He walked up to the podium to address the UN General Assembly.
All eyes in the chamber were on the strange, eccentric figure, whose invitation to New York had been the subject of great controversy and coverage. Staring out at all the delegations of world government, he acted out ripping up the UN Charter, calling it “worthless”.
He proceeded to condemn the UN for its failure to prevent “65 wars since 1945”, and to rally against the dictatorial control of the Security’s Council’s five permanent members and the domination of “the Super-powers”. “How can we be happy about global peace and security if the whole world is controlled only by five countries?” he complained. Some delegations walked out. Others looked embarrassed or uncomfortable.
The year was 2009 and the speaker was Muammar Gaddafi; then acting not just as the symbolic ‘head of state’ for Libya but as Chairman of the African Union. It was the first and last time he would ever be invited to address the UN. He would be dead less than two years later, murdered brutally by a terrorist mob being armed and supported by the very same “super-powers” and UN Security Council he had condemned in 2009. The bitter, ugly irony wouldn’t have been lost on him in those final weeks and days.
Hours later, he was in the CNN studio being interviewed by veteran presenter Larry King; it was a very odd, stilted interview, partly undermined by a language barrier and partly by Gaddafi’s strange, off-kilter manner at the time. In that one moment in time, we saw two sides of the Libyan leader: in the General Assembly we saw the incisive protester and world figure, while in the TV studio we saw the slightly strange, disheveled man who Western audiences had such a hard time relating to.
That juxtaposition in fact probably characterised Western perception of Muammar Gaddafi for most of his life.
So what is there still to be said about Gaddafi? Loved. Hated. Demonised, vilified. Lionised. Mocked. Condemned. Celebrated. Revolutionary. Dictator. Visionary. Tyrant. Terrorist. Socialist. And finally murdered.
The list of words used to define or describe one of the most notorious world figures of the late 20th century goes on and on. Those words, those semantics, change depending of course on who is doing the talking. They changed also depending on what year it was or what the weather was like that day. But, as a few weeks ago marked the fifth anniversary since his brutal murder in Sirte, this seemed an appropriate time – as promised – to reflect on the life and character of one of the twentieth century’s most interesting and debated figures.
I already wrote here at length on the downfall of Gaddafi and Libya in 2011 and also about the Gaddafi era itself in Libya from 1969 to 2011; now, finally, was the appropriate time to reflect more squarely on Gaddafi himself, as a person. To try to understand his psychology, his motivations, his possible failings, and to try to deal with some of the enigma and contradiction. He was, to my mind, one of the three or four most fascinating world figures of the 20th century, and also the most important socio/geo-political martyr of the 21st century so far; and there is a great deal to process when trying to understand who he was.
The one thing you could never do was define him in a simple sentence.
In life, and beyond death, Gaddafi remains difficult to make any blanket statements about. I don’t generally lionise people when it comes to politics or world affairs, and I would never claim Gaddafi was a ‘hero’ in any absolute sense; he was certainly a hero in 2011 and he died a hero. But life is too complicated and international affairs too nebulous and mired in corruption and agendas to make general statements about political figures.
Gaddafi was certainly a visionary and a revolutionary. In some ways he was an echo of the kind of world-changing, groundbreaking figures that existed in long gone times; a modern, Libyan or Arab equivalent of an Augustus or of an ancient Greek styled ‘Statesman-Philosopher’ type. In some ways he was also just another Arab dictator; but of course that wouldn’t contradict the Augustus analogy at all, as the founder of the Roman Republic had been a dictator for life, however much he had tried to dress it up in different terms. For that matter, you would have to go back to Roman times to find the last even vaguely famous Libyan before Gaddafi: since the days in which Romans were sailing the Mediterranean and warring with Carthage over 2,000 years ago, no ‘Libyan’ had ever made an impact on history or become known across the world until Muammar Gaddafi.
Tingba Muhammad, in an article in ‘The Final Call’, described Gaddafi as ‘a man whose progressive record of accomplishments very well may be unmatched by anyone who has ever led a nation in modern times.’
And he was also therefore a kind of leader most of us in the West can’t really relate to understand, given our highly institutionalized and regulated political systems and classes in which the power or will of individual figures to bring about vast change is extremely minimal, the individual subject by the vast, self-perpetuating systems and instruments of government and economics. That system, it is argued, protects us from madmen, protects us from overly ambitious or powerful individuals like Hitler or from cults of personality; which is probably true for the most part. It also hinders any possibility of revolution or of great change, it could be argued.
Gaddafi could be a riddle of contradictions. Who else could be named a frontrunner for Amnesty International’s poll for ‘Human Rights Hero, 2011’ and then just weeks later be labelled a ‘war criminal’ by Western government officials and accused of massacring civilian demonstrators?
