,” Bongo said.
Britain’s Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham said that he has met with many of the foreign ministers of the 53 member nations attending the conference, and found that even those that were previously reluctant to call for Gadhafi’s ouster are now privately agreeing that he should go.
“I believe there is certainly a change in the whole perception of Gadhafi. We are in a very different position to the one we were in just five, six weeks ago. Then we were talking about a stalemate. Now there’s no stalemate. Gadhafi is losing his grip,” Bellingham said.
“Despite the fact that the Libyan flag is flying on the access road to the conference center, there has been a big turnaround,” Bellingham said.
Gadhafi, who used Libya’s oil wealth to fund the transformation of the old Organization of African Unity into the African Union in 2002, has dominated the AU summit stage for years, becoming its chairman in 2009.
He was a longtime proponent of the United States of Africa, a proposal he shared with Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, who made a point of inviting Gadhafi to his inauguration as well as to the opening of a monument in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
But Wade became one of the first prominent AU leaders to break rank, first by recognizing the rebels, and then by traveling to eastern Libya to meet with them. Upon his return to Dakar, Wade delivered a stinging rebuke to his former ally on state television.
“At the African Union, I was the only person that could speak to him, that told him the truth since I don’t owe him anything. He hasn’t built so much as a school in Senegal,” Wade said during the June 9 broadcast.
“(I told him) you came to power through a coup d’etat more than 40 years ago. You have never had elections. You pretended to speak in the name of the people. Everyone knows that what you installed is a dictatorship. You have done horrible things … I look at you now in the eyes and tell you … that in the interest of the Libyan people, you need to step down.”
Wade and now Bongo’s public stances contrast with the approach of South African President Jacob Zuma, who leads the AU’s ad hoc committee on Libya and who has been one of the most forceful voices against the NATO strikes. Even the ad hoc committee, though, seems to be changing its position toward the Libyan leader.
Hints of that change can be found in the committee’s communique released over the weekend. It said that the AU welcomed Gadhafi’s decision not to take part in negotiations to end the turmoil in his country.
Previously, the AU had been a proponent for talks, even though the rebels insisted Gadhafi must leave power before any negotiations take place.
“It’s an extraordinary leap forward,” said Bellingham. “Because the high-level panel was until recently talking about Gadhafi as being part of the solution — instead of part of the problem.”
Gadhafi usually arrives at AU summits in his ballooning robes and dark sunglasses surrounded by a phalanx of female bodyguards. Reporters looked forward to his theatrics, which always involved his refusal to sleep in a hotel room and his insistence on pitching an enormous tent, usually on the grounds of the host country’s best hotel.
He was also known for his rambling, table-pounding tirades, like the one he delivered at an Ethiopia summit in 2008 when he blamed democracy for causing Kenya’s unrest and bloodshed following the nation’s disputed election.
In place of the larger-than-life leader who sometimes arrived with a delegation numbering in the hundreds of people, this year Libya is being represented by a handful of his collaborators. On Wednesday, they could be seen in groups of two’s and three’s shuffling along the marbled hallways of the summit venue, speaking to each other in secretive tones. They denied that Gadhafi’s grip on power is slipping and said they were not aware of the lessening support within the AU.
“This is an internal problem within Libya and we should be allowed to resolve it according to our own laws,” Gadhafi’s chief of staff Bashir Saleh said. “There is a rebellion inside our country, people picked up guns and attacked us and we are legitimately fighting back.” AP