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Gaddafi’s long shadows

by Olayinka Oyegbile

Opinion

In March, Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi was waging war against his own people. The UN Security Council passed a resolution to allow the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the country by use of military means. When D+C/E+Z went to press, it remained to be seen whether Gaddafi would prevail or not. It was obvious, however, that his brutal ways have not only hurt his own nation, but many others as well. By Olayinka Oyegbile

How do you correctly spell his name? Gaddafi, Quadafi or Kadaffi? Whichever way you prefer to spell it, the issue is as confusing as Muammar Gaddafi himself. Libya’s dictator is one of Africa’s and the Arab world’s most controversial leaders. He means different things to different people.

Gaddafi’s influence looms large in Africa. He was the AU chairperson in 2009/10 and he hosted the EU/Africa summit in Tripoli late last year. Gaddafi obviously enjoyed playing Africa’s “king of kings”. Today, however, many African heads of state and government – just like their European counterparts – wish they had kept their distance from him.

Gaddafi has a long history of openly or covertly supporting liberation movements and rebel outfits. His influence in Africa is so pervasive that his hands are seen in almost all conflicts. From the civil wars that engulfed Liberia and Sierra Leone to strife in Chad or the Democratic Republic of Congo and even the recent wave of religious tensions in Nigeria, people consider Gaddafi involved.

He was a major supplier of arms to the brutal regime of Idi Amin in Uganda for many years. Amin used the weapons to suppress all kinds of opposition to his rule.

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader who is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague because of war crimes that were committed in Sierra Leone, is also known to have got substantial arms shipments from Gaddafi. Taylor himself and some of his troops were trained in Libya, moreover.

In 2007, a cache of arms with Libyan inscriptions was seized in the rebel areas of Democratic Republic of Congo. The incident proved that, in spite of his improved image, Gaddafi had not really changed.

Reacting to the wave of sectarian violence that has recently been pitting Muslims against Christians in Nigeria, Gaddafi suggested splitting the country along religious lines. This proposal, once again, earned him the moniker “madman”. That is the level of suspicion at which he is held.

Gaddafi’s role in sub-Saharan Africa was always shadowy. Many heads of state and government tried to keep him at arms length as best they could. For instance, when Nigeria was under civilian rule in the 1980s, President Shehu Shagari did everything within his power to frustrate the Libyan leader’s ambition to lead the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which has since become the African Union (AU). For good reason, Shagari and other African leaders were not comfortable with Gaddafi’s divisive role and his support for rebel groups in various conflict spots.

He was not always on the wrong side of history, however. For instance, he was an open supporter of the liberation movement in South Africa and sent arms to the African National Congress (ANC) in the Apartheid era.

Like many other countries, South Africa was doing business with Gaddafi until very recently. Jeff Radebe, who heads the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), has recently come under severe criticism for allowing arms sales to Libya. He insists, however, that all action taken by his government was legal. When the decision was made to sell arms to Libya, he argues, there was no evidence that the arms would be used to suppress human rights.

There is no doubt, however, that many African leaders see him as the source of many conflicts and rebel activities on the continent. Many are not bold enough to spell that out clearly, however, which demonstrates the kind of awe – or fear? – in which Gaddafi is held. And it explains, at least to some extent, why the AU, unlike the Arab League, was not prepared to demand a no-fly zone to thwart his military operations against his own people.