Opinionista Kiflu Hussain 22 February 2011

Libyans rediscover the rebel spirit of Omar Mukhtar

As the 2011 revolutions spread across North Africa and the Middle East, they are stirring revolutionary spirits in more southerly African nations still under the jackboot of tyranny – countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.

I’m an Ethiopian refuge in Uganda. To some of us, the revolution spreading like a bushfire in North Africa and the Arab world -including the Horn of Africa – might have lost its appeal as a hot news. Yet to people who maintain a sense of history, the uprisings, sparked in Tunisia, transmitted to Egypt after rubbing  off some flame on Algeria, crossing to Yemen and Bahrain only to return to Libya, remain an interesting phenomenon. In fact, it might even stir emotional involvement and recollection of some past events in a few of us. Personally, the latest revolt in Benghazi, Libya took me back down memory lane.

In capricious global politics, where alignment and realignment took place between nations, particularly during  the Cold War, the military regime of Mengistu Hailemariam and its Libyan counterpart led by Muammar Gaddafi enjoyed a brief “romantic relationship” in the 1980s. As a “revolutionary socialist leader”, Mengistu subjected Ethiopia to Soviet influence whipping us into “proletariat discipline” within our worker, peasant, women and youth associations. I belonged to the youth association. Worse, as I grew up in the Bole area near the international airport where the few middle-class, then known as “petit bourgeois” congregated, it was our fate to receive a foreign dignitary from the “socialist and anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist camp” whenever one dropped by in Addis Ababa.

Among the “revolutionary” despots I was forced to receive was one Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. It was his first time in Ethiopia, in the wake of his receiving tons of bombs from the American air force and marine aircraft during the Reagan administration. I remember his large entourage in three different aircraft ranging from a Lear jet to a Boeing 727. Though, we weren’t that politically conscious, it wasn’t lost on us that Gaddafi was frittering away the resources of his oil-rich country by running Libya as his personal fiefdom.

However, there was no way I could foresee benefiting from being employed in a joint venture born out of that brief relationship between my country’s despot and his counterpart from Libya. At any rate, I had an opportunity years later to work as a legal service officer in an enterprise called Ethio-Libyan Joint Mining Company until it was dissolved and gobbled up by the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front tycoon, Mohammed Al Amoudi.

During my employment, I came to know three Libyans, the board chairman who was in his early fifties, a young auditor who was mostly having fun in the company and Saad Ali Salaamat, a friend of the auditor who used to come to our office frequently. He was in Ethiopia to be trained as an aviation engineer for Ethiopian Airlines. We developed a friendship even better than the one with my Libyan colleague. Soon we began to exchange views on politics. Amazingly, we were on the same wavelength. But I was more surprised because I had also been a victim of stereotyping all Arabs as devoid of any revolutionary spirit and political inquisitiveness. I assumed that almost all Arabs had no ambition more than their Friday prayers in the religion that allows them to marry as many wives as possible. I thought all of them benefited from the oil revenue to the point of making them smug and content.

My Libyan friend dispelled that notion by openly criticising Gaddafi in front of his countryman and my colleague. Later he told me he had no intention of going back to his country. True to his word, when he finished his training he applied for asylum in Ethiopia. As his application for asylum coincided with the freezing of relationship between Mengistu and Gaddafi, my Libyan friend faced no problem in being granted asylum. Decades later, after I sought refuge in Uganda, I was forced to remember my Libyan friend due to the arrogant utterances of Colonel Gaddafi.

In 2009, while visiting his former colonial masters in Rome, in what sounded like music to his Italian host and generally to the Europeans who had been engaged in anti-immigrant exercises to the point of xenophobia and racism, Gaddafi said, “Africa has no political refugees”. This brazen distortion of facts by Gaddafi, naturally conjured up the image of my refugee Libyan friend. To me, Ali Salaamat did not only demystify the propaganda the man with the “green book”. He also told me that it was only a matter of time until Libyans rose up against him. Frankly, on this one, I dismissed him as a typical malcontent engaged in wishful thinking. Yet, decades later, out of the blue erupted a revolution in Libya that forced Gaddafi to hire mercenaries to massacre his own people when his army began to side with the legitimate demands of the people. I wonder where Saad Ali Salamaat is now. The last time I met him, he mentioned something about his case being referred to America or Canada by the UNHCR which ironically took my being a refugee to enable me understand that mechanism as a “resettlement”.

