Brother leader, revolutionary guide, autocrat, colonel, dictator, mad dog; call Gaddafi what you will, he won’t mind. He’s dead. SIMON ALLISON looks at the unusual life of Libya’s most infamous son.
Politics just won’t be the same without Gaddafi. In a world of grey suits and red ties, here was a man who wore bright robes and sunglasses, who lived in a tent and drank camel’s milk. Here was a man who relied for his protection on an elite unit of female bodyguards, because men just couldn’t be trusted and travelled nowhere without his voluptuous Ukrainian nurse. Here was a man who changed the Arabic spelling of his country’s name to make it look more symmetrical; even orthographic conventions didn’t hold him back.
Normal titles, like president or king, were always insufficient for such a man. Instead, Gaddafi insisted on being known as ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’. And when that became a bit run-of-the-mill, he organised a conference of subservient African yes-men to anoint him as “King of Kings”, a designation last used for God himself.
He disguised his madness, to himself at least, with his complete lack of irony. His political philosophy is encapsulated in his Green Book, Libya’s best-selling book of all time, and, before the revolution, was required reading in all Libyan schools. Along with demonstrating Brother Leader’s questionable grasp of political theory, it has this to say about required school reading: “Mandatory education is a coercive education that suppresses freedom. To impose specific teaching materials is a dictatorial act.” (He did sound a bit like Pink Floyd on that one. – Ed)
But it was his public appearances and speeches where Gaddafi really came into his own. He could completely derail meetings and conferences with his often interminable and usually off-topic utterances, although these were invariably entertaining. In his very first speech to address the nascent rebellion in February this year, he appeared on state television from inside a car while wearing ear flaps and holding an umbrella, denouncing other channels reporting the protests as run by stray dogs. In another, he alleged that the rebels were 17 year olds being drugged by al Qaeda: “They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe.”
But as exciting and colourful as Gaddafi was, Libya might just prefer their next leaders to stick to grey suits and red ties, and maybe a lot more democracy too. Because, while the world may not have always taken Gaddafi very seriously, his people certainly did. They didn’t have a choice. Behind all the pomp and buffoonery was a cold, hard, brutal dictator who concentrated all power in his own person and tolerated no opposition. He came to power in a “revolution” which he led in 1969. Gaddafi’s revolution was very different to the one which brought an end to his regime. It was more of a coup d’etat, a transfer of power from one autocrat, King Idris, to another. Swiftly, Gaddafi set about using Libya’s vast oil reserves to develop his country – in his own strange vision, of course. He poured billions into showpiece projects which didn’t work, like the Great Man-Made River which was designed to pump water from desert wells to coastal areas. But Libya remained poor. To this day, most of its citizens live on less than $2 a day – about R16.50 to put that in context – despite the country having more oil than anywhere else in Africa.
He consolidated his one-man rule by throwing hundreds of people into jail and executing hundreds, maybe thousands more. A series of mass graves have been uncovered by the transitional government forces, most notoriously one at Abu Salim which is said to contain some 1,200 bodies. It’s expected that more evidence of atrocities committed in his name and under his regime will come to light.
In the international arena, he turned Libya into a pariah nation after his role was uncovered in ordering the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 in 1988, which exploded over the Scottish village of Lockerbie killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground. This was apparently in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iran Air plane by a US missile cruiser. He also alienated other Arab countries which objected to his attempts to dominate the Arab League.
Disgusted by the what he perceived as the death of pan-Arabism, he turned his attentions to Africa. His dreams of a “United States of Africa” were bolstered by his willingness to throw money around the continent. Rumours abound of various presidential campaigns funded by brown-paper envelopes stuffed with Libyan cash, while he covered the African Union membership fees of a number of countries. But in the end, even Africa rejected his more ambitious plans, refusing to allow Gaddafi to hang on to the African Union’s annual rotating chairmanship. Africa’s presidents-for-life weren’t interested in making Gaddafi their chairman-for-life. Despite this, he retained plenty of goodwill in Africa’s diplomatic corridors, evidenced by the African Union’s stubborn refusal to recognise the rebel government even after Gaddafi had fled Tripoli.
Towards the end of his rule, Gaddafi had been largely successful in rehabilitating Libya’s international image, despite his eccentricities and documented brutalities. With the help of an international public relations firm, the judicious awarding of contracts and a string of high-profile guests such as the UK’s Prince Andrew and Italy’s Silvio Burlesconi, he made Libya diplomatically acceptable again. His greatest publicity coup was securing the release in 2009 of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber, who had been languishing in a Scottish prison. His most important achievement in these latter years was having international sanctions lifted in reward for giving up on Libya’s nuclear programme.
The successful transformation of Gaddafi from tyrant and pariah to eccentric, avuncular statesman was interrupted by this year’s Libyan revolution. Gaddafi’s vicious, take-no-prisoners response was no surprise to his long-suffering opponents, and it served as a reminder to the international community of what his regime was really like. Public opinion was overwhelmingly with Libya’s rebels, and the International Criminal Court soon slapped a largely symbolic arrest warrant on his head for crimes against humanity committed in the suppression of the rebellion. Sanctions were reinstated. Gaddafi’s public appearances became increasingly erratic and his utterances echoed the misplaced defiance of Saddam Hussein in the final days of the war in Iraq.
There were shades of Saddam Hussein in his capture too, when it came. It seems that Middle Eastern dictators crawl into dark, circular spaces when they’ve used up absolutely all of their authority. But unlike Hussein, Gaddafi never made it to a trial or execution, and the images of his bloody corpse unceremoniously dragged through the street will live long in the memory of Libya and the world.
With Gaddafi’s death, Libya has lost its revolutionary guide, its brother leader, its king of kings. And the country is all the better for it. DM
The filming of The Beach permanently damaged the ecosystem on the Thai island it was located on.