Page last updated at 08:47 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

African Union's eventful year with Gaddafi

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 10 March 2009

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Addis Ababa

When the African Union summit elected Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as its chairman at the beginning of February, many delegates predicted a bumpy year ahead.

To start with all went well.

But now he finds himself at odds with the AU's Peace and Security Council over its policy on Mauritania, which has been suspended since a coup d'etat last August.

On a visit to the Mauritanian capital earlier this month, the Libyan leader announced that since the current military leadership had promised to organise elections in June, everything was fine and the file was now closed.

Not so, says the AU Peace and Security Council.

The council says it is still determined to go ahead and impose sanctions on whoever is acting to maintain what it calls "the present anti-constitutional situation in Mauritania".

New kind of chairman

So what happens now?

Who actually makes policy for the African Union?

Outside an AU summit in Addis Ababa
Loosely modelled on European Union
Succeeded Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 2002
Headquartered in Ethiopia, with 53 member nations
Seeks to promote unity, peace among African nations
Encourages democracy, good governance, economic integration

Within days of being installed at the head of the African Union, the Libyan leader had made it clear that he was going to be a new kind of AU chairman.

He visited the AU commission and told the senior staff they deserved pay rises.

He announced that he planned to sort out the deep-rooted quarrel between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and that he wanted Caribbean countries to join the African Union.

He clearly sees himself as the leader of the continent, with real powers to match his recently assumed title - "king of the traditional kings of Africa".

His predecessors, from Tanzania, Ghana and the Republic of Congo, had done things in the more traditional way.

They chaired the twice-yearly summit meetings of the assembly, and apart from that, occasionally played an elder-statesman-like role in helping resolve crises on the continent.

So does the chairman have real power?

Is Col Gaddafi allowed to do the sort of things he wants to do?

The answer seems to be that nobody really knows; that the African Union is still a fairly new organisation, and that the role of the chairman of the assembly is still largely what the incumbent makes it.

Awkward moments

A legal document which would give the chairman a defined role and a department to support him is still struggling its way through the AU's ratification process.

Ibrahima Kane, a Senegalese lawyer who works on AU issues for the Open Society Institute, says the power of the chairperson depends not just on the character of chairperson himself - but also where he comes from.

Women hold pictures of Col Gaddafi in Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 10 March 2009
Col Gaddafi's comments on Mauritania caused the first spat of his tenure

"If the chairperson comes from a rich country, he can give visibility to his position - like Gaddafi, and also like [former] President Obasanjo of Nigeria.

"I think Obasanjo's presidency of the AU was one of the best."

Mr Obasanjo was certainly the most active chairman the AU has had so far.

And his tenure illustrated one of the potential pitfalls: friction between the assembly chairman and the AU's top appointed official, the chairman of the AU commission.

A public row erupted when the then head of the commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, appointed the former Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, as a special envoy for Togo, without consulting Mr Obasanjo.

Even with less assertive chairmen there can be an awkwardness.

There have been times in the past two years when the chairman of the assembly has undertaken some kind of diplomatic initiative, while none of the full-time officials at AU headquarters seemed aware of what was going on.

A report last year on the functioning of the African Union suggested establishing liaison offices to keep the chairman for the year in touch with the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Panic too soon?

And last year's chairman, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, in his last speech before handing over, suggested ways of making the role of chairman work more efficiently.

One of these was the idea of a so-called "troika".

African Union Assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Lack of clarity over roles has led to internal friction in the African Union

This already works well in Europe where the country holding the presidency works closely with its predecessor and successor.

This proposal gained rapid popularity at the recent AU summit.

When it became clear that the erratic and eccentric Col Gaddafi was going to be in the chair this year, it suddenly became a very attractive idea to dilute his rather powerful presence with two other, more conventional heads of state.

But Col Gaddafi's colleagues could be panicking too soon.

Mr Kane says too many people are still thinking of the Libyan leader the way he was in the 1970s and '80s.

"A person can change with the position," he says.

"My view is that Gaddafi will do his best to make sure people remember his chairmanship, so he will do things very carefully."

As for his turning up at the summit in extravagant West African costume, and attended by a troupe of local chiefs?

Well that, he suggests, was perhaps just to lend a bit of colour to the proceedings, and also to show, as an Arab head of state, that Col Gaddafi is also a real African.

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