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African-Arab Relations have much More to Offer than Gaddafi-style Politics

By Nesrine Malik

The 'king of kings' exploited Arab and black African tensions. Now is the time for mutually beneficial solidarity in the region.

21 September 2011

One of the more frustrating refrains uttered since Gaddafi's disappearance is that his legacy in Africa is something to be lauded. Like most of Gaddafi's policies, the overtures to black Africa were rooted in clumsy experimentation, and watered by the man's soreness at having being rejected as leader of the Arab world.

When his pan-Arab project failed, he turned to non-Arab Africa and set about appointing himself as the magnanimous Arab who had deigned to lead the hapless Africans, a "king of kings".

He cynically exploited the historical tension between Arab and black African by playing on emotion and apologising for how Arabs treated Africans, for the invasion of their land, and for the slave trade. Then he set about meddling in their internal affairs, supporting rebel groups and inciting internecine conflict, not out of any loyalty to a cause, but to whichever party flattered his ego and needed his lucre most.

Neither his motivations, nor the practical effects of these policies, are to be lauded. Driven by hubris, he agitated abroad and exacerbated racial tension within Libya. In the 1990s Gaddafi actively encouraged immigration from sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger.

These very poor, uprooted and marginalised workers were more easily exploited than their Arab counterparts and, increasingly, they were routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions. The legal status of these immigrants was never properly thought through, which meant they were never accepted or integrated into Libyan society.

The legacy of this policy since the uprising against Gaddafi began has been arbitrary persecution of black men in the belief that they are mercenaries – an attitude that has also put in danger innocent members of Libya's indigenous dark-skinned non-Arab community.

During the 1990s, I remember Gaddafi appearing on Arabic satellite television regularly, expanding on the merits of his newfound loyalty to Africa and pushing his vision of a "United States of Africa".

Even in Sudan, one of the few Arab countries with stronger African influences and more dark-skinned inhabitants, this was seen as a bit of a joke. It says a lot about north African Arab leaders that Gaddafi is the only one to have reached out to black Africa in any tangible way. Who in their right mind would subordinate their Arab identity to an African one? Voluntarily? Only Gaddafi. A reject. The political equivalent of a mad scientist.

Most north African Arab countries grapple, not very well, with their non-Arab minorities (ones that predate Arab settlers in their respective countries). The most politically active are the Berbers in Libya and the Maghreb, African tribes in the west of Sudan along the border with Chad, and, until recently, the south of Sudan. This is where the dysfunctional relationship with Africa begins.

Across the Middle East and north Africa there is a legitimate common denominator in terms of culture, language, religion, history, etc, that naturally engenders loyalty to an Arab as opposed to an African identity.

As a dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Sudanese woman, I had a much easier time integrating, living and studying in Egypt than I did in Kenya, because of the cultural and linguistic commonalities. But there is a barely veiled consensus that the fairer-skinned Arab identity is superior to any African identity, and that the African tag is purely a geographical fact that does not extend far beyond that.

Africa is seen as troubled, dysfunctional, a land of military coups and ethnic strife as opposed to the "stable" dictatorships in the Arab world. This combination of the perceived toxicity of African association and a reluctance to admit or encourage any associations other than those precipitated by physical proximity has made for a less than robust Afro-Arab engagement.

Now that these dictatorships are beginning to fall one by one, there is an opportunity to confront racial tensions at home (tensions that Arab governments swept under the carpet or stoked by offering little in the way of recognition or self-determination) and also forge a more balanced relationship with African neighbours.

But is it realistic to expect north Africa to engage with the south? If there are few common denominators, why would these countries have any more affinity with Africa than, say, Saudi Arabia or Yemen? If neighbourly and international co-operation was predicated only upon shared characteristics the world would be a far more dangerous and less prosperous place.

There is nothing to learn from Gaddafi's African debacle, except perhaps how not to go about it. But in his "United States of Africa" – silly as it may sound – there is a kernel of something. Increased co-operation between Arab countries and their African neighbours shouldn't be encouraged to make a political point or to indulge in one-upmanship, or to create some anti-imperialism counterweight based on a fabricated commonality, but because it is healthy and a sign of maturity.

Being African is not about racial or cultural identity – it is about mutually beneficial, geographical solidarity.

Source: The Guardian, London