Odd and eccentric are certainly other things you could describe Gaddafi as. And highly entertaining at times too. He unfortunately lent himself to ridicule, even when the ridicule wasn’t justified; though often the ridicule was probably justified. Here is a genuinely funny, but not mean-spirited, satire of Gaddafi from shortly before his death.
His eccentricities probably made it much easier for him to be caricatured as a ‘mad dictator’ much of the time; though most of those eccentricities probably didn’t emerge until later in his life, creating a sometimes jarring contrast between the serious, revolutionary nation-builder of the 1970s and the sometimes weird, outlandish figure of later years.
Here was a man whose downfall and death was celebrated by Western government officials and media, and yet was mourned by many across Sub-Saharan Africa, who celebrated him as a hero. For instance, a vigil was held in Sierra Leone. The Daily Times of Nigeria stated that Gaddafi, whether he had or hadn’t been a dictator, was the most benevolent in a region that only knew dictatorship and that he was “a great man that looked out for his people and made them the envy of all of Africa.”
AllAfrica.com reported that while many Libyans and Africans would mourn Gaddafi, this would be ignored by Western media and that as such it “would take 50 years” before historians decided whether he was “martyr or villain.”
I think that is a very astute point actually; it may take 50 years for most people to really understand who Gaddafi was, what he accomplished, what he tried to do and what he was about. We can debate back and forth for hours over what Gaddafi was about; but the one thing he absolutely wasn’t is the two-dimensional Bond villain the Western governments and media made him out to be for so many years, even if some of his behavior did lend itself to that caricature.
He was a flawed person and a flawed leader, certainly; he was an egotist, yes. And some of his ideas, policies and actions were highly questionable. And like most Arab or African leaders, he can be said to have at various times presided over a repressive, sometimes violent, regime, even if he wasn’t the one guiding or endorsing the more oppressive behavior; this too, for that matter, is a subject of contention – the question of whether Gaddafi himself was directly to blame for the more oppressive behaviour of some of the Revolutionary Committees and other elements of the regime over the years. The jury is verymuch still out on that. The ‘jury’, for that matter, is still out in general, as the Western coalition chose to murder him instead of bringing him to a trial.
One of the reasons Gaddafi is so difficult to judge is because he changed so much. Across the four decades of his Libya, he seemed to reinvent himself and alter some of his views numerous times. If you study his history, there are periods in which you could legitimately call him a ‘dictator’ of course (but not necessarily any worse or different to various other Arab or African leaders – including the ones our governments support). But at other points you could also legitimately call him a true revolutionary, a champion of the people, a genuine Socialist. This practically impossible task of ‘defining’ Gaddafi is so complicated that people even now can’t state for certain whether he was a ‘dictator’ or merely a symbolic figurehead during the last few decades of his life.
But he was always an easy figure for the Western media and governments to make fun of. This wasn’t aided by his increasingly ostentatious dress sense as he got older, nor by some of the things he said and the way he said them. But then Gaddafi was a singular force, a self-made individual, who didn’t play the game by the international rule-book and who didn’t fit in to the prevailing world order.
And he didn’t mince words or ideas; didn’t do ‘politics’ in the sense that we understand it. Therefore he could say things like “There is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet!” and do so in all seriousness; whether he meant that in a partly sarcastic way or not. He wasn’t, in truth, a great orator and often said things that didn’t translate very well (though he had a definite poetic flourish in his writings). That being said, there really aren’t many great ‘orators’ in the modern Arab world, where rhetoric and great oratory aren’t generally considered necessary qualities: by that standard, Gaddafi was different and can be said to have made at least a handful of very potent speeches in his time, in addition to written texts.
It helped that he always had the ability to shock or to provoke, of course; but also to be unintentionally funny when he was actually trying to be profound.
Who but Gaddafi would begin a speech at an Arab Summit with the sentence, “Firstly I would like to explain to you all why the Israelis and the Palestinians are both stupid…” But it was Gaddafi, and everyone knew who he was, knew what to expect, and some even came to enjoy it. When he made that statement about the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Palestinian Prime Minister was in the front row, laughing his head off and gesturing at the podium as if to illustrate that Mad Uncle Gaddafi was making his drunken X-Mas toast.
Whether it was his support for various liberation movements in the 70s and 80s or whether it was the admittedly very odd custom he had of travelling everywhere with an elite unit of female bodyguards (the famous Amazonian Guard – many of whom were brutally hunted down and murdered after Gaddafi’s downfall). Or whether it was in his blunt statements, such as in that famous 2009 UN address in which he called the UN Security Council “the world terrorism council” and ripped up the UN Charter in front of the whole General Assembly, calling it ‘worthless’.
