Libya's Colonel Gadaffi was elected leader of the African Union yesterday, a position the eccentric dictator has yearned for as he pushed his oil-rich nation into the international mainstream after years of isolation.
Some African leaders offered lukewarm praise for the choice of Gadaffi, who grabbed power in a 1969 coup. Rights groups called him a poor model for Africa at a time when democratic gains are being reversed in countries such as Mauritania and Guinea.
Once ostracised by the West for sponsoring terrorism, Gadaffi has been trying to increase Libya’s presence on the global stage and its regional influence — mediating African conflicts, sponsoring efforts to spread Islam on the continent and pushing for the creation of a single African government.
Gadaffi donated shiploads of arms to the IRA in the 1970s and 80s, which enabled the republican group to intensify its campaign against the security forces.
The chairmanship of the African Union is a rotating position held by heads of state for one year and gives the holder some influence over the continent’s politics, but carries no real power.
Diplomats who attended the closed meetings in which Gadaffi was chosen said several countries vigorously opposed him, seeking alternatives from Lesotho and Sierra Leone.
However, the AU’s chairmanship rotates among Africa’s regions, and a North African had not chaired the continental body since 2000, when Algeria held the chairmanship. Meetings to select the chairman are held in private. The leader is usually nominated and then chosen by consensus. AU officials would not give details of the proceedings, including which countries objected.
Since he seized power, Gadaffi has ruled with an iron hand and the often quixotic ideology laid out in his famous “Green Book”, which outlines his anti-democratic and economic policies.
“The Libyan government continues to imprison people for criticising Gadaffi,” said Reed Brody, a Brussels-based lawyer with Human Rights Watch, who watched Gadaffi take the helm of the AU. “Hundreds more have been ‘disappeared’.”
The large North African country is perhaps best known for the 1988 bombing of the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie. All 259 people on board were killed. Another 11 people died on the ground.
The bombing prompted United Nations-imposed sanctions and breaking of diplomatic ties with Britain and the United States.
Gadaffi renounced terrorism in 2003 and Libya has paid out over a billion dollars to the families of the Lockerbie victims.