It is often said that people get the government they deserve, but by no stretch of the imagination can the Libyans have deserved Muammar Gaddafi, who at the time of his downfall was the longest-serving ruler in Africa. Son of an illiterate Bedouin herder, Gaddafi had already hatched plans to topple the Libyan monarchy while at college and, after military training in Greece and Britain, led a successful revolution at the age of 27. Like Mao, Gaddafi outlined his political views in a pithy tome: the Green Book. His Islamic socialism was a curious mixture of Arab nationalism, socialist welfare state and religious moral codes, but succeeded only in reducing LIbya from a republic into a jamahiriya — a neologism that means “government by the masses” — a querulous tribalistic quasi-state.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi was left free to practice his interventionist and not inconsequential policies. Libya has donated money for humanitarian causes across Africa and also allowed Africans to travel to the country to find work. It supported African rebels in South Africa and Zimbabwe during apartheid. On the other hand, Gaddafi had supported scores of other baleful rebel movements in Chad, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia. After he had became embroiled in Chad’s Civil War, Gaddafi sent high school pupils to the frontline, telling them that they were going on a field trip. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), Palestinian militants and the forces of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had training camps in Libya, although the Irish soon left after facing tight alcohol regulations.
These unseemly connections led to Gaddafi being identified as the world’s premier state-sponsor of terrorism. Implicated in several terrorist attacks including the Munich Massacre of 1972, shooting of protestors from inside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1983, and the Berlin discotheque bombing of 1986, Gaddafi was the “mad dog of the Middle East” to President Reagan, who authorized the bombing of Tripoli, which killed, among many others, Gaddafi’s own adopted daughter. His retaliation was the Lockerbie Bombings of 1988, which consigned Libya into international pariah-hood.
Although his military rank remained uncharged, the colonel subsequently festooned himself with rows after rows of decorations. His delusions of grandeur were also palpable when he tried to create a Federation of Arab Republics (with Egypt and Syria), an Arab-African Federation (with Morocco), and an Arab Islamic Republic (with Tunisia). They lasted five years, two years and two days respectively. As his fellow Arabs failed to support him in the face of international isolation in the 1980s and 1990s, he abandoned pan-Arabism for pan-Africanism. In the recent years, his vision was for a second USA — the United States of Africa, modeled after the EU — with Gaddafi himself as its “King of Kings”.
As his influence dwindled, Gaddafi became more idiosyncratic: he came to dress more and more eccentrically; two years ago, he gave an incoherent speech at the UN; he paid Italian women to study Islam. Bedouin tents, Amazonian bodyguards and an Ukrainian nurse closely accompanied him. Yet, he found limited success in his bridge-building to the West. After he partially atoned for Lockerbie, the new generation of world leaders sought Gaddafi’s help in the War on Terror and energy security. He emerged as the key mediator in negotiations over Western hostages kidnapped in Mali and Niger. He ‘magnanimously’ pardoned Bulgarian nurses accused to spreading AIDS in Libya. In 2009 — the year he chaired the African Union — Gaddafi was also at the G-8 summit, a worthy achievement for the man who was, for the better part of four decades, a bogeyman for the West.
After forty years of repression, Gaddafi’s end came astonishingly fast. As dictatorships to east and west of him crumbled, his position became increasingly untenable. Yesterday, he appeared in a 22-second TV interview, holding an umbrella, sitting in the front seat of a van and denying the rumors that he had fled to Venezuela (above). Preparing a symbolic last stand, he made a speech from his deserted residence, which was aerial bombed in 1986 by the U.S., brandishing his Green Book. Like his own dictatorship, the speech was rumbling and went on far too long; Gaddafi himself looked distant and shabbier than ever before, at last unable to steer the destiny of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him. To the end, he remained defiant, saying “Colonel Gaddafi is history”. In this judgment at least, he was correct.