Sometimes this could be hilarious. When he visited Italy and met with Silvio Berlusconi, Gaddafi wore pictures of Libyan martyrs who’d died at the hands of Italian/Fascist Colonial occupation forces during World War II (over a million Libyans died in Italian concentration camps at that time; something that without doubt influenced a lot of Gaddafi’s attitude towards Colonialism and the West). It was a remarkably brazen thing to do, but he was making a statement on behalf of all Libyans (and the look on Berlosconi’s face, as he tries to pretend he hasn’t noticed, is priceless).
And among all of his visions, he also had some questionable ideas. And yes, Gaddafi proposed ‘SATO’; a ‘NATO of the South’ that would be set-up in opposition to NATO and would’ve been constituted by African and South-American nations forming a mutual defense initiative. It sounds facetious, but he may have had a serious underlying point about the imperialist North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the need for an equal and opposite organisation. For one thing, if he had built a ‘SATO’, then the NATO criminal enterprise of 2011 that resulted in his murder and the destruction of Libya might have encountered some serious opposition from the outset. Libya would’ve had allies. Instead, Libya was left to fend for itself against what Fidel Castro called “the Nazi-Fascist role played by America and its NATO allies”.
And yes, like Augustus, he also decided to rename the months. February was ‘Lights’, August was ‘Hannibal’ (that other great, mythic ‘hero’ of Libyan history, who had waged war on the Romans). These were all ‘quirky’, perhaps downright odd, aspects to his character and his life. He was also full of contradictions.
He was bitterly opposed to extremist ‘terrorists’, yet in his mission statement to support ‘freedom movements’ across the world he probably can be said to have at times supported ‘terrorist’ organisations; although there we do get into semantics and into questions of how you define a terrorist in one instance and a ‘freedom fighter’ in the other (case in point: he was substantially supporting Nelson Mandela and the ANC at a time when they were still being considered ‘terrorists’ by most Western governments).
He was also always keen to emphasise his humble Bedouin roots and would therefore receive dignitaries in his signature sprawling white tent, which he erected wherever he went: Rome, Paris and, after much controversy, New York, on a Westchester estate in 2009. Yet at the same time he increasingly started to attire himself in fine, ostentatious clothes. There were always such contradictions with Gaddafi, such was the complexity of his character. Unlike an archetypal ‘dictator’, he was subject to change, was in fact looking to change at various times and was looking to implement change as time moved on. His Libya was in an ongoing ‘state of revolution’; a continuous evolution going on over a long period of time, not a dictatorship set in stone.
Inside that tent of his, the quilted walls were printed with motifs like palm trees and camels. But however ostentatious and attention-seeking it may have been, there is also something charming and even endearing in seeing images of people like Vladimir Putin or Tony Blair having to meet Gaddafi in his tent. Modern, Western politicians always seemed so out-of-place, out of their comfort zone when having to do this. But likewise, Gaddafi himself always looked so out of place in the modern structures of global, Corporatist government on those few occasions he was invited; he looked like some exotic figure who’d been transported via a time-machine into the modern political world.
When he came to the UN General Assembly in New York in 2009, some treated him like a rock star; even some of the usually composed, hum-drum officials and delegates seemed to be fascinated by his presence, as if their world had suddenly turned upside down.
Among two of the things most emblematically associated with Gaddafi’s work are the ‘Green Book’ and the Great Man-Made River project.
Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’, which provided much of the basis for his ‘remaking of Libya’, has at times been ridiculed by Western commentators or dismissed as the quaint ramblings of a ‘madman’ or an eccentric. But numerous progressive academics worldwide have acclaimed The Green Book as a serious body of political thought, offering an incisive critique of Western parliamentary democracy, capitalism and Marxist socialism, and offering a viable, workable alternative.
The other ‘official’ books are a mixed thing. My Vision, published in the late 90s, is widely regarded as little more than a propaganda exercise by the Libyan state.
However, Gaddafi’s Escape to Hell & Other Stories is a fascinating insight into his mind; some of it has poetic flourish, while some of it is badly written to the point of being almost unreadable. But there are rich explanations of his passion for nature and the profundities of the living world, very sweet passages in relation to his parents, interesting insights into his own failings, frustrations and sense of limitation. There is also an insightful sense of Gaddafi’s sense of brotherhood with oppressed peoples and belittled cultures across the world, which explains the psychology behind his decades-long support for liberation movements from Nicaragua to Ireland to the Aborigines. And humour can be found in his vitriolic attacks on religious extremists and Islamist terrorism, which are full of sarcasm and put-downs.
Escape to Hell is actually probably a much better insight into Gaddafi’s personality and mind (and a better read too) than The Green Book; the latter being a manifesto, the former being more of a free-flowing dialogue.
The Great Manmade River has been written about at length elsewhere (and somewhat here): but is worth mentioning again here, as it was undertakings like this that gave Gaddafi the aura of those old-world visionaries and ‘nation builders’ and society-makers like in the legends of the classical Greek city states or of Roman builders like Augustus and Caesar, or Herod the Great.
