Lessons From Libya: Who Defines A Dictator?

News & Analysis

Lessons From Libya: Who Defines A Dictator?

The brutal killing of Libyan leader Muammar Al Gathafi at the hands of NATO-supported so-called rebels can only be described as one of the most defining stories of 2011. But with no major outcry coming from Africa and the new Libyan leaders trying to legitimise the killing and make the world believe that the country will be rebuilt from Western-inflicted ruins, many questions remain unanswered about the fall of the country. In this opinion piece, Zambian writer Sishuwa Sishuwa probes questions which are on many an African mind. Has Africa learnt anything from the Libyan debacle?

On Monday, 24 December  1951, Libya attained her independence from Italy, the first African country to achieve that feat after the Second World War. A litany of challenges greeted the newly-liberated state that, for the next eighteen years, was ruled by a hereditary monarchy under King Idris. These included the backwardness of industry, high incidences of poverty and illiteracy, poor living standards and working conditions for a few who were fortunate to find jobs, and a vast mass of miserable peasants who were in dire need of sufficient land on which to sustain themselves, agriculturally, as most of the arable land was still held by Italian settlers.

These challenges persisted throughout the first two decades of independence, as the fruits of freedom remained elusive for many Libyans, even after the discovery of significant oil reserves in 1959. Their frustrations were worsened by an arrogant, corrupt and intolerant monarchical cabal that presided over considerable underdevelopment, and which tried to disguise the emptiness of its existence behind a magnificent façade of pomp and splendour. Consequently, widespread discontent against the regime mounted. Hugely influenced by the socio-political ideological context of the time, including the ideas of then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and inspired by a scarce courage that shows a love of their country, a small band of Libyan patriots, who could not bear the injustices of the regime any longer, rebelled against the monarchy and seized power in a bloodless coup in September 1969.

For the next four decades, Libya’s fate was under the reign of the charismatic  leader, Muammar Al Gathafi. During that span, he transformed the country from one of the world’s poorest states into one of the wealthiest (though the wealth was unevenly distributed), with a thriving economy and industry, accessible state-of the-art medical facilities, state-funded educational facilities, a working middle class, high standards of living, modern infrastructure, first-class housing and sufficient water and sanitation. Over the decades he created a genuine welfare state, initiated afforestation of large areas of Libya, and lifted the status of Libya to a middle-income economy. But Al Gathafi’s long reign was also marred by extreme authoritarianism, the abolishment of constitutionalism, massive corruption, high levels of intolerance to criticism, forced subservience of the citizens, and frustrations resulting from a lack of participation in the governance of their country and a dangerous absence of open mechanisms through which to air their grievances – deleterious traits which had partly inspired his own rise to power.

Outside Libya, Al Gathafi was both a shining star and a villain. He heavily financed many liberation movements across the continent such as the ANC in South Africa and was widely held as a revolutionary hero in many other African countries. In the West, however, Al Gathafi was intensely regarded as a pariah, who was responsible for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, who bankrolled rebel movements in countries like Chad, and who, until 2003, invested in weapons of mass destruction, and sponsored terrorism on the continent.

On 20 October 2011, Al Gathafi was captured alive after his convoy was attacked by NATO warplanes and gruesomely killed by the National Transitional Council (NTC) rebels the same day. This was after a protracted rebellion against his rule that began earlier this year.

What lessons can Africa draw from Al Gathafi’s life and death?

First there is the fact that there is a limit to which leaders can take the governed for granted. People seek freedom regardless of their standards of living. Freedom means more than having access to social services like education and health, water and sanitation. The Libyan rebellion was not a fight for economic equality but a fight for freedom, ethical values and social justice. Al Gathafi caged his own people for over 40 years and denied them the right to determine how their society should be governed.

Although this is the first rebellion that succeeded in overthrowing Al Gathafi, there were actually more lower-scale agitations accompanying the entire duration of his rule, which showed that people were never tolerant of the violations of their leader, but simply unable to effect the changes they sought to bring into being. His removal from power (not his death) gives inspiration to other troubled Africans on the continent who are struggling against similar injustices – authoritarianism and a lack of full participation in the governance of their countries. 

The second lesson is in the form of a question: who is a “dictator” and who defines him or her? Is it the ruled or the “international community”, or both? If it is the citizens, is it not their sole preserve and duty to abolish and replace a dictatorial regime? Who arrogates the power to define the other as a dictator? Accordingly, who arrogated the West the power to determine who is a dictator, and who is not, in Africa (and the rest of the world)? Where is the role of African agency in all this?

Isn’t it possible that a fundamental policy or ideological differentiation between the West and an African government may lead to the latter’s leader being labelled a “dictator”? What happens when both the people of Libya and the West define Al Gathafi as a “dictator”, but for different reasons? The people, because of Al
Gathafi’s iron-clad rule and repression, and the West, because it became politically expedient at a certain moment to abandon Al Gathafi as an ally (which he was for most of his reign despite his anti-imperialist overtones), and have him replaced with someone who would serve as a more stable puppet; how do we discern between these contesting definitions in order to avoid having to accept or reject both?

Third, there is the fact that the Libyan question has exposed the vulnerability of Africa in so far as resolving its problems and resisting Western or external interventions are concerned. From Cape Town to Cairo, there was a deafening silence while NATO was busy abusing its mandate in Libya and while the deadly sounds of bazookas and AK47 rifles rang from Benghazi and Tripoli. No African country was heard publicly protesting against the carnage in Libya. The question is why?

