Recent debate about the intervention in Libya that toppled the 42-year autocracy of the eccentric Muammar Gaddafi has not always clarified matters. It is important to untangle five myths regarding this intervention.

The first — ubiquitous in Western media — is that Gaddafi was widely popular in Africa and having played the flamboyant paymaster of the African Union (AU), the organisation will now suffer greatly from his demise. It should be noted that the Libyan leader was feared and viewed with widespread suspicion across the continent. Libya became isolated within the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) following Gaddafi's 1980 military intervention in Chad. He called for a jihad by Congolese Muslims against the autocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and for the partition of Nigeria. He backed vicious rebel groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as Tuareg rebels in Mali.

More positively, Gaddafi established a $5-billion fund that invested in hotels, cellphones, mosques, and mining companies across Africa. Many governments took his money without supporting his quixotic dreams of a federalist "United States of Africa". While the "Brother Leader" did the most to ensure that the AU was born in 2002 and bought influence by paying off the debts of several African states, Libya (like South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria) contributes no more than 15% of the AU's operating budget.

The second myth is that South Africa's Libya policy has been a total failure, resulting in the isolation of both the country and the continent. Francis Kornegay's piece "A sovereign Africa needs more dialogue" (September 23) makes such an argument. Some of the obfuscatory petulance of this sort of analysis has also seen Greg Mills hyperbolically referring to South Africa as a "rogue democracy" in these pages (September 2). South Africa did not achieve the negotiated outcome it wanted in Libya, but it is important to recognise its tireless mediation efforts. President Jacob Zuma conducted several rounds of "shuttle diplomacy" to Tripoli.

One must also note some of the dynamics that led to Tshwane's adopting an anti-Nato stance. The Zuma administration was clearly stung by criticism from within the ruling ANC, in which Gaddafi still enjoys much popularity as a revolutionary leader, that South Africa's support of the United Nations resolution to protect civilians opened the door to Nato's regime-change agenda.

These pressures explain the hardening of Zuma's approach to Libya. Thabo Mbeki was also involved in a campaign, with 600 "concerned Africans", to oppose the Nato intervention because the AU had been sidelined.

That Kornegay, an African-American, would disparage Africa's intellectual and political class for lacking "political imagination" and "thrashing about in frustrated rage" shows a profound lack of understanding of the nuances of this debate, as well as a breathtaking insensitivity towards the genuine anger felt across the continent at what many perceived to be an anachronistic "neo-colonial" intervention. Whether one agrees or disagrees with these African perspectives, it is important to explain rather than simply dismiss them.

The third myth is the moral and political failure of the AU. Kornegay writes of "African self-isolation and marginalisation" and Mills questions the organisation's concern for African lives. The AU clearly has institutional and other weaknesses, but it spoke with remarkable clarity during this crisis. It condemned the killing of civilians early on and called for a mediated end to the conflict that would culminate in an inclusive government.

That the AU could not implement its roadmap was largely the result of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) refusing to negotiate with Gaddafi's regime, as well as Nato's adoption of a military approach to the crisis. Kornegay talks of the AU having been "marginalised", but in fact the organisation was divided. These splits mirrored the European Union's own difficulties in responding to the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s. Such differences are not unusual in multilateral diplomacy.

It is therefore important to disaggregate the 53 AU states, about 20 of which recognised the NTC soon after Gaddafi's fall. The Libyan case unfortunately revives the historical diplomatic rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria. Both — as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council — voted to support the Nato intervention in Libya. Nigeria was among the first African countries to recognise the NTC. South Africa and Nigeria will have to re-establish the common strategic approach they demonstrated during the presidencies of Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo between 1999 and 2007 if Africa's voice is to carry weight in future crises. It is unfair to describe the Libya case solely as a failure of the AU (as Kornegay and Mills imply), because both the Arab League and the UN had an equal stake in resolving the dispute peacefully.

The fourth myth is the sense of Nato's invincibility. This view tends to gloss over the fact that, with the disappearance of its Soviet raison d'être, Nato is in the throes of a serious existential crisis. Of its 28 members, only eight agreed to take part in the bombing raids. Germany not only abstained from the Security Council resolution that sanctioned the Nato attacks, but also declined to contribute to the military mission. Poland refused to join the intervention and criticised it as having been driven by a thirst for Libya's oil. With Nato's European countries continuing to rely heavily on an American sheriff who is increasingly reluctant to rally military posses for foreign adventures, their declining military spending will surely render future "out-of-area operations" unsustainable. If the AU was divided over Libya, so too was Nato.

The fifth myth of the Libyan intervention is that, after four decades of Gaddafi's ossified dictatorship, NTC horsemen have ridden into Tripoli to establish a new dawn of multiparty democracy.

Murmurings about the council's nepotism and corruption are already growing louder. The assassination of the NTC's military commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, remains unexplained, which also suggests that the revolution has started devouring its children even before it has consolidated its grip on power. The massacre of scores of black African migrants by NTC forces (condemned by the AU and human-rights groups but bizarrely described by Kornegay as "inevitable") further damages a regime tainted by xenophobic extremists who have callously disregarded the principle of the "responsibility to protect" that was used to justify the intervention that put them in power.

Gaddafi was the glue that held together a motley crew of secularists, Islamists and ethnic factions. With his impending demise, Afghanistan and Iraq may well be the future that awaits post-Gaddafi Libya.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts (Jacana)

Events in Libya suggest that the end of the regime of the world's longest-ruling autocrat, Muammar Gaddafi, is near. It is worth tracing the life and times of this eccentric despot.

After seizing power in an act of regicide against King Idriss in 1969, Gaddafi initially modelled his rule on that of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, the celebrated champion of pan-Arabism. Overcome by emotion, Gaddafi fainted twice during Nasser's funeral in Cairo in 1970.

As the martyred South African liberation heroine Ruth First noted in an insightful 1974 study titled Libya: The Elusive Revolution, the contradictions of Gaddafi's revolution were many.

He simultaneously pursued a social revolution and a revival of Islamic fundamentalism; 11 young soldiers held power while claiming to represent a mass-based popular revolution; the Libyan leader condemned the corruption of the monarchical ancien régime while cutting lucrative deals with global oil cartels; and Gaddafi's traditional, religious approach led him to live in a Bedouin tent and criticise Western decadence, even as he relied on its technology and companies to finance his domestic revolution and foreign adventures.

Gaddafi's Green Book of 1975 rejected liberal democracy in favour of what he described as direct democracy through "popular committees", though these were accused of terrorising the population. In his early rule the Libyan leader achieved some social progress through his oil wealth and 1,5-million foreigners flocked to his country from Africa and the Middle East.

In the politics of the Maghreb Gaddafi's role was mercurial. Just before his country took over the presidency of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in 2003, the Libyan leader said: "It's time to put the union in the freezer." A year later Tripoli announced that it was leaving the AMU after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation offered rapid reaction training to Maghrebi states. Only pleas from Morocco and Tunisia prevented Gaddafi from carrying out his threat.

Gaddafi would prove equally controversial south of the Sahara. He became diplomatically isolated in Africa after his 1980 military intervention in Chad, losing support among his peers for supporting dissident groups against "neocolonial" regimes on the continent.

Gaddafi sent troops to bolster the regime of brutal Ugandan autocrat and fellow Muslim, General Idi Amin, between 1972 and 1979. In the 1980s the self-styled Libyan revolutionary provided military training to the warlords of two of West Africa's most vicious rebel groups in the 1990s: Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh. He also reportedly trained and armed Tuareg rebels who triggered a conflict in northern Mali in 1990.

Gaddafi would eventually swap his pan-Arab robes for Pan-African garments in anger at the lack of Arab support for Libya after Western-inspired United Nations economic and travel sanctions were imposed on Tripoli in 1992. By contrast with the muted Arab response, strong black African backing was offered in his hour of need. Indeed, the sanctions on Tripoli were eventually lifted in 1999 with the help of Nelson Mandela, who mediated with Washington and London.

Former president Thabo Mbeki famously did not get on with Gaddafi, while Jacob Zuma appears to have attempted to appease him.

Gaddafi sought to become the heir of Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah's pan-African vision. He was the moving force behind the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union (AU), hosting several meetings in his home town of Sirte. At the AU summit in Ghana in 2007, Gaddafi championed a "United States of Africa" with an all-African army, a common monetary union, as well as a central bank. But the eccentric "brother leader's" vision was, like Nkrumah's, rejected by most African leaders.

Gaddafi also used his oil wealth to buy influence within the AU by paying the debts of member states. With strong leaders like Mbeki and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo having left the political stage Gaddafi finally became chair of the AU for the first time in January 2009. This was largely a wasted year, as the Libyan leader continued to pursue his quixotic federalist dreams without the support of African leaders. As AU chair, Gaddafi was also accused of coddling fellow military putschists in Guinea, Mauritania, and Madagascar.

As his four-decade autocratic reign appears to be coming to an ignominious end, Gaddafi, the self-proclaimed "King of Kings", seems to be drifting into delusional madness.

Having toppled a monarch to promote social justice, he recently compared his 41-year rule with that of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, wondering why similar protests were not being raised about her long reign.

Coming from a lower social class, Gaddafi had always aspired to greatness and coveted King Idriss's crown. A social climber and arriviste, he donned ill-fitting borrowed royal robes to which his birth did not entitle him. As the fin de régime approaches, the Libyan despot appears to be a poor parody of the very system that he toppled.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War


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