He wasn’t just inspiring and forging the society on a political or ideological level, but was literally involved hands-on in building and transforming the landscape and infrastructure. Like a Herod the Great or an Augustus, he wanted to leave his mark for posterity, not just in the political and social landscape but in the physical landscape itself.
It is a little sad to think that he might’ve failed in that: the Great Manmade River – regarded a marvel in modern engineering, and rather boastfully called by Gaddafi himself ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ – has, in fact, been severely damaged by both the marauding Islamist rebels and the NATO bombers in 2011. And though some things will probably survive, monuments or projects relating to Gaddafi have been destroyed or town down all over Libya, and even swathes of some of the great cities and urban developments he oversaw the development of have been laid to waste or left in ruin by the NATO onslaught or the subsequent terrorist militias and warlords.
Even Tripoli, once a marvel of Gaddafi’s Libya, has been left in ruin and has been listed now as the ‘fifth most unlivable city’ in the world.
The circumstances of Gaddafi’s birth, fittingly enough for someone who went to such lengths to mythologise himself, have the almost prophetic air of something out of scripture or myth.
The son of an impoverished Bedouin goat herder, Muammar Gaddafi was born in a tent near Qasr Abu Hadi, a rural area outside the town of Sirte in the deserts of western Libya. Curiously, Gaddafi’s date of birth is not known for certain, as his parents were Nomadic Bedouin and were illiterate and did not keep birth records.
These were the most humble of beginnings imaginable for a figure who end up a nation-builder, a one-time dictator and a cultural and national figurehead. Gaddafi was never embarassed of these roots, never tried to deny them or disavow his parents and upbringing. In fact, quite the opposite: he wore this Bedouin desert birth and upbringing almost as a badge of honour, as evidenced by – among other things – the fact that he would meet foreign dignitaries in his special tent and would even set up a tent to stay in when abroad, as he did in New York in 2009.
The contradiction in Gaddafi, as I mentioned earlier, is that while he was proud of this ‘humble’ roots and of the tribal and desert traditions of the country, he was also a city-builder who wanted to modernise and industrialise Libya, and he therefore often appeared to be oscillating back and forth between these two natures. His reverence of nature and the wilderness was undeniable and came through strongly in his writings, along with a disdain for modern, urban lifestyles – and yet he sought to build thriving, modern cities at the same time.
In 1945 at the conclusion of World War II, Libya was still occupied by British and French Colonialist forces.
Although Britain and France intended on dividing the nation between their empires (which they would again try to do in 2011, albeit in different terms and under different, more modern guises), the General Assembly of the newly-established United Nations granted the country independence. In 1951, the United Kingdom of Libya was created; a federal state under the leadership of the pro-western monarch, Idris, who banned all political parties and established an absolute monarchy. The monarchy was essentially a Colonialist vassal, serving foreign interests and keeping the population in poverty. This was essentially not a system at all interested in common society or in building up a nation, but mostly of simply holding the North-African nation as a vassal land of foreign interests.
The idea – wrongly perpetuated by critics – that Gaddafi’s regime had banned political parties was, technically, incorrect: there had never *been* any political parties.
Education in Libya was not free at that time, but Gaddafi’s father funded his son’s education despite the great financial difficulty. During the weeks, Gaddafi slept in a local mosque, having no home, and at weekends he walked some 20 miles to visit his parents in their traditional dwellings. Reportedly bullied for being a Bedouin, he was nevertheless proud of his identity and was said to have actively encouraged this same pride in other Bedouin children.
This same disposition of the child of humble origins being bullied for his ‘inferior’ background and responding with renewed pride in his roots would in fact play out all through Gaddafi’s life.
I believe – through reading and studying on Gaddafi at length – that he believed he was later looked down on and bullied by other Arab leaders and elite ruling families, particularly the Saudis, as being somehow a figure of ridicule simply because he was mere Bedouin from a poor African nation; moreover and more importantly, he perceived the same attitude towards him and his country from the broader international forces, particularly the Western and European governments who for so long refused to recognise his leadership or his country. Gaddafi (pictured below in the early 70s with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, with Egypt’s Nasser and the Saudi Royals on the right), may therefore have carried with him something of a persecution complex.
This was, of course, entirely valid come 2011, when all of his longstanding views of the ‘Western, Colonialist aggression’ (and his mistrust of the Saudi and Gulf State monarchies) were proven absolutely true.
As a young man and student, he had a keen interest in Arab nationalist activism, but he nevertheless refused to join any of the banned political parties active at the time, including the Arab Nationalist Movement, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood, this being because he rejected ‘factionalism’. He later claimed at this time he read voraciously on the subjects of General Nasser and Egypt, the French Revolution of 1789, the works of Syrian political theorist Michel Aflaq and curiously the biography of Abraham Lincoln.