The total fearlessness of the Libyans in Benghazi in spite of a cruel mercenary unit deployed by Gaddafi has ultimately enabled them to retrieve their dignity by ejecting Gaddafi’s henchmen It has also reminded me of what Aklilou Habtewold, prime minister during Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, observed about Libya in 1949. According to ambassador Zewdie Retta’s book “Eritrean Affair during the reign of Haile Sellassie I” written in Amharic, Aklilou, irked by the unfairness of the UN that kept postponing a decision on the future of Eritrea while expressing readiness to grant independence within two years to Libya, lamented: “Without the majority of the Libyans posing resistance for independence or unity that’s worthy of any news, to appease the Arab bloc and the Islamic nations, it’s decided that it be granted independence after two years by uniting all three districts.”

I don’t even think Aklilou said that out of jingoism. Either the heroic resistance of Omar Mukhtar to Italian colonialism had not yet emerged in the public domain due to the primitive dissemination of information, or, having known about Omar Mukhtar, Aklilou might have thought little of the generation of Libyans due to their failure to continue the resistance where Mukhtar left off. Whatever the case, it’s inspiring to know that the resistance to dictatorship in Libya rose from the same area where the “Lion of the Desert,” Omar Mukhtar was born and grew up. Mukhtar rattled the Italian colonialists for 20 years before he was captured and executed in September 1931. Now a new generation of Libyans is rattling the home-grown dictator.

Speaking of Italian colonialism brings me back to another façade of dictatorship that knows no shame. While it’s his father who has recently been hobnobbing with Western powers, particularly Italy, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi accused the protesters of wanting to hand over Libya to the “Italians and Turks”. Since dictators always suffer from a self-induced amnesia, it’s imperative to remind Saif that his decadent father went on record again in 2010 by requesting an annual remuneration of €5 million for services rendered in catching “starving and ignorant Africans” that threatened to engulf Europe via Libya. One is also mindful of the irony that Gaddafi tried to play the part of a unionist figure for Africa while spouting racist and divisive remarks.

By now there is no illusion about what comes to the minds of the Western policymakers. Their first concern cannot be the violation of human rights in Libya. The greedy and gluttonous Western appetite makes it imperative for them to think first and foremost about the price of oil going up. The crucial news for them is in the protesters in Benghazi promising that if the Western world didn’t stop its double standards and hypocrisy, they would stop the flow of oil altogether. Quite a revolution, isn’t it?

To others squirming under dictatorship (like my fellow Ethiopians), it’s an immense source of inspiration. It’s a lesson to all Ethiopians who seem to be demoralised by the ineptitude and self-serving agenda of opposition figures. It sends a clear message that as long as there is a genuine need for freedom, there is a rallying point. Those who think Ethiopians have given up and apathy has descended on the terrain should remember once again Tolstoy’s timeless observation: “Insurrection is a machine that makes no noise”.

To regimes like Uganda’s that recently claimed victory in a sham election, it’s good to remember that Hosni Mubarak was also booted out of office after claiming a landslide victory. Ironically, it’s reported that Museveni of Uganda received funding from Gaddafi to train young cadres under a programme called “patriotism”. Apparently these same cadres were instrumental in bringing him a “landslide” victory among other things from the recently concluded circus. Whatever transaction took place between Museveni and Gaddafi before their falling-out, it’s worth remembering that Gaddafi encouraged his “revolutionary” comrade by reminding him that “revolutionaries” will not go anywhere until they finish their mission. He even had the cheek to suggest US President Barack Obama be made lifelong president for Americans. As things stand now, the end of him and his sons will be very much the same as that of Saddam Hussein. FAM


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