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The Mediterranean Failure of the West – and Africa

Jerzy BUZEK, Président du PE et Amadou Toumani TOURE, Président du Mali

As Burundi implodes due to yet another instance of African misgovernance, South African President Jacob Zuma, in the wake of South Africa's second bout of xenophobic violence (the first being in 2008), warned his peers to take responsibility for the problem of migration. They "cannot shy away" from reasons citizens are fleeing from home.Thus is South Africa setting the stage for the next African Union summit convening in June in South Africa. Meanwhile, on April 21st, the AU Commission and its European counterpart held their annual College-to-College meeting in Brussels at a time when an EU summit was getting underway on the catastrophic migration crisis buffeting the European side of the Mediterranean. The AUC-EUC press release referenced a "renewed focus on our cooperation in the field of migration" at a particularly "challenging the context of the ongoing crisis in Libya and the dramatic situation in the Mediterranean," stressing the need to "enhance cooperation with North African and Sub Saharan African countries to build migration and border management capacities, with the support of international organizations already active on the ground."

Yet, in the wake of the EU migration crisis summit, critics saw its outcome as woefully inadequate given the humanitarian magnitude of the rolling catastrophe and the politically destabilizing pressures already resonating throughout Europe resulting from anti-immigration backlashes. Against this backdrop, the Eurafrican geopolitics of the migration crisis intertwined with the Libyan civil war, seems to defy a narrative comprehensively capturing the underlying causes of a Mediterranean crisis equally implicating Africa as well as Europe in a manner mocking the so-called EU-Africa Partnership and 'joint strategy.'

European Tragedy

The international media projects the crisis in the Mediterranean as a moral challenge facing Europe. A recent Financial Times op-ed is indicative: "Europe's Mediterranean crisis" by Gideon Rachman. The 24/7 news channels similarly reflect this 'tragedy in the Mediterranean' story line. It is as if what is unfolding is not equally a crisis challenging Africa as well, as if involving a one-way scenario impacting Europe only. Given the moral magnitude of refugee deaths as boats capsize and sink as they try to reach Lampedusa, Sicily or the Italian peninsula, one detects in this narrative an underlying western guilt animating the urgent but one-sided diplomacy unfolding around the crisis. Its magnitude is not in doubt.  Since June last year, UNHCR estimates 2,200 deaths have occurred in this treacherous crossing, 750 in the space of a week in mid-to-late April alone. Deaths at sea had already topped more than 1,700 this year, the same time a year ago.

On top of these casualties, there are various predictions of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe from points east and west in sub-Saharan Africa and from Syria into Europe over the next several years. Combined pressures of demography and economic desperation are indeed impacting Europe. Under immediate circumstances, the urgency of the moral imperative has, begun informing a geopolitical security calculus concerning the need for EU/NATO military measures in the Maghreb and the Mediterranean.

Raising this prospect brings into focus the region's other challenging interventionist possibility: Libya. Conflict there not only compounds interregional turmoil between North Africa and southern Europe. It is accompanied by overtones of US encouragement of out-of-area intervention from a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) already caught up in Saudi Arabia's increasingly catastrophic sectarian geopolitical intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The question that keeps begging in all this is where does Africa's responsibility fit into this conflicted trans-Mediterranean continental-maritime security equation? Indeed, the Mediterranean crisis is indicative of how intellectually inadequate geopolitical and foreign policy/national security analysis has become at connecting the dots of interdependence between land and sea in the world's unfolding power dynamics. Maybe, in this case, inadequacy is due to vacuums and gaps, the complexity of which no one really wants to deal with or are politically and diplomatically unprepared to confront.

Yet, between the trans-Med migration crisis and Libya's civil war of de-facto partition, the glaring omission of the AU speaks volumes about the continent's continuing passivity in decolonizing the fragmented reality the AU's Organization of African Unity forefathers settled for in 1963. It also speaks volumes about the failure of European and American policies toward a continent both Washington and Brussels have conceptually and bureaucratically partitioned into a North Africa parcelled out to the Greater Middle East and a sub-Saharan Africa stewing in its own juices of destabilizing turmoil – rising growth rates and all!