“Lincoln was a man who created himself from nothing without any help from outside or other people. I followed his struggles. I see certain similarities between him and me,” he said in a book published by The Pittsburg Press in 1986 called Gaddafi: The Man the World Loves to Hate.
People could roll their eyes or make jokes about any comparison between Muammar Gaddafi and Abraham Lincoln, but the fact is that Gaddafi was entirely self-made. All that he accomplished in his own life he accomplished entirely without assistance from outside forces and without inherited privilege. Unlike the Royal Dictators of the Saudi and Gulf States, for example, who inherit immense and wealth and privilege, or like leaders of American or British governments, who come up through highly wealthy elite networks and major patronage from wealthy backers or from corporations, someone like Gaddafi literally came from nothing and *had* nothing except what he built himself.
And indeed the Libya that he built – the poorest nation in Africa at the time he inherited the helm and wealthiest and most successful within just the first decade of his rule – was also a self-made success story, built entirely independently, without any foreign loans, without any involvement from Western companies or governments or the IMF or World Bank. Given all of that, Gaddafi could literally compare himself to Lincoln and be making a serious point. His Libya had also come into being as an entirely Libyan affair and wasn’t a foreign-backed or foreign funded coup.
Graduating in August 1965, the young Gaddafi had become an army communications officer. In April 1966, he was sent to Britain for further training; spending time undergoing military training in Dorset and Kent and an English language course at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.
One of his instructors from this time called him “hard working, conscientious” and “an amusing officer”, adding that he was an avid reader of books and also enjoyed playing football. Gaddafi disliked England, however, and later claimed that British Army officers had racially insulted him on a regular basis. He also claimed to have found it very difficult adjusting to the country’s culture. One wonders, with hindsight, whether these experiences might have had some impact on his later attitude towards the Colonialist powers, Britain in particular. The experience may have also caused him to retreat more into his Arab identity and his desert roots. Almost certainly, whatever racism he encountered would’ve left a bitter taste in his mouth.
There is a very amusing picture (above) of the young Gaddafi walking around Piccadilly Circus in 1966, dressed in traditional Bedouin robes, while two English old ladies look on, bemused.
There was very little time between Gaddafi walking around Piccadilly Circus in 1966 and he and his ‘Revolutionary Committee’ conducting the coup in Libya that ousted the monarchy and established a Socialist Republic.
Gaddafi and his Revolutionary Committees believed the monarchy and the ruling elite were opposed to the will of the people and the development of the nation, so they purged monarchists and members of Idris’ Senussi clan from Libya’s political world and armed forces.
Inspired by the Arab Nationalism that was going on across the Middle East, particularly the example set by President Nasser in Egypt, the Libyan Revolution led by Gaddafi successfully ousted King Idris in 1969. It was an entirely bloodless coup with no deaths and no violence; conducted with popular consent and broad support and carried out entirely by Libyan nationals serving a Libyan agenda. It had been entirely secular in character, with no sectarian interests. Contrast this to the foreign-funded 2011 uprising, which involved scores and scores of foreign terrorists and mercenaries and was backed and directly aided by foreign interference and foreign military bombing; it was an absolute bloodbath, mired in Islamist terrorism, Al-Qaeda atrocities, ethnic cleansings, and unbridled barbarity in many instances.
The difference between Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution and the Al-Qaeda/NATO-led 2011 ‘revolution’ is absolute.
Following the military coup in 1969, the new Libyan government insisted that America and Britain immediately remove their military bases from Libya, with the 27-year-old Gaddafi saying Libya would “tolerate living in shacks while the bases of imperialism exist in Libyan territory.” The British left in March and the Americans in June 1970, despite both having tried to negotiate an agreement with the Libyans at this early stage. But with this clear statement and attitude, the tone and nature of the relationship between the new Libya and the Western superpowers was set for the decades that would follow.
Gaddafi was recognised as Revolutionary Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic from 1969 to 1977, and then later as the “Brotherly Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977 to 2011, the latter being supposedly a less executive and more symbolic role.
While many critics portrayed the Gaddafi family and the Libyan ‘regime’ as an immovable, dictatorial ‘establishment’ that would permanently rule over the people, it is clear that Gaddafi was considering other possibilities. Other critics would point to the ‘lavish lifestyles’ of the Gaddafi family, though in reality this was more to do with some of his sons and relatives and not so much Gaddafi himself. And more to the point, even if the Gaddafi family did live in ‘luxury’, it clearly wasn’t at the expense of the people.
And of course the whole critique becomes even less meaningful when we consider the luxury that other dictatorships, such as the Saudi and Gulf-State Royal Families live in (and the extraordinary wealth disparity with their populations), and who are nevertheless supported and well-regarded by Western governments. Even more pertinently, the political classes in America, France, Britain and most other developed nations aren’t exactly known for slumming it with the lower classes either, are they?
Gaddafi, let’s remember, was a peasant, born in the desert to impoverished Bedouin parents: he worked for and attained everything he had in life, having had the most humble beginnings imaginable. Our own Establishment simply has that luxury as a ‘birthright’.
Some of Gaddafi’s relatives, as well as some Libyan officials, did later adopt lavish lifestyles, including luxurious homes, Hollywood film investments and private parties with American pop stars; this was particularly the case with the younger generation, such as Gaddafi’s son Mot’assim.
How much this was true of Gaddafi himself (pictured below with wife Safia and son Saadi in the 70s: photo credit, Tyler Hicks, New York Times) is difficult to tell, but the evidence suggests he wasn’t particularly excessive in the context of other leaders or ‘dictators’. In democratic societies like ours, someone like Tony Blair, for example, earns millions in his post-office enterprises as well as receiving substantial amounts of tax-payer money for his personal security, etc. The same is true of former American Presidents like Clinton and Bush.
The Gaddafi family compound had facilities for banquets and other public events, but was actually described by US intelligence reports published via Wikileaks as “not lavish in any way compared with the ostentation of the Gulf-oil-state families.”
And what of Gaddafi, the ‘Brutal Dictator’?
It is, rather remarkably, still an unresolved question as to whether Gaddafi himself was personally responsible for any of the more brutal actions at various points by elements of the regime or whether these elements, particularly the Revolutionary Committees, were much more autonomous than that and essentially acted on their own authority and initiatives. It could be that when Gaddafi attacked those elements of the regime publicly or condemned their actions, he was simply performing an act to absolve himself in the people’s eyes. Or it’s possible he really wasn’t directly culpable in their activities.
The truth of the matter may lay somewhere in the hazy middle of those two possibilities.
There were also strong indications that his personal involvement with those aspects of the regime abated more and more in the later years as he adopted his more and more symbolic position in the society, and that by the last few years of his life he was hardly involved at all; but that the existential crisis of 2011 simply forced all the revolutionary forces to rally around the founder of the state once more and forced Gaddafi himself to return to a more aggressive stance in order to fight off the invading terrorists, mercenaries and foreign agents.
As Hugh Roberts notes in his article ‘Who Said Gaddafi Had to Go?’, days after Gaddafi’s death (and which I’ve referenced in previous articles, because it really is a worthwhile read): ‘Words such as ‘authoritarianism’, ‘tyranny’ (a favourite bugbear of the British) and ‘dictatorship’ have never really captured the particular character of this set-up but have instead relentlessly caricatured it. Gaddafi, unlike any other head of state, stood at the apex not of the pyramid of governing institutions but of the informal sector of the polity, which enjoyed a degree of hegemony over the formal sector that has no modern counterpart.’
Perversely, it also worth considering that much of Gaddafi’s alleged paranoia and the paranoia displayed by the Revolutionary Committees (which led to much of the oppressive treatment of political opponents) was a direct result of all the CIA/MI6/foreign assassination attempts and plots to subvert, infiltrate or overthrow the regime.
If Gaddafi was paranoid, it was for good reason. From the moment he’d ousted the monarchy 1969, Gaddafi had numerous and constant threats to both his position and his life – from the monarchists, from the Israeli Mossad, from Saudi and Gulf-State agents, from the CIA and MI6, from homegrown and foreign-backed groups like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO), and finally from Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He and his supporters had every cause for extreme defensiveness; all of which of course was proven entirely valid in 2011.
In regard to the widely circulated caricature of Gaddafi as a ‘mad, weird’ dictator, it could be legitimately suggested that Gaddafi did get stranger and stranger in his behaviour as the years went on.
Something happened with him that tends to happen to most men who experience great power for a long period of time; just as with Augustus and other emperors, and just as with various dictators over the centuries, being in power for so many years – and becoming the national figurehead and living symbol – undoubtedly did odd things to his mind and his self-perception. His ego clearly spiraled, to the extent that he openly thought of himself as the “king of kings” of Africa, having already considered himself a prophet. The thing is, had he walked away or stepped aside after the first decade or so of his rule, no one would question his accomplishments and what he did for Libya – that first decade was an extraordinary period of development, vision and success.
But most men, were they to rule for almost four decades, would probably develop significant psychological complexes. What is particularly fascinating in Gaddafi’s case is that, come the Arab Spring and violent uprising in 2011 – combined with the NATO-led assault – something seemed to snap back in him and the increasingly odd egotist and eccentric of the preceding decade-plus seemed to quickly be shaken off like moss.
