Qaddafi’s Tangled Legacy in Africa

During his more than four decades in charge of Libya, Muammar el-Qaddafi’s interest in the rest of the African continent has ebbed and flowed. His methods of engagement have also shifted. While he has frequently dabbled in military adventurism and terrorism, in recent years he has sought to reposition himself as a statesman and peacemaker. His interventionist approach, longevity in office, flamboyance, and above all his enormous wealth have guaranteed him an audience on the African stage and allowed Libya to punch above its weight. Winning the trust and respect of his fellow Africans has proven more elusive. Unsurprisingly, his legacy is mixed, and the reaction of African leaders to the current crisis has been nuanced and at times contradictory.

Q1: What has been the official African response to events in Libya?

A1: The African Union (AU) has been slow to respond to events in Libya, a position that reflects its complicated relationship with the Qaddafi regime. It took several days for a condemnation of the violence to be issued, and so far the African Union has declined to follow the example of the Arab League by suspending Libya’s membership in its organization. The AU position owes less to a sense of misplaced loyalty toward Qaddafi and more to a pragmatic realization that his oil money has helped sustained an organization whose members routinely fail to pay their dues. Libya pays 15 percent of the African Union’s membership fees and also makes substantial contributions to its peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Somalia.

Q2: How important a role have African mercenaries played in propping up Qaddafi’s regime?

A2: The scale of Qaddafi’s dependence on mercenaries from other African states is hard to estimate. Multiple reports talk of soldiers being flown in from countries including Sudan, Niger, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Zimbabwe’s defense minister was even asked to confirm reports that members of President Robert Mugabe’s feared Fifth Brigade had been sent to prop up his ally in Tripoli. Separating truth from rumor is proving difficult. Some governments have a clear motive for accusing their own internal enemies of making common cause with an unhinged dictator. Sudan, for example, was quick to accuse one of the main rebel groups it has been fighting in Darfur of committing atrocities on behalf of the Libyan leader. There is also a suspicion that some Libyans are using the unfolding chaos to scapegoat some of the country’s estimated 2 million “black” African migrant workers, who have traditionally faced discrimination and resentment.

Q3: What effect would Qaddafi’s fall have on his immediate neighbors?

A3: The violent unraveling of the Qaddafi regime adds to the sense of instability in the region, which has already been shaken by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and antigovernment demonstrations in Algeria and Morocco. None of Libya’s six neighbors is adequately prepared to receive the tens of thousands of people intent on fleeing the chaos, and a major humanitarian crisis is fast developing. There will also be a sense of uncertainty about what comes next, given the fact that Qaddafi has been a fixture in the region for more than 40 years. For good or ill, the Libyan leader has been a dynamic if unpredictable presence. He was widely feared and loathed in the earlier part of his rule, particularly by his southern neighbor Chad, which bore the brunt of Libyan military adventurism in the 1970s and early 1980s, including the occupation of part of its territory.
Since then, Qaddafi has taken a less overtly destructive position, oscillating between the role of peacemaker and spoiler in the region’s many conflicts. In Sudan, he has often played both parts at the same time, providing cover for groups such as the Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur while hosting peace talks between the main protagonists in the conflict. Such overtures have tended to expose Qaddafi’s preference for show over substance and achieved little of lasting value.

Q4: How is Qaddafi viewed elsewhere in Africa?

A4: Deep pockets have given Qaddafi a louder voice than he deserves in Africa. His money has been spread far and wide: according to figures from the Libyan Foreign Ministry, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Sudan have each benefited from loans in excess of $100 million (in Sudan’s case, $610 million). Very little of the money has been paid back. His largesse won him some important allies on the continent, including fellow despot Robert Mugabe, whose position has been buttressed by cheap Libyan oil imports. There is an enormous amount of goodwill toward Qaddafi within South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), which was sustained by Libyan cash in its decades-long liberation battle against the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela repaid the debt by facilitating the process that ended Libya’s diplomatic isolation in 1999. Ultimately, however, these ties of friendship did not stop South Africa, which is currently a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, from backing a resolution to impose sanctions on Libya, although it has been reluctant to criticize Qaddafi directly or call on him to step down.

Aside from his support of the ANC, Qaddafi has shown little discrimination in his funding of rebel movements, and many African governments will not readily forgive his role in bankrolling and arming some of the continent’s most brutal insurgencies. In particular, his bloody fingerprints can be found all over the civil wars of West Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s. A rogues’ gallery of African rebel leaders and would-be tyrants passed through Qaddafi’s training camps in the 1970s and 1980s. They included the Liberian warlord turned president turned indicted war criminal, Charles Taylor; the head of Sierra Leone’s most bloodthirsty rebel group, Foday Sankoh; and the assorted Tuareg rebel forces from Mali and Niger who returned home to wage war against their governments.

In recent years, as he found himself ostracized in the Middle East, Qaddafi increasingly viewed Africa as the stage on which to act out his grandiose schemes. Pan-Arabism was ditched in favor of pan-Africanism. During his time as president of the African Union in 2009, a largely ceremonial role that rotates annually, Qaddafi unveiled his latest vision du jour: a United States of Africa, led by him. Few paid any attention. The limits of his influence were starkly revealed at the end of 2009 when his attempt to extend his tenure as AU president was unanimously rejected. Africa’s leaders increasingly took his money with one hand and used the other to stifle their laughter.

Qaddafi’s ill-judged pronouncements on African affairs consistently display an ignorance of the continent he claims to represent. He appears to subscribe to an anachronistic notion of sub-Saharan Africa as a patchwork quilt of warring tribes and kingdoms. He enraged Nigeria last year by calling for the religious partition of the country into northern and southern halves, mischaracterizing the root causes of violence between Muslim and Christian communities in the city of Jos. Nigeria’s Foreign Ministry denounced his “insensitive” and “irresponsible theatrics and grandstanding.” There was also a clash with another of Africa’s big egos, President Moweri Museveni of Uganda. The two men’s security flunkies exchanged blows at an AU summit last summer after Museveni, enraged by a suicide bomb attack by Islamist militants in Kampala, suggested that Qaddafi’s pan-African message masked an attempt to spread Islam throughout Africa. Wikileaks cables from 2008 even suggest that Museveni feared a Qaddafi-inspired plot to assassinate him. Episodes like these dented Qaddafi’s standing among African leaders and tended to reinforce the perception that he was not to be taken seriously, despite his wealth.

Richard Downie is deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie