With most of the Libyan capital now falling under the control of forces aligned with Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), greater time and attention can now be devoted to pondering the many questions which have been pushed to one side when the outcome of the conflict was still uncertain. These issues include legitimate concerns about the nature and capacity of the erstwhile rebels’ not especially transparent leadership; the extent to which the disparate elements that made up the anti-Gaddafi opposition to now coalesce into a coherent government; the strength and intentions of the Islamists within the rebel movement; and they are up to the task of rebuilding a country that has been devastated by not only six months of war, but by more than four decades of “permanent revolution” during which “Brother Leader” swept away almost all the institutions that otherwise might have lent their strength in the times ahead. One thing, however, is pretty certain: the relationship between Libya and its African neighbors outside the Maghreb will never be the same. 

As I noted five months ago, despite his early attempts to secure hegemony over the continent and the various rebellions he fomented against other African governments, Muammar Gaddafi also lavished attention, aid, and investment on his neighbors to the south. The African Union’s founding documents even explicitly acknowledged that the pan-African body’s creation was “inspired by the important proposals submitted by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Leader of the Great Al-Fatah Libyan Revolution, and particularly, by his vision for a strong and united Africa, capable of meeting global challenges and shouldering its responsibility to harness the human and natural resources of the continent in order to improve the living conditions of its peoples.” Over the years, Libya accounted for upwards of one-third of the AU’s budget, paying not only its outsized contribution, but covering the dues of dozens of members who would otherwise have been in arrears.

Not surprisingly, with the exception of a half-hearted attempt to “mediate” the conflict in Gaddafi’s favor early on—it was a very strange sort of mediation when one of the mediators, South African President Jacob Zuma, flew home after meeting with the Libyan ruler without even traveling to Benghazi to see rebel leaders—the AU has been largely absent from the crisis. This is in sharp contrast to the Arab League, which not only provided critical diplomatic cover for the United Nations resolutions sanctioning the Gaddafi regime and authorizing the no-fly zone, but, on Thursday, moved to recognize the TNC as Libya’s legitimate government.  

A few AU members have broken ranks to establish ties with the rebels. For example Gabon, which as rotating member of the UN Security Council voted for the resolutions and whose president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, told an audience at the Atlantic Council in June that Gaddafi regime had failed to deliver on its social contract with the people and that it would “help solve the problem” if it gave up power, last week formally recognized the TNC as “the only representative of the Libyan people.” Nigeria, another rotating member of the Security Council, followed suit on Thursday.  

The vast majority of African states, however, have not been as proactive. Even with the rebels’ victory all but assured and the TNC desperate for funds to meet basic needs and, perhaps more importantly, secure political support, especially in the western areas of the country where the Gaddafi regime had been well entrenched, some in the AU are still trying to keep the Libyan opposition at arm’s length. South Africa, whose deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, suggested as late as this week that NATO commanders should be investigated for war crimes for their role in assisting the rebels, even used its rotating seat on the UN Security Council to try and block the release of just a fraction of Libya’s frozen assets on the grounds that giving it to the rebels implied their recognition. 

The resentment that all of this has provoked among Libyans was demonstrable in those regions which first raised the flag of rebellion against the regime in the violence directed against black Africans who, rightly or wrongly, were viewed as having been favored by it. While some Africans were indeed mercenaries who fought for the colonel, the vast majority of Africans caught up in the fighting were economic migrants who had either settled in Libya, where they made up more than one-sixth of the population before the conflict, or were in transit through there to other destinations. So bad did things become in the rebel-held east that, just to get away from it, more than 12,000 refugees from the violence in Darfur actually accepted free rides offered by the Sudanese authorities to Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan. 

Thus it is inevitable that the relationship will change significantly by adjust to the new political realities. While Libya will likely remain a member of the African Union—assuming that it acknowledges that the country’s new rulers are indeed its legal regime—its role will probably be more commensurate with its population and economy, in contrast to the outsized engagement with Africa that was one Gaddafi’s signature policies. And it is virtually assured that the days when the AU could count on Libya to essentially guarantee its operating budget are over.  

Nevertheless, the two sides will still need to work with each other. African governments will need to work with the new regime in Libya if they are to have any hope of controlling the proliferation of arms that the upheaval in the country has unleashed. To cite one example, just last month the UN Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea reported that “the number if man-portable air defense systems in circulation has increased since conflict erupted in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, where hundreds, if not thousands, of systems were pilfered from state stockpiles.” For its part, the TNC will need the cooperation of African governments if it is to get control of the billions of dollars in investments made in those countries by Libyan sovereign wealth funds under Gaddafi. Those investments in businesses and real property will probably need to be sold in order to raise the funds needed for reconstruction and development back home in Libya.

In short, while important areas for collaboration remain, it is likelier than not that, insofar as the new Libyan government will have much time for foreign affairs at all, it will emphasize its links to the Arab world, while relegating its relations with Africa to the back burner.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham