By Obi Nwakanma
History compels us to bear this witness: that the NATO-led overthrow of the government of Colonel Moumar Gadhafi is an international coup d’état. It is the longest coup in human history, lasting all of six months and backed by the arsenal of a coalition of the most powerful nations on earth.
Of course, Gadhafi had it coming. He had stayed too long in power and had created a powerful dynastic succession in which his son became his so-called “heir-apparent.” For a man who arrived at power by sacking a monarchy and proclaiming a socialist republic, Gadhafi’s succession plan, at least the way most people understand it, was a major contradiction. It is in fact, reactionary. He gave his enemies the excuse to fight and destroy him.
Gadhafi’s case is a warning, therefore, to long-serving African heads of government who have created powerful personality cults and who may have overstayed their welcome. But there again, defenders of Gadhafi’s point to his social programmes; his use of the proceeds of Libya’s oil resources to do some real and visible good for the ordinary Libyans. Remind them that Gadhafi had stayed for too long in power and they will ask you what that’s got to do with anything.
The issue was not how long Gadhafi stayed in power but whether he kept faith with his people, the Libyans. Of course, our premise for critiquing Gadhafi is the Western model of representative democracy with its cycles of elections and term limits. I personally think that election cycles and term limits are good things; a great heritage from Western democracy which allows for greater freedom of choice.
But then, Britain, one of the alliances that fought Gadhafi is a constitutional monarchy: the English monarchy has no term limits and the Queen is the political head of Great Britain. There has been none wise enough to ask her to stand down after being on the throne since 1956.
Of course, there is the Commons – the Parliament and the Prime Minister which since Cromwell has had a power-sharing agreement between the people and the monarchy. The English monarchs have been collecting rents from its estate since then, and living high on the English hog in the gilded cage of constitutional retirement, conducting only ceremonies on behalf of the British Commonwealth.
This is not an excuse for sit-tight African leaders, but it is no business of the West how long an African leader stays in office. It is often a terrible and consistent form of infantalisation by the media in the West to keep talking about “African dictators” who lord it over poor, hapless Africans denied agency by profound existential lacks. The image of the hapless African who has to endure the brutal dictatorship of a big African tyrant is against the grain of facts given that these same Africans have a history of fighting ferociously against colonialism. They could not be that docile. But it is the image of the child nonetheless – the African child who has not entered the adult history of the world in which the west is the main adult in the room.
It is the image that Sarkozy has of Africa, and he was not shy in retailing this image at University of Dakar. It is the image of a helpless continent still in diapers, which needs help from outside; it is the image of an extremely poor continent which survives on the charity of the West. Today, that charity seems like a handshake that has crossed the elbow. It has taken the left-handed charity of a Western military alliance to depose an African dictator, that is Gadhafi, and free hapless Libyans from his wicked rule. This is the image circulating through the media in the West, and in all its echo chambers across the world, like Nigeria.
The truth is quite different – from my own experience both as a journalist and a scholar: Africans have agency.Most Libyans are not rejoicing. It is a great fallacy of the moment allied to these interests whichperpetuate the big business of charity in Africa that Africans require foreign help to free themselves of their overlords. The higher truth is that Africa has remained the staging ground of all kinds of international power politics. Most African dictators are propped up by guns and mercenaries supplied mostly from the West.
Some weeks ago, I drew attention on this column to NATO’s military conquest of Libya and abuse of a UN mandate. Today, Gadhafi has been defeated in that war, and a rebel army of stragglers and mercenaries recruited for that purpose has been propped to take over Libya as its prize. This war was retailed to the world, as an act of charity – NATO’s defence of the rights of poor Libyans misled and brutalised by the evil Gadhafi.
The US, Great Britain, France, and the Arab League, spear-heading this alliance, quickly secured a limited mandate from the UN to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and ensure that Gadhafi’s army did not attack civilians. I will spare you, dear reader, a rehash of the murky details of how NATO thereafter changed the barometer of war by expanding its mandate beyond the UN mandate: it not only bombed innocent civilians, it did engineer regime change. As events unfold, we come to understand that the US with these European powers, in defiance of the law of nations, and in disregard of the interventions of the African Unions has potentially undermined the standing of the United Nations.
I think it is fair to say that Gadhafi was for long an enemy of the West, and the west got him. But one cannot but see that the West got a much mellowed Gadhafi, who had renounced the use of terrorism, made gestures of peace and reconciliation, and dismantled his weapons programme publicly as a gesture of his willingness to cede to peace. His son was indeed, thoroughly hooked to the values of the West. This is the Gadhafi – a much weakened man – on which much ammunition was wasted at the twilight of his regime. And, to make what point?
I think it was to emphasise to the world that the West has a long memory, and does not forgive whoever is on its enemies list. Two issues however come out thus: one, the war against Gadhafi is going to harden the hands of regimes that would point to him as an example of the folly of not developing nuclear powers for self-preservation.
The second is that NATO’s intervention had totally undermined the validity of the United Nations. The short gains of oil for Sarkozy and co will be short indeed, but I suspect that with NATO’s intervention in Libya, the United Nations has entered the same zone of decline that destroyed the League of Nations before it.
But at the African home front: Nigeria’s quick recognition of the Libyan rebels in alliance with NATO, and breaking ranks with the AU has drawn fire from the South Africans, the real giants of Africa today, who maintain their stance on NATO and have refused to recognize the Libyan TNC.
Well, of course, it is Nigeria: incompetent Nigeria; the West’s plaything in Africa. No surprises there. But one thing is clear: in breaking with the AU the Jonathan regime has called to question the cardinal principle of Nigeria’s foreign policy with regard to Africa.