With control of his nation reduced to a handful of loyalist redoubts, there is a palpable sense of joy in Western capitals - and an equal sense of relief at NATO headquarters in Brussels that the seemingly moribund alliance was actually able to achieve something - over the impending end of the Moammar Gadhafi era in Libya. Countries around the world have been quick to recognize the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC) as the “legitimate” government of Libya. Countries around the world, that is, except for the continent of Africa, where leaders have been far less willing to embrace the rebels or to toss aside Gadhafi. Rather than “victory”, the word often mentioned in Africa today when discussing Libya is the old C-word: Colonialism. People and leaders across the continent are viewing the situation in Libya not so much as a freedom-seeking people overthrowing a dreaded dictator, but rather as a collection of foreign interests trying yet again to impose their will upon Africa; for a continent only about a half-century removed from its colonial era, Western intervention on a scale displayed in Libya is not a welcome sight.
The reason for this reluctance has a lot to do with some vastly differing views of Gadhafi himself. To the West, Gadhafi was the quintessential leader of a rogue state: a supporter of terrorism, an oppressor of his own people, a meddler in his neighbor's affairs; a megalomaniac who inspired his own cult of personality, a man known for giving long, rambling speeches, dressed in garish outfits that looked stolen from Elton John's closet. His fellow Africans viewed Gadhafi differently: in a continent of strongmen leaders, they were willing to overlook his oppressive tendencies and focus instead on what he did for Africa, and he did quite a lot. Gadhafi dispensed billions in aid to other African nations, while Libya's state-run industries employed tens of thousands of migrant workers from poorer African states; he used Libya's oil wealth to fund massive infrastructure projects both in Libya and across the continent, perhaps the two most noteworthy are Libya's “Man Made River” which supplies parched cities like Tripoli and Sirte with water from aquifers hundreds of miles distant, the second is underwriting the launch of Africa's first telecommunications satellite in 2007. Gadhafi was a strong proponent for pan-Africanism, first playing a leading role in the establishment of the African Union in 2002, then suggesting in recent years that the continent needed to become the “United States of Africa” with a single, unified military as a way to strengthen weak African states and to bring an end to incessant civil wars; perhaps most importantly in this context, Gadhafi was viewed as that rare creature - a strong African leader with the clout and will to stand up to foreign powers and the global economic order. For example, Gadhafi stepped in with $300 million for the satellite project after the International Monetary Fund dithered for a decade over funding the project, while the multi-billion dollar Man Made River was constructed without IMF funding.
It is for that reason that African (and some non-African) commentators are suggesting that Gadhafi had to go, especially in an age when global powers are eying resource-rich Africa with more and more intensity. Admittedly, it has the ring of a conspiracy theory, but it also at the moment seems to be the best explanation for the international community's rather dubious military intervention in Libya.
The “War for Oil” crowd is of course promoting their pet theory that Libya is yet another attempt to grab global petroleum resources by force, but this argument quickly falls apart when you look at the facts. Libya holds some of Africa's largest reserves of oil and natural gas, but Gadhafi was more than happy to sell these commodities on the global market – the revenues from petroleum sales funded his largesse around the continent, so he wasn't about to cut off that lifeline. Libya even partnered with foreign firms (particularly Russian and Italian companies) in exploiting the nation's petroleum resources, so the argument that Gadhafi was bad for business also goes out the window.
Then there's the stated goal of the US/French/NATO mission: humanitarian intervention. Arguably, foreign air power did prevent a full-scale assault by Gadhafi's military on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. But following Benghazi, the rationale and effectiveness of the humanitarian mission became far murkier. Once the immediate threat to Benghazi disappeared, NATO became the de facto air force of the Libyan rebels, even coordinating their missions with rebel maneuvers. By the time of the rebel assault on Tripoli, NATO dropped any pretext of being there to protect civilians, instead performing precision air strikes on Gadhafi's heavily-fortified headquarters so the rebels could breach the compound's defenses (similar precision strikes have been reported on Gadhafi compounds in loyalist-held Sirte). At the same time, NATO has taken no action against alleged atrocities carried out by the rebels. Amnesty International is reporting that rebel forces have been summarily executing southern Africans suspected of being mercenaries employed by Gadhafi. Other reports note that some rebels are simply assuming that any non-Libyan Africans are mercenaries and treating them as such, ignoring the fact that there are possibly tens of thousands of migrant workers formerly employed in the petroleum sector still trapped in Libya. The Telegraph newspaper of Britain filed this report from Tawarga, a former pro-Gadhafi city of 10,000 that is now virtually empty. The people of Tawarga fled, fearing reprisals from rebel militias. To make matters worse, rebel brigades from neighboring Misurata painted racist slogans on the walls of Tawarga, which is one of the few Libyan coastal cities populated primarily by dark-skinned Libyans (who the Misurata militias called “slaves” among other things); the commander of the rebel militia controlling the city stated flatly to the Telegraph that Tawarga “no longer exists”, yet NATO has made no moves to protect the Tawargas.
Unfortunately for NATO, “humanitarian intervention” means protecting all the civilians, not just the ones you find politically acceptable, a point that seems to have escaped the leadership in Brussels. The rebels are starting to show that they are just as capable of committing atrocities in the name of political vendetta as was the Gadhafi regime they're seeking to depose. By continuing with a very one-sided humanitarian intervention, not only are the members of the international community showing themselves to be grade-A hypocrites, they're also adding fuel to a possible Iraqi-style insurgency on the part of Libyans still loyal to Gadhafi, and they're making the case that the whole humanitarian mission was simply a pretext to rid themselves of Gadhafi. Yes, history will likely, and rightly, view Gadhafi harshly for the oppression of his people and his support for terrorist/insurgent movements, but with Gadhafi we have to remember there is not only the Western caricature of the man, but also the strong and vocal proponent for African unity and development, that is the Gadhafi many Africans are sad to see go. And the one they feel the West could not let stay in power.
Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancoxAfrica, Development, Libya, R2P, NATO, Neocolonialism, Muammar Gaddafi