Suddenly, something more like the Gaddafi of 1969 was back – the proud, defiant Libyan patriot and guardian of the society. If you observe Gaddafi in 2011, it was as if the sudden, bloody and urgent, existential threat to the nation he had built up was like a splash of cold water to wake him from what had been – at times – a long, increasingly self-obsessed daze.
It was too late, in a sense. In another sense, however, it gave him one last chance to become something potent and vital again and to become in reality the kind of national symbol and hero that he had always tried to present himself as. But whereas, for many years he had artificially built up this mythology around himself, as many ‘great men’ do, in 2011 it was purely in his actions. In other words, where he had spent many years trying to, with no small amount of ego, portray himself as the great hero and defender of the society, he now, at the end, actually was the great hero and defender of the society -right to the bitter, bloody end.
Which is not to say that the various acts of egotism and self-aggrandizement over the years were ‘justified’ by the Gaddafi of 2011 – they weren’t. But, in the end, he entirely lived up to his image, however self-serving that image might’ve been at some stages of his life. Where most leaders, especially powerful ‘dictators’ with vast wealth or assets to protect, would’ve fled to safety, gone into exile or cut a deal, Gaddafi stood his ground and fought and prioritised saving the nation, the society and the people’s dignity.
So, who was the ‘real’ or definitive Muammar Gaddafi?
The Gaddafi who, in a mad act of self-worship, allowed a delegation of minor African dignitaries to place a golden crown on his head and literally proclaim him “King of Africa”? Or the Gaddafi who, just weeks before his death – and at a time when the war was clearly lost and he knew his time in Libya was up – went out and rallied his people, telling them to go out into the streets with their flags and be unafraid of their enemies and to continue on as proud Libyans in their land?
It’s actually impossible to say.
The answer is probably that both were the ‘real’ Gaddafi; one was the Gaddafi that began to emerge when he grew psychologically fat and lazy from continuous prestige and power, while the other was the Gaddafi who quickly re-emerged when the life or death of the nation was suddenly at stake. One was the Gaddafi who it was difficult to have much sympathy for; the other was the Gaddafi who got to end his life as a hero and as the most potent symbol Libya had ever – and will ever have – produced, almost as if to make up for all those years of inflated self-aggrandizement and vanity projects.
Why was Gaddafi a hero in much of Africa and why was he so influential in the continent?
It’s important to remember that his original interests had been in the Arab world and not so much Africa. He had been a major proponent of Arab Nationalism and Pan-Arabism in the 1970s – that Arab nations should build mostly secular, progressive states and come together in common cause and brotherhood, instead of following their own petty interests or sectarian concerns. He had been the main proponent of the plan to unify Libya with Syria and Egypt in a common, secular Arab alliance.
These endeavors ultimately failed, however, and, by the eighties, that Pan-Arab ideal had evaporated from most of the region.He still maintained a good relationship with Syria, which had remained an Arab Nationalist state and which like Libya was one of the few remaining nations on earth that was truly independent. But in general, Gaddafi was no longer on very good terms with most of the Arab world.
Instead, he turned towards Africa.
Gaddafi had opposed Apartheid in South Africa and forged a good relationship with Nelson Mandela, who named his own grandson after Gaddafi and called Gaddafi one of the 20th century’s “greatest freedom fighters”, and insisted the eventual collapse of the Apartheid system owed a great deal to Gaddafi and Libyan support. In turn, Mandela later played a key role in helping Gaddafi gain (brief) mainstream acceptance in the Western world later in the 1990s. Over the years, Gaddafi came to be seen as a hero in much of Africa due both to his epic revolutionary image and to what he had accomplished in Libya. This view was only amplified by the manner of his horrific death at the hands of Western, Imperialist-backed terrorists.
After Mr Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he rejected pressure from Western leaders – including then-US President Bill Clinton – to sever ties with Gaddafi, who had in fact largely bankrolled his election campaign. “In the darkest moments of our struggle, when our backs were to the wall,” Mandela had said, “it was Muammar Gaddafi who stood with us.” In 1997, Mandela awarded Gaddafi the highest official honour in South Africa in recognition for his support of human rights and the struggle against white Apartheid.
This view of Gaddafi was shared by many others across Africa. “For most Africans, Gaddafi is a generous man, a humanist, known for his unselfish support for the struggle against the racist regime in South Africa. If he had been an egotist, he wouldn’t have risked the wrath of the West to help the ANC both militarily and financially in the fight against Apartheid,” said Jean-Paul Pougala, writing in the London Evening Post after Gaddafi’s death.
Gaddafi was also one of the founders of the African Union (AU), created in July 2002, with its birthplace in his own place of birth (and death) – Sirte.
