Ivory Coast, Libya Highlight Growing Rift between Africa and the West

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Many African leaders share China's viewpoint that national sovereignty is more important than human rights and democracy.

If ever there was doubt of a growing rift between African and Western leaders, it was made clear with the recent conflicts of Libya and Ivory Coast.

In both countries - where strongmen rulers unleashed their armies and police against opponents - Western leaders quickly called for international intervention to protect civilians, while many African leaders preferred mediation and complained of African sovereignty being trampled.

In Ivory Coast, African Union-led mediation failed miserably as renegade President Laurent Gbagbo plunged his country back into civil war before the United Nations asked French forces to intervene, leading to Mr. Gbagbo's capture on Monday. And while Western allies continued to bomb forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi this week, the AU sent a five-nation team to Tripoli to hash out "road map" for peace that rebels have rejected.

The tensions resulting from the two approaches, though, are not merely between bossy rich Western nations on one side and African nationalists on the other. They exist within every African country, in a debate that poses the question: Can modern African societies be open enough to allow democracy, but strong enough to resist external political or economic domination?

"It is a very interesting conflict going on. The Ivory Coast issue has divided African public opinion quite sharply," says Achille Mbembe, professor of history and politics at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

African anger at the West reached its sharpest point at the beginning of a French-led air attack on heavy weapons belonging to Gbagbo's forces in Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan on April 4.

African Union chief Teodoro Obiang Nguema - who is also president of Equatorial Guinea - told a gathering of reporters in Geneva, "Africa does not need any external influence. Africa must manage its own affairs."

Not only was UN action unwanted in Ivory Coast, it was also undermining AU efforts at mediation in Libya, Mr. Obiang said.

"I believe that the problems in Libya should be resolved in an internal fashion and not through an intervention that could appear to resemble an humanitarian intervention," Obiang said. "We have already seen this in Iraq."

Colonialism looms large

Yet the larger debate between democracy on one hand and nationalism on the other is an old one, Mr. Mbembe says, dating to the colonial period, when Africans were fighting for self- determination.

"Africans wanted elections, but they also wanted to be free from foreign intervention," he says. Freedom movements combined both of these two goals into a larger project to push out Western colonial powers. But once the colonial powers left, the liberal goal of democratic freedom gave way as newly formed African governments adopted an authoritarian style.

This authoritarian style has lasted until today, through strongmen Presidents such as Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Angola's Eduardo Dos Santos, and Gabon's Ali Bongo. …