Muammar al-Gaddafi has been in power for over 40 years. He is likely to stay in power unless he is forcibly removed by his own people, which seems a remote possibility given the resources at his disposal, some say billions in cash, or by the international community, read the United States, which also appears improbable given “Afraq” war weariness reminiscent of the post-Somalia period when inaction led to the deaths of many thousands in Rwanda. And resources are the key to who wins and who loses in these protracted affairs. Witness the ability of another African Big Man, Jonas Savimbi of Angola, to wage a long battle with an oil-rich government even after he lost U.S. and South African backing and his lifeline through Zaire was cut. Savimbi armed and fed a sizeable force, UNITA (National Unity for the Total Independence of Angola), for eight years on proceeds from diamonds and ivory, which netted approximately $500 million annually. At one point 40 flights a week were taking off and landing at his two main airfields in the central highland towns of Luzamba and Andulo. While the internationals tried to broker a peace deal, Savimbi was using South African and other smugglers, based in Namibia and Botswana, to get diamonds out and to get supplies in, including large arms shipments from Bulgaria and Ukraine.
Gaddafi is using his cash to buy political support and mercenaries, reportedly several thousand of whom are being employed at the inflated rate of a thousand dollars a day. Gaddafi, like Savimbi, has had a love-hate relationship with the west. During much of his reign he was seen as a pariah and a cold-blooded killer who financed an odd assortment of guerilla movements and wreaked havoc in surrounding states and internationally. He attacked Chad and Egypt, fomented trouble in Sudan, sent Libyan soldiers to defend Idi Amin in Uganda, tried to acquire nuclear and chemical weapons, provided training and support for Liberia’s Charles Taylor, bankrolled the Black September Movement, sent arms to the Provisional IRA, and liquidated opponents by the hundreds at home and overseas. According to a recent disclosure by a former minister, he directly ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1998, which resulted in the death of 270 innocent civilians.
Still, money talks. So a noticeable warming of relations occurred not long ago when sobered by the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein and in dire need of western know-how and equipment to modernize his aging petro-chemical industry he agreed to end the development of weapons of mass destruction and open Libya to western oil and commercial interests. The leopard changed his spots and quickly was adjudge rehabilitated and a model global citizen by no less than the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Understandably elated by the relatively painless turnabout and the enormous economic benefits it promised, western leaders rushed to reinforce Gaddafi’s metanoia.
Perhaps the most craven in bending to Gaddafi’s will was the Blair government. Strong-armed by the Libyans, Downing Street worked hard to find a way to expedite the release from Greenock prison in Scotland of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted of the Pan Am bombing. British physicians were called in and determined al-Megrahi was gravely ill with cancer and had but a few months to live. Seventeen months later he is still alive, although reportedly ailing, in Tripoli. In fairness, as documents made public by WikiLeakes have revealed, the diagnosis was that someone with his condition had on average eighteen months to two years to live. The central question, however, is not how long he had to live but why a terrorist responsible for the death of 270 people would be considered for release on any grounds. Perhaps coincidentally, this humanitarian gesture saw a dramatic opening in commercial relations between England and Libya. Many dozens of British firms set up shop in the land of the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” There was, as well, a noticeable uptick in UK arms sales to the revolutionary regime.
Gaddafi’s son, Saif, recently seen on television offering rambling accounts of the situation in Libya, and vowing to hold on to power “until the last bullet,” was a leader in the charm offensive orchestrated for Londoners. He gave generously to his alma mater, the London School of Economics, and in turn was celebrated by that august institution of progressive thinking. The LSE’s David Held, Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, is now suffering his fifteen minutes of infamy for having publicly described Saif Gaddafi as “someone who looks to democracy, civil society and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration.” A modern Robespierre, if ever there was one, and perhaps destined to suffer the same fate.
Gaddafi’s Libya, as was Savimbi’s UNITA, is an extension of the Big Man, L’État, c’est moi! As a consequence, disentangling the regime from the state is going to be far more problematic than was the case in Egypt or Tunisia. There are no centers of power outside the regime that can play a mitigating role, that can tell the Big Man he must go. Unless there is outside intervention, the people of Libya may be in for a long and bloody civil war. Again, the experience in Angola may be instructive. The civil war claimed half a million lives in a country of 12 million people, it resulted in 3.8 million displaced and hundreds of thousands wounded and maimed. The country is still strewn with land mines, and despite a fast-growing economy largely fueled by oil, it ranks in the bottom 10% of most socioeconomic indicators. As long as Savimbi was alive, and against tall odds, UNITA kept fighting. Savimbi was killed by government troops in 2002. Within weeks UNITA was suing for peace.