The Gaddafi paradox

Huge opportunities will emerge for India. Libya will need doctors, engineers and IT experts, which India can provide cheaper than others

After 42 years, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who seized power in Libya in a bloodless coup d’etat in 1969 and who claimed to have escaped over 4,000 assassination attempts, ran out of time. The curtain has fallen on the longest ruling Arab dictator who lived a life full of contradictions, messianic delusions, eccentricities, unbridled ruthlessness and unfulfilled promises. His downfall carries a stark message for despotic rulers facing their peoples’ anger. It also speaks volumes about the broader objectives of intervention by the US and its allies in sovereign nations in the name of protection of civilian lives and its wider implications.

When Gaddafi nationalised the oil sector in Libya and threw out American oil firms in the 1970s, he was hailed as a great nationalist. When he supported the ANC, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Sam Nujoma and Yasser Arafat for years morally, monetarily and militarily, in their fight against white regimes, colonial rule and Israeli occupation, he was applauded for supporting revolutionary causes. Several African leaders are still beholden to him. In the mid-1990s, when Nelson Mandela decided to visit Libya, still under UN and US sanctions and the US publicly cautioned him against it, he admonished them, reminding them that during 27 years of his incarceration on Robben Island, it was Col. Gaddafi who lent support to the ANC, not the US. I have myself heard Mr Mugabe and Mr Museveni in Tripoli, during their visits, singing paeans in praise of the Libyan dictator for supporting their struggles against their colonial rulers.
When Gaddafi seized power, Libya was a vast, barren grazing land with no infrastructure worth mention. All the highways, roads, ports, airports, hospitals, universities, steel plants, power generation plants, cement plants, housing complexes and hotels which one sees in Libya came into existence during Gaddafi’s iron rule. So, it would be dishonest to claim that many Libyans were not proud of these manifestations of economic development.
Inspired by Soviet Russia, he made daily necessities available at highly subsidised rates; in the late 1990s a Libyan citizen could buy 40 kg of wheat flour, 40 kg of sugar, 40 kg of rice and 40 litres of cooking oil for just five Libyan dinars each. This ensured that none went hungry, though there wasn’t anything luxurious about their lives. By getting an over 1,500-km-long underground water-supply system constructed to bring running potable water to the homes of thousands of Libyans, he won the hearts of many, and surely those of the Libyan housewives. Education and healthcare were good in Libya by African standards. $11,000 per capita income per annum is higher than many countries. Then why did the Libyans turn against him? The following factors might offer some clues.
His was a ruthless, one-man rule in which the fundamental rights of an individual, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary, rule of law and political dissent had no place. A large number of families had borne the brunt of this system and nursed deep anger and bitterness against him and his repressive regime.
While subsidised daily necessities kept the common man alive, it wasn’t enough after a stage. The communications revolution exposed the younger generation to the contrast in the conditions in their country and economic prosperity elsewhere and made them ask why their lives weren’t better. Besides, stories of the ostentatious living and wild parties of Gaddafi’s sons, one of whom allegedly spent more than a million dollars for Shakira to perform at his private party, infuriated them. The Jasmine Revolution and the success of the young protesters in Tunisia and Egypt rid the Libyans of the fear of Gaddafi’s wrath and encouraged them to lend support to those who were plotting to overthrow him.
His repeated claims of being the “Leader of the Revolution” and not in charge of running the country were proved hollow. His Green Book and Jamahiriya system (people’s democracy) meant nothing in real life.
Though the Arab leaders didn’t call Gaddafi the “Madman of the Middle East” (Ronald Reagan did), they didn’t trust him as he was unpredictable and called himself a “Revolutionary Leader”, which the others were not. He was one of the first to voice the idea of an African Union but none paid heed as none wanted him as leader. His attempts to form a union with Egypt, Algeria and Syria at different stages came unstuck. He could buy some support from Sub-Saharan countries, but other major players weren’t keen. He wasn’t a popular leader in the Arab world. Very few Arab leaders are likely to be really unhappy about his violent end.
He paid billions of dollars to the US, France and UK, literally buying peace. When under US pressure he came clean on his nuclear ambitions, Gaddafi was embraced by then President George W. Bush and hailed as a role model for those who gave up the nuclear path. Unfortunately for Gaddafi, Bush was replaced by Barack Obama with whom he couldn’t strike a chord.
In 2008 Libya was suspected to be contemplating a revision of contracts with oil companies that would result in higher revenues for Tripoli. In 2009, Gaddafi threatened to nationalise oil companies from the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Norway and Canada, which created quite a flutter in the Western capitals. His idea that the government should be dismantled and oil wealth distributed to over five million Libyans directly wasn’t liked by his ministers and senior officials nor by many foreign oil companies.
While Gaddafi’s fall might temporarily boost the beleaguered Obama’s ratings and give him and French President Nicolas Sarkozy something to claim as a success in the presidential election campaigns next year, it is unlikely to tilt the results. With raging unemployment and slowing down of the economy, Gaddafi’s demise is not going to brighten up Mr Obama’s electoral chances. Nato might sound triumphant but the sinking eurozone is a reminder of the hard ground realities.
Yes, Gaddafi was a despotic ruler, a fact known to the US and the West for decades. But they didn’t mind doing business with him thanks to the lure of Libyan oil. It is too early to assess the prospects of the TNC in Libya: half of its leaders are turncoats with the taint of long years of service to Gaddafi’s regime. They cannot overnight metamorphose into upholders of human rights and democracy. There seems, at the moment, no leader who can rise above tribal loyalties, avoid reprisals and offer a workable vision.
Bashar al-Assad in Syria risks facing Gaddafi’s fate sooner than later. Yemen can’t drag on like this for long. Morocco and Jordan, both monarchies, have bought time by introducing doses of democracy. It would be interesting to watch what happens when the scent of revolution reaches Saudi Arabia. The Arab world is in for a period of political and economic instability.
India’s calibrated approach to recent developments in Libya have served New Delhi well. We must move in fast to establish a close working relationship with the TNC. Huge opportunities will emerge for Indian companies in infrastructure damaged by Nato bombing. Libya will need doctors, nurses, teachers, oil engineers and IT experts, which India can provide cheaper than others.
While at the time of the fall of an unpopular, despotic ruler no one is raising the question of the legality and desirability of Nato action in Libya in the name of saving civilians, this issue ought to be addressed head on. Its unrestricted use is fraught with serious international implications.

The writer was India’s ambassador to Libya

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