To play a useful role, the AU needs to present a more neutral and unified front.

By Shewit Woldemichael & Mohamed Diatta

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says that as African Union (AU) chairperson this year, his peace and security priorities will focus on resolving South Sudan and Libya’s crises.

The AU has been asserting, with increasing vigour, that it must be included in attempts at brokering peace and bringing stability to Libya. The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) has also laid out clear next steps for its efforts there.

At its summit a month ago, the AU proposed sending a fact-finding mission comprising African chiefs of defence from the five regions. This will be done in collaboration with the United Nations (UN).

Heads of state also decided to upgrade the AU Liaison Office in Libya so it has more diplomatic and military capacity. The AU chairperson has been tasked with determining funding options for the two decisions.

It was the second African-led meeting on Libya in 10 days, following the Berlin conference involving several role players and the Geneva meeting that brought together the military leaders of the two main Libyan factions.

Many believe South Africa and Ramaphosa can use their peacemaking and mediation experience to help settle the conflict in Libya. South Africa may also want to repair a potential mistake when the country voted in favour of the 2011 UN Security Council resolution that opened the door to foreign intervention in Libya.

What will be the extent of the involvement of the AU, particularly South Africa, which is a member of the AU High-Level Committee on Libya?

What will the PSC’s role be, as the standing decision-making body on peace and security on the continent?

For starters, the AU will have to speak with one voice. This is key to repositioning itself in the management of the Libyan crisis vis-a-vis the UN and the non-African countries present in Libya, and for it to be effective in handling the conflict.

There is a common misrepresentation that the local scene is dominated by just two factions — the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj and the self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar.

But at least two other major armed groups — militias and so-called Islamists — are also part of this complex equation. Their place in Libya’s present and, more importantly, its future is one of the divisive questions yet to be addressed.

Differences over the fate of militias and Islamists also appear to be what divides the non-African actors involved in their support for either the GNA or the LNA. Some actors support both the GNA and LNA.

These internal divisions and the internalisation of the Libyan conflict form the quagmire that the international community, notably the UN, has struggled to resolve. The AU would have to contend with the same challenges.

There does seem to be some momentum for Africa to become involved in resolving the Libyan conflict.

But the first obstacle is the continent’s lack of effective participation in the ongoing processes led mainly by the UN but also involving countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

The AU is yet to convince Libyan belligerents to turn to the continent for a solution. Convincing Libyans to make space for a potential African or African-led process also requires bringing non-African actors to the same negotiating table.

The second problem is that despite appearing relatively neutral, the AU and some of its member states aren’t seen as such by all Libyan stakeholders.

Some African countries are perceived as sympathetic to loyalists of Gaddafi. Some neighbouring countries wanting to bolster national security along their common borders with Libya are also said to have made bilateral deals with different Libyan warring parties.

In some cases, high-level AU officials involved in the Libyan peace process are nationals of neighbouring countries and thus may not be perceived as neutral. There are perceptions that they represent the interests of their capitals rather than those of the AU.

The third challenge is the lack of a common position on how to respond to the conflict. These divisions were in stark display at the PSC’s 8 February meeting.

Member states couldn’t agree whether to deploy a joint AU-UN peace support mission to Libya, and which countries should be included in the newly established contact group for Libya. The group would provide political leadership and engage in international processes aimed at ending the conflict.

The fourth problem facing the AU is the many African entities with a mandate to resolve the Libyan crisis. The AU has an 11-member High-Level Ad-hoc Committee on Libya, but appointed a Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the Commission to Libya with seemingly overlapping mandates.

The AU Commission Chairperson, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security and Special Representative of the Chairperson of the Commission for Libya and Head of the Liaison Office are also directly involved.

The latest summit has added another entity by creating the contact group for Libya, without dissolving the larger High-Level Ad-hoc Committee. The difference in mandates between the two hasn’t been clarified.

For the AU to become a viable partner in the Libyan peace process, African actors should guard against a fractured front. The PSC, African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, the AU Commission and the AU High-Level Committee on Libya must be coordinated in their peace efforts.

Determining how those different African stakeholders will work together is crucial. The role of Libya’s neighbours that sit on both the AU High-Level Committee on Libya and the PSC, for example, will be vital for the success of any AU intervention.

Libya’s peace process must be brought into one single initiative regrouping all stakeholders, whether led by the AU or jointly by the AU and the UN.

If led by the AU, Libyan protagonists will need to show their willingness to work with the continent.


Shewit Woldemichael – Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), PSC Report, focuses on African peace, security and governance issues.

Mohamed M Diatta – Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), PSC Report. Empowering the great masses. Justice, equity & equality.


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