Jon Lee Anderson’s long profile/obituary of Muammar Gaddafi in latest issue of The New Yorker reads like a compendium of how Libyans and Gaddafi (especially), related to the idea and continent of Africa. Here are the choice cuts:

After the fall of Tripoli, I joined a crowd of curious Libyans streaming into [Gaddafi’s compound], which had become a destination for family excursions … I saw a man emerge from a room in a black silk robe and declare, “I am Qaddafi, King of Africa!” Indeed, trophies of the old order became fashionable around Tripoli. One evening, I saw a rebel soldier manning a roadblock with a gold-plated Kalashnikov, one of several such weapons found in Qaddafi’s residence. During a rally in Green Square, the center of protests in Tripoli, a fighter danced up next to me wearing a leopard skin, lined with green satin. He said it had come from Qaddafi’s closet, and guessed it had been a gift from a visiting witch doctor. It was an article of faith among the rebels that Qaddafi had regularly used magic to prop up his long reign. What other explanation could there be?

…  For some unpopular causes, Qaddafi offered a last resort. Months before Fallaci arrived, he intervened in Uganda to protect the dictator Idi Amin from invading Tanzanian troops and, later, spirited him away to a house near Tripoli. In the interview, Qaddafi defended Amin. Although he allowed that he might not like the Ugandan despot’s “internal policies”—which included torture and mass murder—he was a Muslim and he opposed Israel, and that was all that mattered.

… A couple of large cardboard boxes, full of reel-to-reel tape recordings, sat on the floor. El Lagi said that they were secretly recorded tapes of Qaddafi’s meetings. “This one is a surveillance tape of visiting African leaders,” he said, picking one up, “and this one, from 2009, was made inside the President’s palace in Chad.” He laughed and exclaimed, “This was Qaddafi! He had intelligence everywhere!”

… Next door [to the house of Gaddafi’s son, Saadi], in curious juxtaposition, was a facility called the African Center for Infectious Disease Research and Control. Fighters manned a roadblock there, and a few of them hopped into a car and urged me to follow them. Five minutes away, in a forested area off the main road, they showed me several twenty-foot Soviet-era anti-ship cruise missiles that had been concealed among the trees. The fighters were anxious about the missiles, because they were unguarded. Believing the man they had overthrown to be capable of anything, they worried that these might be chemical weapons.

… During one recent visit to Tripoli, I went to the Burns and Plastic Surgery Hospital to meet a thirty-year-old Ethiopian woman named Shweyga Mullah. For a year, she had been a nanny for [Gaddafi’s son] Hannibal’s children, and was now healing from fourth-degree burns inflicted by Hannibal’s wife, Aline, a Lebanese former model. A doctor showed me to Shweyga’s room, where she was in bed, with an I.V. drip attached to one of her arms. There was an odor of burned flesh. The doctor told me that she had been brought in by a Qaddafi security guard, who ordered the doctors to register her as Anonymous.

“She’s burned everywhere,” the doctor said. Shweyga was fragile, but she was conscious. In a shy voice, she told me that, before she worked for the Qaddafis, she had lived with her parents in Addis Ababa. She was unmarried, and her father was often away, working as a farm laborer. The Libyan Embassy was looking for domestic workers, so she applied and was hired to go to Libya and work for the Qaddafis. Unknown to her, the two had a reputation for violence.

…  One morning, she said, “I was gathering up her son’s clothes, but I didn’t do it properly. So for the next three days she made me stand in the garden. I wasn’t allowed to eat or to sleep.” When Aline allowed Shweyga back inside, she went to the kitchen, thirsty after her ordeal, and drank some juice. “The wife came and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ She accused me of eating some Turkish delight. I insisted that I hadn’t. She called me a liar.” The next morning, Aline told the other servants to tie Shweyga up, and to boil some water. “They tied my legs and tied my hands behind my back. I was brought into the bathroom and put in a bathtub, and she started pouring the boiling water on me, over my head. My mouth was taped, so I couldn’t scream.” Hannibal was there, she said, but he did nothing. Shweyga was left in the bathroom, tied up, until the next day. “It was too much pain,” she said. After about ten days, the security guard secretly took her to the hospital, but Aline found out. “She said if he didn’t bring me back he’d be imprisoned, so he brought me back.” Only after Aline fled Tripoli was Shweyga taken again to the hospital. She had been there ever since.

Outside the room, the doctor told me that she would probably survive, but she would need ongoing plastic surgery. “Her life is ruined,” he concluded. Enraged by Aline’s cruelty, he said, “The same that she did to Shweyga should be done to her.” …

… If the Arab states couldn’t be united, there was at least the prospect of hegemony in Africa. Qaddafi gave out vast quantities of money and weapons to a bewildering array of revolutionary causes in sub-Saharan Africa. He also supported the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In 1997, Nelson Mandela appeared in Tripoli to proclaim that Libya’s “selfless and practical support helped assure a victory that was as much yours as it is ours.”

In the mid-seventies, Libya and Chad began a long-running conflict over a uranium-rich piece of borderland called the Aouzou Strip. In 1987, Qaddafi’s forces were finally outgunned by local soldiers backed by France and the U.S. He lost seventy-five hundred men—a tenth of the total force—and a billion and a half dollars of military equipment. Ashour Gargoum, the former Libyan diplomat, told me that the Chad episode was “a disaster for Qaddafi.” Having set out with ambitions of regional unification, he had shown himself unable to manage even his weaker neighbors. Afterward, Gargoum said, he grew “paranoid and detached from reality.”


Further Reading

Stop selling out

Ugandan activist and politician Dr. Stella Nyanzi challenges a new generation of women to take up the struggle for political freedoms and revolution.

Soft targets

What was behind the assassinations in the 1980s of two key anti-apartheid figures: Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, and senior ANC official, Dulcie September?