When Vladimir Lenin was once asked how he managed to keep control of such a large and vast empire as the Soviet Union, he responded by obtaining a chicken before plucking out all its feathers and letting it go. Unable to determine whether its captor would do more harm to it if it hovered away or protested against the treatment meted out to it, the chicken simply remained still, too traumatised and scared to rebel or do anything. Is Africa in a similar predicament?  If so, when will Africa assemble and rebel? If the West was to embark on another colonising mission of the continent, can Africa respond differently to the previous response and emerge victorious? Of course, the question is more complex because there are sharply contrasting interests and desires in every African country and treating a continent of over 54 countries as an undifferentiated monolith is probably wrong. But one may legitimately ask: what would an African victory have looked like in the Libyan case, and would it be a victory for all Africans? However, aren’t the challenges that most African countries face similar?

Fourth is the question of what really constitutes good governance and whether or not democracy should be exported. Does good governance consist only of periodic elections and institutional term limits, or rather of improved standards of living, good housing, high literacy and employment levels, among other factors? Or perhaps it presupposes a radically different society based on social and economic relations that call into question all of the human development index indicators we are so used to relying on? When a country’s adherence to democratic practices is determined, shouldn’t the challenges of democratically ruling a poor and impoverished country – and there are many – be taken into consideration? After the assassination of Al Gathafi, US President Barack Obama said: “We gave him ample opportunity [to transition to democracy], and he wouldn’t do it.” This raises the question: is it right to force-feed societies that refuse to swallow the pill of democracy at a rapid pace, determined by those who have arrogated themselves the power to feed other societies with their values, without taking into account the unique settings and existing variables of the host society, as we have witnessed in Libya? What really is democracy?

Given the fact that the West has been and continues to be allies with a whole host of non-democracies, isn’t a democratic leader or state simply one that remains faithful to Western interests? Is it really the fight for democracy that explains the West’s participation in Libya or rather, geopolitics focused on oil revenues and the West’s support for Israel is the principal issue at the centre? And since when did the West become a defender of third world interests without there being anything in it for them? If it was simply the question of Al Gathafi’s longevity in power, and the desire to install a democratic state that defends human rights, as we are told, why haven’t we seen a similar campaign in other countries where we have witnessed widespread human rights violations and leaders who have been in power for as long as the slain Libyan leader?

Surely, aren’t Obama and the West aware that Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and José Santos of Angola have both been in power for 32 years, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, 31, Paul Biya of Cameroon, 29, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, 25, King Mswati III of Swaziland and Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso, 24 years?  Or is it because geopolitical interests are at play even here and the West is easily pillaging the resources of these countries with the consent of some of these countries’ leaderships?

Finally, there is the question of what the death of Al Gathafi says about the current world order and the double standards that characterise it. Doesn’t the gruesome assassination of the former Libyan leader violate international law, the very one which the West preaches to others, as established by the Geneva Convention? Were any lessons really learnt from the Iraq War? Since he was captured alive, why was Al Gathafi not tried? Suggestions that his killing will be investigated and that the West was not aware of it are simply laughable, to say the least. It is the West that armed the rebels who killed Al Gathafi, potentially including those who finally assassinated him. In any case, wasn’t the intention of bombing his convoy to kill him in the first place?

Of course, to assign primary responsibility to the West is not to slight the midwifery role or agency of the rebels in Al Gathafi’s death. While the latter sold themselves to expedient interests to advance their own greed and grievances, it is the West that provided all the crucial support including ammunition and airplanes in the first place, though significant effort were made to project an image that the US, at least, was ignorant of Al Gathafi’s final capture and death. American President Obama hailed his death as a “momentous day” for Libya. That was expected from him. It is Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General, who called it a “historic” moment and surprised some of us. Since when did the UN start celebrating the death of its own members? Whose interests was he defending? Yes, Al Gathafi had committed serious atrocities against his own and other people and his regime, one may add, was increasingly becoming corrupt. But an honest nation or person will always be against any injustice (especially such a violent death as Al Gathafi’s was) regardless of the victim, and the worst injustice is to condemn others to the very injustices and crimes which you have projected yourself as fighting against.

However, expecting the West and the current UN to defend human rights, especially those of their perceived adversaries, is probably expecting too much. Hasn’t the US been killing “rebels” or “insurgents” and even innocent civilians in rocket bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world, under the banner of fighting terrorism, promoting democracy and without a recourse to justice? Hasn’t the UN, especially in recent times, been associated with the most disagreeable of messages and, in the words of Thabo Mbeki, “severely undermined its acceptability as a neutral force in the resolution of internal conflicts”? Mbeki continued: “It will now be difficult for the United Nations to convince Africa and the rest of the developing world that it is not a mere instrument in the hands of the world’s major powers. This has confirmed the urgency of the need to restructure the organisation, based on the view that as presently structured the United Nations has no ability to act as a truly democratic representative of its member states.”

Like Saddam Hussein, Al Gathafi is no more. Is the world a better place without him? I am simply not persuaded. As opposed to policing others, the West must change its patronising conduct and revisit its relationship with other nations. The current world order, defined by a few countries but imposed on the majority due to the former’s political, economic, technological, media and military might, is unjust, full of hypocrisy and, as Fidel Castro correctly noted in his recent Reflections column, “engenders injustice on our planet, squanders its natural resources and is placing humanity’s survival at risk”. The need to alter and even abolish it is not only a clarion call to action but also an inescapable duty of all third world countries and those who thirst for justice, if a more humane, secure and dignified world order is to be created.

Related Posts

Unmissable Past Stories