Muammar el-Gaddafi was born in June 1942. In September 1969, he led a group of young Turks to overthrow the conservative regime of King Muhammad Idris, and promised a new era of civil liberties, growth and prosperity for all Libyans. In the same year, he forced the United States to abandon the Wheelus Air base near Tripoli.
The British military was also kicked out. In the intervening years, Gaddafi has been a constant presence, and a major player, in African and Arab politics. Praised by Louis Farrakhan and Nelson Mandela, and condemned by others, his name and persona evoke emotion around the world.
Hated or loved, feared or admired, Gaddafi is a man with universal name recognition. He has survived coups, assassination attempts, bombings and UN embargoes. After renouncing weapons programs in 2003, and subsequently resolving the Lockerbie affair, he gradually inched his way back into the comity of nations until the domino-like events that engulfed the Middle East and which now threaten to remove him from power, or kill him.
It is difficult to tell whether what is going on in Libya is a civil war, a proxy war, or an invasion; or whether this is an indirect attempt at recolonizing Libya. What seems clear is that there are efforts towards partitioning Libya. Otherwise, why did the French hastily recognize the transitional government in Benghazi? And why is the NATO bent on militarily destroying the Gaddafi government and person? Also, why was the budding peace initiative by the African Union quickly doused? More importantly, why is the NATO subtly calling for and negotiating peace in other parts of the Middle East, but funding and providing arms, intelligence and military advice to rebel forces in and outside of Libya?
The West, especially the United States of America, has a history of intervening in faraway lands and in matters they should have stayed away from. And virtually every time that she has acted as the global policeman, she has generally paid a high price. This has been true in places like Cuba, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Iran, Haiti, Iraq, Chile, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. The paradox is that if the US intervenes, she is seen as a bully; and in cases where she has failed or refused to get involved, i.e. in Rwanda, she is seen as shying away from her responsibility. Could it be that the US simply does not know when to use the stick, when to use the carrot, when to defer to the UN and related organizations, and when to walk away? The recent intervention in Libya is a case in point -- where it seems as though Britain and France hurried the US into action and making President Barak Obama look like a novice.
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is somewhat complicated. Indeed, events there seem to have divided the African intellectual class into four camps. The anxiety of the first group can be understood if (a) one takes the history of the region and Africa’s colonial experience into account; (b) understands the territorial ambition of the west; (c) takes into account western nations’ thirst for oil and free passage in the Suez; (d) the West’s penchant for lording over weak countries; and (e) the several decades of romance between western nations and blood-letting dictators. In this instance, the West, under the guise of freedom and democracy, simply wants to get rid of Gaddafi and then recolonize or puppetise Libya.
The second group appears to have a soft-spot for Gaddafi. After all, this was a man who, in spite of his alleged eccentricities, vigorously railed against western imperial attitude and domination; who sponsored social movements, insurgencies, anti-colonial and anti-apartheid groups and who also seem to be a genuine Pan-Africanist and Pan-Arabist. According to this narrative, Gaddafi has done far better than all oil-rich African countries in terms of how he distributed Libya’s oil wealth. And so, whatever Gaddafi’s shortcomings may be, they are willing to ignore them. What’s more, Gaddafi, many must understand, is seen in the same light – or almost the same light – as Thomas Sankara, Jerry Rawlings, Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, Amílcar Cabral, and other fire-brand anti-colonial and anti-imperial leaders many African intellectuals romanticize. As perverted as it may sound, he is admired in the Third World.
America’s double-standard and its Israel-at-all-cost attitude are what seem to be vexing the third group of African intellectuals. Here, several questions are asked, i.e. what did Gaddafi do to his opponents and critics that Tel Aviv has not done to the Palestinians a million times over? In what ways are events in Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, different from Libya’s? In Bahrain, the Sunni regime continues to crack down on anti-government elements and the Shi’ites, yet, NATO does not seem bothered. In the estimation of this group, it was wrong for the US to intervene in Libya -- not just because of the issue of double standard -- but also because the sectional revolt in Libya is considered an internal matter: a dispute between rebel groups and a legitimate government. Why then should NATO take sides in an internal matter?
And then, there is the fourth group of African intellectuals who believe that Muammar Gaddafi, along with his sons and cronies, should be thrown out of power. Not necessarily killed. No, they simply want him out! He is seen in the same light as Jose Santos, Paul Biya, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Blaise Campore, Yahya Jammeh and many other for-life despots that roam Africa and the Middle East. The argument here is that Gaddafi has been in power for 42 years: what more does he want? And that he is a man with no democratic values or principles; and who sanction the excesses of his sons and the elite. Libya does not belong to the Gaddafis. And so whether he is removed by NATO or by the rebels, it doesn’t seem to matter to this group.
At this point in time, and even before Libya became a fragmenting state, the African Union should have loudly stomped and stamped its feet on the ground and raised its voice to caution Gaddafi and NATO. It did not and could not do so. The continent, after all, is mostly a collection of beggarly states with no clear voice and no moral authority to condemn evil, speak against injustice or discourage violence. Impotent Africa could not look Europe in the eyes and ask her to back off. And so as Libya disintegrates, African intellectuals endlessly debate the issue. In addition, the vast majority of cosmopolitan Africans are not sure of what to do or say. Sadly, liberal, progressive and anti-war voices in the US, Europe, Canada and elsewhere are also at a loss over what to do or say. In some ways, the divide and the bewilderment are understandable. After all, this is Muammar el-Gaddafi we are talking about.