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.