Waffling and divided, the African Union has been ineffectual in its feeble attempts to mediate a solution to the Libya conflict for the past few weeks. But now its moment of opportunity may be finally arriving.
Representatives of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his opponents in the Libyan rebel movement have been invited to attend an AU meeting on Friday in Addis Ababa, creating the first faint hopes of a diplomatic settlement to the Libyan crisis.
Other key leaders - including officials from the European Union, the United Nations Security Council and Arab nations - are also expected to attend the meeting. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the meeting is part of efforts to reach a ceasefire and a political solution.
With the Western bombing campaign beginning to run out of targets for its war planes after five days of air strikes, and with no obvious exit strategy in sight for Col. Gadhafi or the Western coalition, the two sides may be willing to entertain the idea of diplomatic talks.
The African Union is perhaps the only organization that can organize such talks. Unlike the Arab League and the Security Council, the AU has refused to endorse the bombing campaign, and it has maintained its links to the Gadhafi regime - partly because of the billions of dollars in financial support that Libya has given to many African nations. The AU elected Col. Gadhafi as its chairman from 2009 to 2010, and he retains much influence across Africa.
Several AU members have criticized the Western air strikes this week, while the AU itself has opposed any foreign military intervention in Libya. But when the military option was brought to the UN Security Council for a decision last week, all three of the council's African members - South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon - voted for the military intervention, allowing the bombing campaign to begin.
The AU has appointed a committee of five African leaders to try to mediate between Col. Gadhafi and the rebels, although the committee was denied permission to enter Libya when the bombing began last Sunday. The committee is still active, and the European Union announced this week that it will provide about $375,000 to help finance the committee's work.
South Africa President Jacob Zuma, a member of the committee, has demonstrated the ambivalent attitudes of many African leaders as they try to balance between the two sides in Libya. "We say no to the killing of civilians, no to the regime-change doctrine, and no to the foreign occupation of Libya or any other sovereign state," Mr. Zuma said in a speech this week.
"We believe that a peaceful and political solution, based on the will of the Libyan people, will guarantee long-term stability in Libya," he added.
In other conflicts across Africa, including those in Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast, Mr. Zuma has favoured the idea of power-sharing agreements that allow authoritarian leaders to stay in office with a portion of their power, even when they lose elections. The AU, too, has supported many of these compromise deals, giving a higher priority to peace and stability, rather than electoral fairness.
In the Libyan crisis, the AU has shown its usual ambivalence. In a statement this month, it said it supports the desire of the Libyan people for "democracy, political reform, justice, peace and security." But it also praised the Gadhafi regime for embarking upon "the path of reforms."