The bloody demise of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s self-styled ‘Brother Leader’, has concluded the topsy-turvy political innings of a mercurial egomaniac. Glamorous all-female bodyguards, lavish tête-à-têtes with foreign counterparts in Bedouin desert tents, and incoherently long public ramblings were symbols of Qaddafi’s hard-to-predict, flamboyant character. The policy twists and turns he executed over 42 years of brutal dictatorship befitted a man who defied conventional political mores and mannerisms.
Qaddafi, the young military officer who demolished Libya’s short-lived monarchy in 1969, was a fiery revolutionary whose contribution to overthrowing white colonial rule in southern Africa is still remembered with gratitude by an older generation. The image he cultivated as an ally of the underdogs and a resolute opponent of Western imperialism persisted unduly in some Libyan and foreign circles, despite the realities of his authoritarianism and violent overseas misadventures.
It was only early this year, after his security forces mercilessly sniped at and locked up peaceful demonstrators for democracy, did it become apparent to all that Qaddafi was not a liberator but a rank opportunist for whom the lives of Libyan people were cheap and dispensable.
Despite his rhetoric of governing Libya with socialistic ideals, the massive wealth accumulation and concentration of oil industry assets in the hands of his family and kinfolk was in plain sight. Like other despots, Qaddafi blamed Western sanctions and hostility for Libya’s economic shambles. But he forced Libyans to pay a heavy price for his own promotion of terrorism (notably the bombing of the Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, and of the French plane, UTA 771, in 1989) and proxy wars (in Chad and Sudan).
Extremely status conscious and aware that the oil riches and sand dunes of Libya were insufficient to propel him to world leadership, Qaddafi dabbled in nefarious activities prohibited by international law. Across the world, where Islamist guerrillas waged jihad against ‘non-believer’ states, the secular Qaddafi’s money, mosques and weapons were ironically found. His desperate drive to acquire nuclear weapons by hook or crook exposed deep links with Pakistan’s notorious Abdul Qadeer Khan smuggling network. His frequent rants against a two-state solution for the Palestinian conflict left fellow Arab League countries exasperated. The same Qaddafi who pumped his fists and Kalashnikovs in the air to mock and defy the “Zionist enemy” allegedly relied on weapons supplied by Israel in this year’s final stand against the advancing rebels.
Although Qaddafi’s fall, capture and death occurred in quick succession, he had dug his own grave over the years by incurring diplomatic isolation in Africa and the Middle East through Quixotic foreign policy positions. After the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for him and his aides over ruthless killings of unarmed pro-democracy activists in early 2011, even his old comrades in South Africa jettisoned him, leaving barely one or two countries where he could have escaped as the noose around him tightened. A vainglorious man who sought to be crowned by regional organisations and desperately craved acceptance from both Arabs and Africans as a guiding figure, Qaddafi was left friendless towards the closing stages of his reign.
As NATO-supported rebels began dislodging his loyalists across Libya in the last few months, Qaddafi must have rued another of his irrational decisions in December 2003 to abandon his nuclear weapons programme in return for some sort of implicit guarantees from Britain and the US that they would not seek regime change in Libya. The years of sordid intelligence cooperation (including secret renditions and torture) that he embarked upon with Western powers after the September 11, 2001, attacks must have felt like a surreal dream in his final days. The sly chess player was fatally betrayed.
The sad lesson from Qaddafi’s fate which will be drawn by the North Koreas, Pakistans and Irans of the world is that possession of nuclear weapons is absolutely necessary for regime and state survival. ‘Unproliferation’ or nuclear reversal in rogue states is going to be much much harder after seeing the eventual fate of Qaddafi.