One of the unintended consequences of the angry reactions to the slave auctions in Libya, is a renewed romanticization of the supposed pan-African legacy of the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. At its heart, it reflects a depressing understanding of African politics which rules that a fair dictator is better than a chaotic political void.
Gaddafi ruled Libya for more than forty years since the military coup in 1969. His regime maintained a bureaucratic-authoritarian rule that criminalized political participation and dissent, legitimized a continual stability mainly through a corrupt redistribution of oil revenues in the forms of free healthcare and free education, and a pervasive cult of personality. Post-Gaddafi, Libya now has two rival parliaments and three governments. The dissolution of his autocratic rule after the 2011 uprisings has led to a state of social, financial, and political lawlessness.
The last few weeks’ outrage over the racist images of black Africans being sold in Tripoli, was accompanied by a strong criticism against the illegitimate military intervention in 2011 that led to the overthrowing of Gaddafi’s regime. These observers “questioned the role the Obama administration played in the Northern African country’s instability six years after the president ordered an intervention there.” The result was lawlessness and political violence. After the CNN’s slavery report was published, a widely-shared old tweet by Donald Trump, which dates back to 2011, was shared. It echoed the same sentiment: “As bad as Qaddafi was — what comes next in Libya will be worse — just watch.”
The argument goes that if Gaddafi was still in power, none of this would happen. Reactions on social media remythologize the legacy of the ex-dictator, “The Falcon of Africa.” A tweet insists, “whatever faults Gaddafi had, blacks were treated as equals in Libya than in most Arab countries. Another one summarizes, “Under Gaddafi, Libya had the highest life expectancy in Africa. Now, thanks to Western military intervention, Libya is one of the most dangerous nations in the world. A haven for modern slavery.” Numerous posts reflected on Libya’s progress under his regime in terms human and infrastructure development while other highlighted his positive pan-Africanism.
But Gaddafi was never a fair dictator, if the oxymoron exists.
In Libya, he was a bloody and delusional despot who committed massacres against his own people and used public resources to entertain his own cult of Jamahiriya, what Gaddafi and his supporters eventually called the regime. They murdered and tortured countless innocent civilians and journalists, financed numerous assassinations against political rivals in Libya and abroad. Gaddafi let the country’s infrastructure deteriorate while continuing to lavishly pay for his personal and political interests and that of his clan. He treacherously labelled his political opponents as a threat to the nation. As he told a group of American academics in 2006: “In the Middle East, the opposition is quite different than the opposition in advanced countries. In our countries, the opposition takes the form of explosions, assassinations, killings.” For decades, he treated the country’s wealth as his own and allowed his sons to steal vast sums of money from the country oil reserves, especially after the UN sanctions against Libya were lifted in 2003. He ruled through fear and caused Libyans to grow politically naïve.
This romanticization of African dictators reveals a problematic, yet popular, political intellectualization in Africa we thought was already expunged from our conversations: An internalization of neocolonial imaginary that only fair dictators can rule nations replete with issue of ethnic division and political rivalries. To echo the Cameroonian social theorist, Achille Mbembe’s argument: the neocolonial subjects “have internalized the authoritarian epistemology to the point where they reproduce it themselves.” For me, the neocolonial remythologization of the dictators becomes possible because the mind, and no longer the body, is now “the principal locale of the idioms and fantasies used in depicting power.”
But the African Union’s handling of the 2011 revolution, the military intervention, and the recent news of Tripoli’s slaves auction complicates this understanding. The AU’s solidarity with Gaddafi and his regime have always shaped the relationship between them. For many African leaders, the late Libyan leader was a popular figure. No less than Nelson Mandela is often quoted as saying: “Those who feel we should have no relations with Gaddafi, have no morals. Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Gaddafi can go jump in the pool.”
This sense of friendship was built on Gaddafi’s $5 billion infrastructure fund and the AU’s overlooking of his political abuses. Before his pan-Africanism stunt and his “United States of Africa,” he complotted to overthrow numerous regimes. These included an attempted invasion of Chad in 1980, support for Idi Amin’s regime, and providing financial and military support to rebel groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone. That former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, famously clashed with Gaddafi, while his then-successor, Jacob Zuma, enjoyed better relations with him epitomizes the kind of solidarities the former Libyan dictator had with other problematic African leaders.
This is not a case of “all your favorites are problematic,” or of irrational reactions to the shocking and racist footage about the slave auction, but rather reflects a pervasive view of Gaddafi as, what Rene Girard calls, a sacrificial victim. It is interesting that Mbembe, without citing Girard, observes that what we have in the postcolony is a case of “theophagy” where “the god himself is devoured by his worshippers.”
The act of worshipping itself thrives. One of Gaddafi’s two sons, Saif al-Islam, is rumored to make a political comeback in Libya. The Guardian reports that Saif al-Islam could do well in elections scheduled for next year. This is the same Saif al-Islam, who during the 2011 uprising against his father’s regime, appeared in a notorious TV broadcast and declared, “There will be civil war in Libya… We will kill one another in the streets… All of Libya will be destroyed.” This is despite an ongoing indictment from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity.