Rebel without a hope

By Khaled Diab

Like an ageing rocker, Muammar el- is on a mission to rid of poverty and conflict. But are his dreams of a United State of Africa to prove as futile as his earlier visions of ?

26 February 2009

There is something of the ageing rock star about the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qathafi (pronounced Gaddafi in the Libyan dialect). It's not just his unkempt hair, his eccentric sense of dress, his insistence on sleeping in a tent and the female bodyguards who surround him like tough-as-nails and confident groupies – and how all this confuses the staid and conventional leaders he visits.

The Libyan leader sees himself as being antiestablishment and has a penchant for rubbing the political the Arab, African and western political establishment up the wrong way. But after four decades at the top, he is the establishment and his radical rhetoric is wearing very thin.

Gaddafi actually reminds me somewhat of Bob Geldof: he had a couple of early hits, failed to make it into the rebels' hall of fame and has kept his dimming star alight by projecting himself as a saviour and harbinger of world peace.

Isolated by the American-led sanctions regime and ridiculed by his Arab counterparts, Gaddafi embraced his African brethren – and African leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, helped break 's international isolation. After angrily turning his back on the frustrating quest for Arab unity, Gaddafi has centred his attentions on .

In co-operation with South Africa and Nigeria, Libya played a pivotal role in transforming the toothless body known as the Organisation of African Unity into the nascent which was established in 2002 – which many disappointed Africans dismiss as another impotent talking shop where African leaders get to rub shoulders at taxpayers' expense.

Earlier this month, Gaddafi was elected chairman of the AU, not to mention hailed as “king of kings” by his entourage of tribal African leader.

The maverick – some would say delusional – colonel then wasted no time in rocking the boat, ruffling feathers and pushing his reality-lite visions. He not only dismissively asserted that democracy could not work in Africa because of tribalism, he urged the assembled leaders to merge into a single “United States of Africa”.

I like it when people think out of the box, but Gaddafi's idea is so far out there that it belongs on another continent that has not yet been discovered. I am a believer in gradual integration and may be even the eventual emergence of some kind of loose union.

However, this is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse. Too many African states are having trouble enough ending or avoiding conflict within their arbitrary borders that going for an even larger geographical union is bound to spell disaster – or at the very least total paralysis.

In addition, the AU has generally failed to live up to expectations. Its key successes relate to the peacekeeping efforts in such hotspots as Darfur and Somalia, as well as interventions in support of democracy in Togo and Mauritania. But the continent's overall democratic deficit remains huge, and the AU's mechanisms for promoting greater integration and transparency, as well as rooting out corruption, have so far failed to achieve significant results. How on earth can this dysfunctional body be transformed overnight into a US of Af, as Gaddafi wishes?

Despite support from some AU members, such as Senegal, most Africans have reacted sceptically, with some African leaders suspicious that the Libyan leader – who used to support myriad revolutionary groups – is out to topple them by other means.

“Gaddafi should first let African countries sort out their myriad domestic problems before they can start aspiring for grander things,” an editorial in Kenya's the Standard sensibly pointed out. “Unity won't be an automatic panacea to the insurmountable problems we are likely to face. We should learn from the European Union where countries are strictly vetted before admission to the bloc.”

“Unlike Europe, Africa has not succeeded in moving beyond the most rudimentary stages of the [integration] process,” argues Gerrit Olivier, co-director of the Centre for African and European Studies at the University of Johannesburg. “African countries, in spite of the notions of African unity and pan-Africanism, stick rigidly and evangelically to the Westphalian model of absolute national sovereignty.”

And therein lies one of the key stumbling blocks along the road to African, as well as Arab, integration. Whereas post-war Europe has pursued a pragmatic gradualist policy, in Africa and the Arab world – grappling with the dual curse of colonial legacy and corrupt and ineffective leadership – hollow and haughty rhetoric traditionally took the place of concrete action. The AU has been an attempt at pragmatism, but Gaddafi is doing his best to derail that.

“Gaddafi must stop promoting dictatorship and supporting leaders who do not respect the wishes of their people with reckless proclamations like his infamous ‘revolutionaries do not retire',” advises Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, deputy director of the UN Millennium Campaign in Africa.

Although he has modernised Libya and done it some good, the isolation he has brought to the country, the wastage of its oil wealth on promoting global revolution and other crackpot schemes, as well as his oppression and poor human rights record, count greatly against him.

Of course, in his warped view, Gaddafi doesn't see it that way. Officially, he retired from politics in 1979 and holds no official title but, in an Orwellian twist, he calls himself “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. The country, which he calls a “jamahiriya” (a term he coined to mean government by the masses), is supposed to be run by a collection of local popular assemblies, but no prizes for guessing who actually calls the shots.

Gaddafi has not been idle on the domestic front either, and is following up his ‘Africa unite' hit with an ‘I wanna be anarchy' scheme that is just as muddled but almost charmingly naïve in its idealism. Disillusioned by widespread corruption, Gaddafi has urged Libyans to endorse his proposal to dismantle the government and give the oil wealth directly to the people.

When I read the news, I thought that some good – instead of the occasional hassle at airports – could finally come out my having been born in Libya, and I could apply for citizenship to get some of that action. Seriously, while I applaud the idea of giving Libyan's a fair stake of their country's oil wealth, how does he propose that Libya function without a government?

Four decades at Libya's helm have done his sense of reality no good and it's time for Gaddafi to actually retire. His people could do without this particular comeback kid.

A shorter version of this column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 19 February 2009. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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