Pan-Africanism and human rights violations are normally supposed to be at two irreconcilable ends of the leadership spectrum but in the African continent’s history, there are confusing characters who have attempted to straddle he fine line between villainry and heroism. In the first instalment in a series that will explore the double lives of Africa’s most loved heroes, we explore Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a man whose heroics we have extensively covered.
Muammar Gaddafi’s death was an unfortunate exhibition of Western interventionism gone wrong. It was the ultimate disrespect under the guise of protecting civilians and is difficult to justify. Colonel Gaddafi became a hero for many Africans because of his pan-African and anti-colonialism thinking which resonated with many people across the continent. Love for Gaddafi has become a form of protest against the West’s affectation of superior political virtue but as is said, love is blind. In the wave of protest emotion, there are aspects of Gaddafi’s character that no one speaks about anymore. It is now easily forgotten that the West might have created an absolutely anarchical mess of Libya but Gaddafi had an orderly totalitarian organisation in the same country. There is need to have honest discussions around a man who evoked such polarising emotions: either total love or total hate. His pan-African thinking and grand ideas for the continent are not to function as gags from exploring his legacy lest more African leaders choose to act with impunity trusting pan-Africanism to save their legacies.
A pan-African Autocrat?
Muammar Gaddafi’s pan-African ideology can never be over-emphasised. He had a vision to unite the continent and have one currency which was an attempt to shake the world order to its core. However, in his country, sinister events occurred under his rule. In 1974, the Al-Inqad special issue on human rights reports that the colonel said of political opponents, “I could at any moment send them to the People’s Court…and the People’s Court will issue a sentence of death based on this law, because execution is the fact of anyone who forms a political party.”
His rule was therefore characterised by heavy policing of the masses and repressive laws like the Law of Collective Punishment which was passed on the 9th of March in 1997. This statute allowed the state to sanction entire families, towns, or districts for the wrongdoing of individuals. Geoff Simons, author of Libya and the West: From Independence to Lockerbie wrote in his book that Gaddafi had at a point declared that anyone who considered committing treason had to know that his family and his home “will be destroyed, burned and walked on by the masses”. True to the words of the then Libyan leader, entire families were held hostage until suspects gave themselves up. Simons records a 1996 incident where “security forces in Sabha bulldozed the family house of Khaled al-Fathi, an alleged opposition activist” in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amnesty International also reported prolonged extrajudicial detentions of opposition activists or suspects in the 1990s including people like Sa’ad Mohammad Salah al-Jazwi and Rashid al-Urfia who was held for more than 15 years. In 2007, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the colonel confirmed the killing of one Daif al-Ghazal, a prominent opposition journalist in 2005 without official sanction.
The darkest shadow of the Gaddafi legacy, however, has to be the 1996 Abu Salim massacre of around 1,200 prisoners which contributed to the 2011 revolution after a leader of the Family Association of victims’ was arrested sparking protests. In 2011, the National Transitional Council of Libya found a mass grave which was estimated to contain around 1,270 bodies in Tripoli. The remains were thought to be those of killed inmates in 1996 when security forces opened fire upon the prisoners and threw hand grenades at them. They had been protesting their living conditions and, in the aftermath, security forces fired upon them using different weapons for what the National Front for the Salvation of Libya claimed was an entire hour. Sami Assadi, a Libyan who lost a brother in the shooting spoke to a reporter back in 2011 about his feelings towards the situation and he said, “Mixed feelings really. We are all happy because this revolution has succeeded, but when I stand here, I remember my brothers and many, many friends have been killed, just because they did not like Muammar Gaddafi.”
Families of the prisoners were only told of the deaths in after 2001. The West’s interventionism and protest emotion.
The West had ulterior motives when it intervened in Libya. It is true that Gaddafi had threatened to go to Benghazi telling rebels, “You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.”
However, the West was already decided about the intervention and this was only a scapegoat. Then American State Secretary, Hillary Clinton had said the USA would support the “opposition who are standing against the dictator”. When Gaddafi was ultimately killed, it was apparent that NATO had not intervened to help civilians but to overthrow the colonel at whatever the cost for other motives other than human rights. This has evoked protestant sentiment among many people who find themselves choosing Gaddafi and proclaiming him a hero loved by everyone in his country.
The Western intervention has therefore clouded the past ills of a Libyan regime which was not particularly democratic in its dealings. Now that the country is in an unholy mess, it is getting easier to peddle the narrative of how a dictator whose security apparatus oppressed his own people was great for the country. This makes this makes the standard of what makes a good leader in Africa particularly low: You just need to be anti-West and you become a continental hero beyond reproach. The whole situation has even created the thinking that anyone who attempts to criticise Gaddafi’s governance is a proponent of the West, an overly simplistic argument devoid of any logic.
Gaddafi had a good mind to usher in greatness for Africa in certain instances but his human rights record was an embarrassment. It is an insult to all of Gaddafi’s victims (who lived and died in fear) to deny they suffered at his hands just so we can prove a point to the West.