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The world needs a better moral compass

At the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony of 1960 at Oslo University in Norway, in his acceptance speech, Chief Albert Luthuli highlighted a fundamental challenge that still confronts Africa that “our continent has been carved up by the great powers. Alien governments have been forced upon the African people by military conquest and by economic domination”. The case in point, 50 years after Luthuli’s admonition, is the topical issue of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Libya). There are other cases such as Côte d’Ivoire, which is a ticking time-bomb. It is in this context that a group calling itself “Concerned Africans” has authored an Open Letter to all the peoples of Africa and the World. In effect, Concerned Africans — inspired by the May 25 2011 Statement of former Heads of States — are arguing for a principled global human society that is based on equity. The world, especially the West, needs a new and better moral compass. We live in a world that is devoid of morals and compassion — the curse of our times! The current global geo-political architecture has not worked optimally.

The Statement of the former Heads of States, released on Africa Day this year, succinctly captures the implications of the war visited on Libya by the West. It states that: first and foremost, Libya is an African country and a member state of the AU. In addition, it is also inevitable that Africa carries and will carry the principal burden of the consequences of this country’s conflict. Inevitably, Africa will host the largest numbers of displaced Libyans. Weapons and combatants generated by the conflict will ineluctably migrate especially into the Sahel countries, south of Libya, resulting in the protracted destabilisation of an entire and important African region. Many African countries will have to receive back their citizens who had legitimate income-earning jobs in Libya. This will result in the further entrenchment of poverty in these countries, including through ending the remittances on which large numbers of Africans depend.

The starting point is perhaps that the United Nations (UN) has repeatedly failed on what it was envisaged to address. I understand the reason d’être of the UN to be to safeguard and advance the human condition. In other words, the UN — through its variety of institutions and associations — should be making sure that the conditions within which we all live should be palatable. However the world is sinking further and further into despair and chaos, largely because of inappropriate decisions taken by the UN. The human condition in Africa or that of Africans in general has deteriorated. Concerned Africans have no choice but to stand up and reassert Africa’s right and duty to determine Africa’s destiny.

Regarding the painful case of Libya, there is uneasiness in Africa and in the developing world about the manner in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) implemented the UN Resolution 1973 authorising member states to impose a no-fly zone to prevent the Gaddafi regime from killing disgruntled Libyans. This is substantiated by recent statements of the Brazilian and Indian parliaments condemning the actions of the European-American military alliance, Nato, on African soil against Africa’s wishes. It is worth acknowledging that five countries, including the two mentioned, abstained. While the resolution authorised the use of all means to protect civilians, only military means are being used by a France-UK led Nato campaign, which changed from protecting civilians to removing the government of Libya from power. In the process, many civilians have been killed directly by Nato bombs and by the fighting between government and rebel forces. Many more have had their homes and livelihood destroyed as their homes, roads, places of work and leisure institutions have been targeted by Nato forces.

As Concerned Africans, we are of the view that the resolution itself was flawed and the process for arriving at the resolution was inappropriate. The African Union had developed a Roadmap and we are made to believe that all relevant structures in Libya had agreed to it. As records demonstrate, the African Union Peace and Security Council adopted an important resolution (on March 10 2011) which spelt out the Roadmap to address the Libyan conflict, consistent with the obligations of the AU under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. It is obvious that when the UN Security Council adopted its Resolution 1973, it was aware of the AU decision which had been announced seven days earlier. The AU decision was, in essence, that Benghazi and Tripoli needed to have a proper conversation regarding the transition or changes that were demanded by the then Benghazi-based Interim National Council. One is made to believe that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had agreed to be excluded from the discussions, as that would have been critical in ensuring ideal conditions for negotiations.

If, for argument sake, we recognise Resolution 1973, its original intention — that of protecting civilians — was lost as the West used the vagueness of the resolution to forcefully remove a sitting government and replace it with the one they prefer. It is increasingly evident that the West wanted nothing but regime change at all cost in Libya. The provisions in the resolution that call for a political process led by the UN envoy and the AU were side-lined completely. Therefore, Africa and the developing world are right to be abhorred as Libyans are Africans and are part of the developing world that has suffered a lot under imperialism and colonialism. Africans have proclaimed that never again should they be regarded as second-class citizens or as sub-human in any way. While the economy is on its knees because of the military confrontation, the lives of the Africans of Libya are in jeopardy, man-made chaos has been created. Libyans have paid and will continue to pay with their lives for the Western agenda of regime change. It is in this context that all peace-loving Africans and friends of Africa are being asked to reject the Nato agenda through an Open Letter.

Another matter of grave concern is the ongoing movement of small arms, which end up in the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army and into Chad and Darfur. The Sahel region is yet to endure the looming civil war which will have major consequences for the African continent as a whole; all because of the interference by the so-called superpowers. It is in this context too that the AU Roadmap should have taken precedence in efforts to address the conflict in Libya. The fall of Gaddafi does not equal peace because he has a social base which must not — and cannot — be ignored. It is only through the AU, and Africans broadly, that the conflict in Libya would be addressed. The UN has worsened the situation, making it more challenging for the AU to implement the Roadmap.

It is worth noting that economic growth in Africa rebounded in 2010 with an estimated increase in gross domestic product of 4.7%, a trend that was expected to continue. The projected economic growth rate would be revised downwards as the conditions for better growth in Africa deteriorate as a result of, largely, external interference. The latest estimate, prior to the realisation of the full impact of the global recession, was that almost half a billion people in Africa are poor. The fundamental issue is that the developmental model that Africa adapted from others is not working for Africa, just as much as it is no longer working for the rest of the world. As argued elsewhere, the mere reiteration of the accepted capitalist nostrums will not help Africa in this regard.

Part of the fundamental answer, besides the matter of a sounder developmental model for the Global South, is the effective transformation of the UN, especially the Security Council. It is not only that the UN takes inappropriate decisions — such as Resolutions 1970 and 1973 in the case of Libya recently — but that the processes for sound decision-making seem in question. The action of Concerned Africans to issue an Open Letter is inspired by the desire, not to take sides, but to protect the sovereignty of Libya and the right of the Libyan people to choose their leaders and determine their own destiny. As Africans globally, and those who share the sadness and anger, must ensure that no “alien government [is] forced upon the African people by military conquest and by economic domination”. We cannot rest on our laurels while Africa burns!

At a global level, as argued before, global civics might be our best bet. As Hakan Altinay, the editor of the recent book on global civics, describes it as “a system of conscious responsibilities that we [humanity] are ready to assume after due deliberation and corresponding rights that we are ready to claim”. Graham Finlay and I argue — in the co-authored chapter we contributed in Altinay’s book — that the rights and responsibilities that global civics is concerned with are not necessarily attached to each person’s membership to a particular state or to particular international institutions: they are compatible, in most cases, with the rights and obligations one has to one’s country and do not require a world state. “We share one planet and are one humanity; there is no escaping this reality” as Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize winner, puts it. Philosopher John Rawls in his outstanding book Theory of Justice presents persuasive perspectives about what Maathai says and what global civics hopes to achieve.

In conclusion, therefore, there is a pressing and urgent need for a better moral compass — global civics presents us with a possible working framework that can guide us in our daily lives and in our approach to challenges engulfing the global human society. As for Africa, and without taking any sides and without any equivocation, Africans should take charge of their destiny. If an engagement with the West, or the institutions of the West, must take place it should be in the terms of Africa and Africans.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.