Gaddafi: Africa’s Love-Hate Relationship

As the death of Muammar Gaddafi spread rapidly through news announcements and grainy videos, streets across Libya swelled with hundreds of thousands emerging in celebration. Amid the cheers and chants, celebratory gunfire crackled and the black, green and red of the restored Libyan flag, a symbol of newfound emancipation, was omnipresent. Gaddafi’s death has brought a real feeling of optimism to the majority of Libyans who feel the weight of decades of dictatorship has finally been lifted and the country and its people are on the cusp of realising their full potential.

Meanwhile 3,000 miles to the south, outside the vast Muammar Gaddafi Mosque in Kampala, evening was approaching and the atmosphere could not have been more different. A crowd of close to 30,000 had gathered in memorial and the mood was sombre, even angry. One speaker, Sheikh Amir Mutyaba wept as he described Gaddafi as a hero, and to many in Uganda and throughout Africa he is just this: a hero whose largesse supported the poor and who sought to strengthen African unity and independence. His government oversaw Libyan funds building roads throughout the continent and financing the African Union. There can be no doubt about the fact that he was a driving force in the region, and he came to be regarded by Africans as one of their own. Indeed, it is perhaps due to this well cultivated image of an independent African leader that there has been such upset amongst many at the nature of his death.

“I am touched by how he died” said Malian musician Manny Ansar, “Love him or not, we must recognise that this is one of the greatest African leaders who influenced several generations, including mine.”

His ability to keep Libya independent from western influence was greatly respected by a number of African leaders and heads of state. Some might find such an observation odd given how his own people were treated if they attempted any independent political thought of their own that subverted Gaddafi’s mantra. Yet in the words of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni speaking in September, “whatever his faults, (Gaddafi) is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests.” Such independence coupled with his regular benevolent projects, won Gaddafi much support in the region. A symbol of his support amongst the African leadership was vividly manifested in the failed AU attempt to broker a ceasefire between the strengthening NTC and Gaddafi’s forces in April. The proposed ceasefire aimed to maintain Gaddafi’s power in Tripoli, a position that incensed some to the point of attacking the African dignitaries’ car as it left negotiations in Benghazi. One official commented that support for Gaddafi was obvious as many on the continent “owed him favours”, and to forget this would be duplicitous. The African Union also refused to recognize the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya until as late as last month; if Gaddafi had sought to make friends in Africa, it is clear he had succeeded.

However, it would be absurd to imply that Gaddafi’s cash injections and building projects on the continent were in any way motiveless. It is important to remember that his focal concentration on pan-African affairs arrived, unsurprisingly, swiftly after the failure of his pan-Arab dream. After all it is easier to buy influence with oil dollars in Africa than in the oil-rich Middle East. Many have commented that his actions on the continent have been paradoxical; bankrolling Nelson Mandela’s 1994 campaign in South Africa’s first democratic elections whilst maintaining a violent authoritarian dictatorship at home, building infrastructure in poor areas of the continent whilst fuelling bloody civil war and unrest in others. He won a reputation on foreign state visits for throwing money into the streets as his cavalcade passed by, yet those ordinary people who smiled and cheered at his generosity were the same sort of ordinary Africans who were having their arms hacked off by machete blades wielded by Gaddafi-funded RUF in Sierra Leone.

I do not necessarily see the paradox; personal influence was always Gaddafi’s game; African interests were not at his heart, unless of course they went hand in hand with his own interests. African affairs are multiplicitous and extremely complex, and Gaddafi was well attuned to them. To gain influence, he read the situation adeptly and sometimes used carrot, sometimes stick. The means was unimportant, only the end mattered. Without him, Africa has lost a driving force for both good and ill;  he affected the lives of millions, countless for bad but also many for good, and for this reason he will always have his defenders. It is ironic that whilst Gaddafi’s dream of a unified Africa will die with him, many African nations can be safer in the hope of a stable future without him.

Alex Tweedy

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4 Comments on this post.
  • dan
    2 November 2011 at 23:06
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    Thanks. Interesting read.

    Gaddafi’s African vision was a puppet idea useful only when it was convenient to him. The African Union is a near shambles too. Take a look at their stance on many issues. (Of course the weakness of Africa institutions is largely a Western success)

    I’d also question the upset across Africa. You’ve mentioned two states/people: the ironic Museweni and a Malian musician. You didnt see his neighbours crying over his overthrow.

    There are Libyan students at Notts. We should ask them what they think of Gaddafi’s largesse and its timing.

  • Alex
    4 November 2011 at 17:01
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    Hi Dan cheers for your comments.

    I totally agree with you on the African Union, it was never likely to abandon Gaddafi as he was one of the founding fathers of the organisation and its leading benefactor. I read the other day that the AU’s current chairman is Equatorial Guinea’s self declared ‘God’ Teodoro Obiang Nguema, one of the most brutal and authoritarian dictators in the world who has embezzled around $700M of state money. Its hard to take such an organisation and many of its policies seriously. Then again the UN hardly has a stellar record when it comes to a number of African issues.

    I’d agree you didn’t see many of his neighbours crying over his overthrow; but then his neighbours include Tunisia and Egypt, two states that have recently overthrown their own corrupt governments and Chad to the south which he invaded in the 70/80’s.

    I came across this BBC article just after handing in mine:

    It shows something of the depth of feeling amongst certain areas of Malian society. The more I read about the demographic of his African supporters the more I feel his Islamic identity and charity attracts their support rather than his African one.



  • dan
    4 November 2011 at 18:27
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    Well no doubt Gaddafi was a paradox, even to himself. He offered to join the revolt when it first started which implies either schizophrenia, a total lack of awareness or a seriously opportunist, Machiavellian individual. Speaking to a friend Amira who presently lives in Cairo, her family has done fine out of Gaddafi, as many middle class Libyans have but she was in no doubt his downfall was a great thing.

    By neighbours I was actually thinking about Algeria and Niger who have very ambivalent (let’s say that) opinions of the man. Its interesting the real quiet concern came from Italy and France for immigration and investment reasons. The need to be on the winning (good) side was vital for them.

    I know a Syrian MA student at Notts who could be a good person to speak to if you want to follow this article with something else. He too has an ambivalent attitude to the present upheaval. After all, like a lot of Libyan students, his funding comes from the state. A lot of Libyan students have been left in the lurch regarding funding.

  • Marnie
    14 December 2011 at 19:51
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    I appreciate you taking to time to ctonribute That’s very helpful.

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