In his lifetime, the peculiar blend of despotism and eccentricity that was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi earned him many different titles, not all as respectful as “Dear Brother Leader”. In the US, he was dubbed the Mad Dog of the Middle East by President Ronald Reagan. In Britain, thanks to his generosity with Semtex, he was seen as IRA quartermaster in chief. In Libya’s neighbouring state of Chad, where Gaddafi meddled endlessly, he was referred to unaffectionately as “that disease”. And among his long-suffering fellow Libyans, he was known – when his secret service wasn’t listening – as “Abu Shufshufa”, which, colloquially translated, means “That idiot with the Frizzy Hair”.
Now, though, more than a year after his death, the old tyrant seems to be on the verge of acquiring a new moniker, one that I suspect he would rather have liked. Posthumously, he is being hailed as some sort of Tito of North Africa, holding his fiefdom together with an iron fist just like the former leader of Communist-era Yugoslavia did.
The argument is that ever since Gaddafi’s Western-backed overthrow, chaos has begun to unfold in the region, most worryingly in the Tuareg-Islamist takeover of northern Mali and the retaliatory al-Qaeda massacre at the BP refinery in Algeria. This narrative points out how post-war Libya became a massive weapons bazaar, enabling the Tuaregs – freshly demobbed from their well-paid jobs as Gaddafi mercenaries – to steam south and seize their dream of an independent homeland in northern Mali. On their coat tails were AQIM, who likewise helped themselves at the arms bazaar first, and then sidelined the Tuaregs to turn the likes of Timbuktu into a Taliban-style ministate. Cue the usual mutterings about Western naiveties over the Arab Spring and so on.
It’s certainly likely that had the Dear Leader had still been in power, none of this would have happened. Gaddafi hated Islamists of all kinds, harbouring a natural disdain for anyone who chose to worship God rather than him. Likewise, while tough Tuareg fighters had served as a kind of Libyan Foreign Legion ever since the 1970s, carrying out all kinds of meddling in Gaddafi’s backyard, he latterly reined them in to please new pals like Tony Blair.
But none of this should detract from the fact that Gaddafi was generally an utter disaster for Africa, stirring far more conflicts than he ever resolved. In Britain, we tend to think of him mainly in terms of episodes such as the WPc Yvonne Fletcher murder, the Lockerbie bombing, and the arming of the IRA. But dreadful though those were, we should remember that his fondness for backing thugs and terrorists elsewhere in the world caused far more carnage – especially among his fellow Africans.
Take, for example, the various graduates of his so-called “World Revolutionary Centre”, which offered military training to all comers during the peak of Gaddafi’s 1980s radical period. Prominent among its alumni were two of the bloodthirstiest men in modern African history, Charles Taylor of Liberia and his partner-in-war crimes Foday Sankoh. Their combined efforts in Sierra Leone’s civil war killed an estimated 200,000 people and left countless more bereft of arms and legs – amputation being the signature calling card of Sankoh’s drug-crazed Revolutionary United Front militia.
The former chief prosecutor at the Special Court of Sierra Leone, Professor David Crane, actually named Gaddafi in the original war crimes indictment against Taylor, saying that he was instrumental in planning the conflict. This, however, was back around 2003, when the West was busy wooing Gaddafi once again. And so it was, amid pressure from Britain and other nations, that Gaddafi’s name was dropped again from the indictment – much to the fury of Crane, who took the view that “Gaddafi was ultimately responsible for the mutilation, maiming and/or murder of 1.2 million people.”
Sierra Leone was just one of Gaddafi’s African military adventures, which were informed by an imperial vision as racist as anything that the former colonial powers ever imposed. As the self-described Saviour of Africa, Gaddafi believed it was Libya’s destiny to create an empire over the black nations’s to the south, whose peoples he describes in his Green Book as being too lazy and backward to help themselves.
But while he did pump money into the region – Mali, for example, is replete with garish, Gaddafi-built mosques and hotels – he also bankrolled violent insurgencies everywhere, from Eritrea to Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau to Angola, not to mention many further afield in Europe and Central America. And everywhere he went, he willingly backed the most violent, lunatic fringes like the RUF, to the point where even Fidel Castro, that well-known voice of restraint and conciliation, branded him a “reckless adventurer”.
Make no mistake about it – the last thing that the poverty-stricken nations of sub-Saharan Africa ever needed was a violent, oil-rich, deluded nutjob like Gaddafi interfering in their affairs. For anyone who purports to give a damn about that part of the world – for example Tony Blair, with his Africa Progress Panel – the lament should be not that Gaddafi didn’t survive longer, but that he was ever in power at all.