There are debates as to whether Gaddafi’s influence on Africa was positive or negative. There are highly critical views of Libyan involvement in other African states and in bloody skirmishes and Civil Wars in Africa; but, of course, these are the same sorts of geopolitical controversies that numerous other nations – the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, to name a few – have been, and still are, involved in too.
What is clear is that – particularly in the final years of his life – Gaddafi was, in essence, moving to free the entire African continent from the clutches of Western imperialism.
As is well attested, Gaddafi was establishing himself as the pioneer of African development and currency; establishing himself as the alternative to the IMF in Africa. In effect, he was setting himself up for conflict with the international central banks and monetary system. Just how significant Gaddafi’s presence was to Africa is something that Western media has always tried to downplay. But Gaddafi alone had allocated two-thirds of the $42 billion that was required to launch a public African Central Bank (based in Nigeria), an African Monetary Fund (based in Cameroon) and an African Investment Bank based in Libya.
The African Monetary Fund (AMF) would’ve meant no more borrowing from Rothschild Central Banks for African countries, but production of its own currency for Africa, interest-free and backed by Gold standard.
This was the reason Gaddafi was always portrayed and treated as such a threat to Western interests. Had he been a simple dictator, content to live out his reign in luxury as an all-powerful ruler in his own domain, the West would’ve left him alone – just like various other dictators are left alone. It was his continuous interest in pursuing anti-Imperialist agendas that made him unpalatable: whether it was ensuring Libyan independence and self-sufficiency in the early 70s, trying to establish a strong Arab federation in the mid-to-late 70s, financially supporting worldwide ‘liberation movements’ throughout the 70s and 80s, or trying to establish African currency and independence in the 21st century, the Western powers realised that he wasn’t inclined to just sit there, playing the fiddle like Nero.
While Gaddafi certainly took steps to reconcile with the West and to try to improve relations (led in part by his son, Saif al-Islam), he never entirely gave up his anti-Colonial, anti-Imperialist views and ideas. He always retained that same attitude that had driven the 1969 ousting of the King. As late as the Second Africa/South America Summit in Venezuela in September 2009, he joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in calling for an “anti-imperialist front” across Africa and Latin America; this, in the same year he had made his controversial address to the UN General Assembly in New York.
By this point in time, it would’ve been clear to Western agencies that, for all his ‘reconciliation’ with the West in recent years, Gaddafi was still ultimately a problem and a nuisance.
Where does all this bring us to in our search for the ‘real’ Gaddafi?
Nowhere definitive, probably. Just confirmation that he was a complex figure who can be viewed in many different lights depending on where you’re standing at any given time. I probably lionised him a little too much when I compiled a book detailing the 2011 ‘Civil War’ and Western intervention; but I was really writing in the context of that year’s events and Gaddafi’s actions at that time.
It would be childish to call portray him as a faultless saint, as political affairs, particularly in such a troubled, unstable region, don’t create such figures. It is, by the same token, equally childish to portray Gaddafi as a cartoon Villain, which is what Western officials did for so long; a caricature that had very little basis in reality. Gaddafi was… simply Gaddafi; complex, enigmatic, flawed, but an extraordinary political, social and now historical figure, whose life, actions and legacy will inspire debate for generations to come.
In the end, in the final analysis, Muammar Gaddafi ends up a figure so difficult to pin down, so difficult to truly assess, that it may, as AllAfrica.com said, take “50 years” to truly come to a conclusion.
What the Western, NATO-led governments and their Islamist/Salafist terrorist friends did do in 2011, however, was inadvertently to make sure that whatever Gaddafi may or may not have been in his lifetime, he was an absolute hero in the final chapter. In 2011, Gaddafi was the great lion set upon and defeated by the corrupt alliance of wolves, jackals and vultures. He died a hero’s death, fighting a long, hero’s battle. Whatever else he may have been at any other time, he ended up the ultimate hero, the ultimate defender of his people and his country, waging one last, dying battle against corrupt, criminal forces of a morally-bankrupt global/financial Imperialism.
In essence, as I said earlier, the events of 2011 allowed Gaddafi to achieve an apotheosis as a natural end-point to the ‘revolutionary’ figure he had been in ’69 and the early 70s, almost erasing – to some extent -some of the less noble acts and periods in-between those times.
Fidel Castro summed up the 2011 crisis, saying, “If he (Gaddafi) resists and does not yield to their demands, he will enter history as one of the great figures.” Perhaps in some ways it was the only fitting end for the man who, in the first instance, had been the ultimate revolutionary.
Related: ‘Gaddafi: Odd, Funny Facts – From Secret Pen-Pals to Piccadilly Circus‘, ‘Libya, 2016: Three Governments, More Foreign Intervention & the Return of Gaddafi‘, ‘The Story of Sirte: From Proud Libya to Extremist Caliphate‘, ‘Is Ayesha Gaddafi Leading a Secret Resistance?‘