 Promise Land or Perpetual Nightmare?

Looked at more holistically as the AU prepares to hold its summit in a South Africa humbled by spasms of 'Afrophobic' violence (a post-summit analysis), the migration crisis on the continent would be perceived as an interrelated north-south phenomenon: destitute and persecuted humanity fleeing north across the Mediterranean and south across the Limpopo attracted by 'promise land' mirages receding into nightmares of desperation. Yet the geopolitical-diplomatic consciousness in Addis Ababa and in Africa's capitols along with those in the EU and Washington remain fragmented into partitioned compartments begging endless questions about how Africa is perceived by America and Europe – and most of all by Africa itself. The fact of the matter, Africa and the AU come across as passive bystanders in the North African conflict-migration dynamics even though the Maghreb is suppose to be one of the AU's five regions – or is it?

Reuters reported recently that President Barack Obama had "urged Gulf nations to help calm the chaotic political situation in Libya, saying that outside military action would not be enough to help reduce tensions in the war-ravaged North African country." President Obama is quoted as saying: "'We're going to have to encourage some of the countries inside of the Gulf who have, I think, influence over the various factions inside Libya, to be more co-operative themselves…In some cases, you've seen them fan the flames of military conflict, rather than try to reduce them'." The report suggested the likelihood of Libya being on the agenda of Obama's planned meeting with GCC states at Camp David to discuss "a host of crises in the Middle east" on May 13-14.

That Libya will no doubt become a subject of US-GCC deliberation speaks to the continuing marginalization of Africa in the business of the Maghreb beginning during the Euro-American sideling of the AU mission to Tripoli to attempt a negotiated settlement between 'Brother Leader' Muammar Al-Qaddafi and insurgent rebel forces. Somewhere along the line, the Arab League decided to go it alone without the AU. The League's imprimatur was all the fig-leaf needed in Washington, London and Paris to legitimize the NATO intervention that unfolded. The pros and cons of this 'regime change' intervention and the side-lining of the AU in favour of Arab League-backed NATO intervention remains a hot topic of emotional debate in some African circles in spite of Qaddafi's destabilizing influence throughout the Maghreb and Sahel, stretching into West Africa. But the principle of the AU's marginalization during the overthrow of Qaddafi and how this was all orchestrated, echoes in the current AU absence in the unfolding Mediterranean migration crisis and in post-Qaddafi civil war.

But this is a predicament of the AU's own making as well as in terms of how the US and the EU contribute to it. It would seem that only a solution to the Western Sahara stalemate beginning with an AU-Arab League mediation of the trilateral stalemate between Morocco, Algeria and the 'Sahrawi arab democratic republic' and extending to the involvement of Washington and Brussels can begin preparing the geopolitical stage to stabilize continental-maritime equations in the Mediterranean. This means making the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) an operational regional pillar of the AU as the bulwark of peace and security in the southern Mediterranean while simultaneously becoming home to an autonomous, not sovereign, 'Sahrawi republic' enjoying responsible self-government.

As a UMA autonomous republic, the Western Sahara would become the seat of the Arab Maghreb Union with the Polisario serving as the nucleus of a North African AU Standby force within the AU's Peace and Security Architecture. As long as Western Sahara is stalemated in proxy conflict between Algiers and Rabat, the fundamentals of stability in North Africa are never likely to be resolved. Hence, symbiotic trans-Mediterranean conundrum joining the Eurafrican future. But will this be on the AU summit agenda?

The alternative is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's mooted prediction: "NATO will eventually establish 'no-sail zones' – safe areas for refugees and no-go zones for people-smugglers – along the Libyan coast." And Africans think they've achieved independence?

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr is a Wilson Center Global Fellow and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue in affiliation with the University of South Africa

Photo courtesy of European Parliament via Flickr Commons


About the Author

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr.

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more