This week’s summit of the African Union wound up overnight, but not without a remarkable performance at the final press conference by the organisation’s new chairman, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

According to the BBC report, Colonel Gaddafi assailed the idea of multi-party democracy in Africa. “We don’t have any political structures [in Africa], our structures are social,” he said. “Our parties are tribal parties — that is what has led to bloodshed.”

In remarks that the BBC’s correspondent, with masterly understatement, says “could prove controversial”, Gaddafi “concluded the best model for Africa was his own country, where opposition parties are not allowed.”

There is a grain of truth in this. Post-colonial Africa has been plagued by ethnic conflict, and political parties, where they have been allowed, have often been ethnically based. It can certainly be argued that traditional tribal structures should have been utilised more rather than directly imposing western models.

But the idea that democracy is therefore a failure, and one-party dictatorship is the solution, is not only grossly insulting to Africa’s brave legions of campaigners for democracy and human rights; it flies in the face of the available evidence.

A much more plausible culprit for Africa’s problems is its colonial-drawn boundaries, which arbitrarily mix and match ethnic groups in a way almost guaranteed to cause problems. But one thing its leaders all agree on is the need to preserve existing boundaries inviolate, since no-one knows where a revision, once started, might end.

Gaddafi’s tirade against democracy also draws attention to the oddness of his new-found status as a friend and ally of the west. He ended his pariah status in 2006 not by any sort of internal reform, but simply by giving up some of his weapons programs and signing on to US foreign policy.

Libya’s ratings for human rights are still abysmal. Freedom House in its latest report: gives it the worst possible score, commenting that “the oil-rich country’s poor human rights performance showed no signs of improvement during the year, and the warmer diplomatic climate appeared to dim prospects for concerted international pressure on the issue.”

Speaking of international pressure, it would have been nice if the Bush administration had faced more scrutiny on the hypocrisy of its attitude to Libya and other “friendly” dictatorships in the midst of what was supposed to be a crusade for democracy in the Middle East. Time will tell if Barack Obama is prepared to try a different approach.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey