On Monday I asked what the fall of Colonel Moammar Qadhafi might mean for the Sahel, a question that bears on what his fall means for Africa as a whole. This question took on new intensity yesterday as Nigeria recognized the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) as the rulers of Libya. Nigeria, a major oil producer and the most populous country in Africa, could find its role changed, and expanded, in the post-Qadhafi Africa.
All is not yet said and done in Libya: with rumors and falsehoods circulating, and Qadhafi himself still free, it’s hard to tell what is currently going on in the country, to say nothing of what the ramifications of events may be. With that said, though, actors like Nigeria are not waiting for the dust to settle before they move.
Nigeria was not the first African country to recognize the TNC (that honor, I believe, belongs to Gambia). Other nations in West Africa have since recognized the TNC (like Senegal) or called for Qadhafi to quit (like Mauritania). But Nigeria’s decision could have a strong and controversial impact on the continent. The move has already attracted criticism from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, which says that Nigeria is “jumping the gun” by recognizing the rebels before the African Union (AU) makes its decision.
The ANC’s comments highlight the political complexity of the Libya issue in Africa: Nigeria and South Africa, which are both members of the United Nations Security Council, both voted in favor of imposing a No Fly Zone on Libya, but South Africa has subsequently objected to NATO’s military intervention in Libya. Perhaps the ANC’s criticism of Nigeria reflects how difficult South Africa’s balancing act has become, as South Africa strives to stay involved in negotiating political outcomes in Libya while at the same time seeking to stand as a champion of African opposition to outside interference. If Nigeria and South Africa are indeed the two “African superpowers,” South Africa may feel threatened by Nigeria taking the initiative in this fashion. South Africa may fear that other countries will soon follow Nigeria’s lead, which would make the AU a follower, and not a forger, of the African stance on Libya.
Why did Nigeria break with Libya? The reasons are not entirely clear, though the simplest explanation may be that Nigerian leaders believe Qadhafi has no chance, and that future harmony between the two countries will be enhanced if Nigeria recognizes the TNC now. In any case, Nigerian leaders may not be sad to see Qadhafi go. Nigeria has not felt the same level of Libyan “meddling” that countries like Chad have, but Qadhafi and his Nigerian counterparts have butted heads on a number of issues. Nigerian leaders strongly objected last year when Qadhafi advocated the breakup of Nigeria as a solution to interreligious conflict, and the row intensified to the point that Nigeria withdrew its ambassador from Tripoli for a time.
That is not to say that Nigeria has relished the current conflict. In March, Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia in fact decried the No Fly Zone, arguing that intervening in Libya while allowing crisis to continue in Cote d’Ivoire represented a horrible double standard. In June, Libya appealed to Nigeria to help stop the NATO bombings, and President Goodluck Jonathan promised to raise the issue at the summer’s AU summit. As with other African countries, the politics of the Libyan intervention have not been easy for Nigeria.
The fall of Qadhafi, however, may be to Nigeria’s advantage. Javier Blas argued as much in March, when he said that disruptions in Libyan oil production could increase Europeans’ reliance on and willingness to pay top dollar for Nigerian oil. Sabotage continues to damage Nigerian production, but with Libyan output likely to be short of full capacity for quite some time, Nigeria may yet reap the benefits. Politically, Nigeria may also find that in Qadhafi’s absence it becomes an even stronger player in African affairs – if, that is, Nigerian leaders want that. Through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS, of which Jonathan is currently chairman) and through its own political clout, Nigeria could take advantage of Qadhafi’s fall and the resulting power vacuum to push its goals of increased political stability in West Africa and beyond. Nigeria has internal problems, of course, including the rebellion by Boko Haram and lingering grievances in the Niger Delta. But Nigeria’s financial and political influence could loom larger in the post-Qadhafi Africa, where Libyan petrodollars and the Colonel’s machinations are no longer the force they once were.