By Nii Akuetteh
Horrifying. That is the only fitting adjective for the Libyan war. Remember that in seven months, it has already killed several thousands of people; that it continues to tear the country apart; and that by releasing lethal weapons as well as armed and dangerous thugs into the region, the war has planted the seeds of destabilisation across swathes of north and west Africa. War is indeed hell – perhaps General William Tecumseh Sherman knew what he was talking about.
So, does the horror then mean that the intense leftist rage against the intervention in Libya – a rage noticeable on all six continents – is the perfect response?
Well, answering that is complicated. On the one hand, the passion with which we leftists have criticised the West’s role is understandable, even uplifting. On the other, our emotional outburst risks keeping us dangerously incapacitated. There are two reasons why; two worries if you will.
Begin with the uplifting part. It is unbelievable what we are witnessing in Libya today – in the 21st century, a coalition of leading imperialists is bombing a sovereign African country that has not attacked anyone. Is this happening because we are forgetting history? Here is one painful slice of our history that it would be criminal to forget: these same four global powers – through slavery, imperialism, colonialism or neo-colonialism – are implicated in the killing, subjugation, abuse and exploitation of scores of millions of Africans across the five centuries since the Columbus mistake.
It is also telling which African country is being bombed. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya proudly shouted its Pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism from the roof-tops. And in instances too many to mention, the Brother Leader did provide life-saving assistance across the African continent. This history and these facts are indisputable.
They are why it is indeed uplifting that the bombing of Libya has woken up leftists and has heightened anti-imperialist vigilance and outrage. Perhaps there is some fight left in the left after all.
And yet I still have two worries. Here is the smaller one: Why are we leftists not expressing similar rage and outrage against a far more damaging western involvement in Libya, an involvement that lasted 20 times longer than the six-month bombing campaign?
The essentials of that prior involvement are these: Throughout the post-9/11 decade, the same four countries now bombing Libya and seeking Gaddafi’s blood, embraced him as a close partner – another one of the beloved ‘friendly tyrants’ they propped up across the Middle East and Africa. Silvio Berlusconi kissed Gaddafi’s hand. Tony Blair flew to Libya and cavorted in his tent. That tent, on countless occasions, was pitched on prime spots in western capitals. Years after Condoleezza Rice visited the colonel, an album bulging with her pictures was found in his abandoned residence. And both Washington’s CIA and London’s MI6, we now discover, drafted speeches for the colonel.
To what purposes? What were the ends and the goals for which western countries and leaders embraced Colonel Gaddafi so warmly for nearly ten years? Among other reasons, the embrace was to: ensure that the west controlled the lion’s share (85 per cent) of Libya’s oil exports and oil industry; entice Gaddafi into investing about US$200 billion of the Libyan people’s money to prop up wobbly European banks and industries, especially Italy’s; allow scores of American and European investment companies, consultants, lawyers and lobbyists to stick their snouts into the Libyan people’s trough; and to get Gaddafi to block Africans from entering fortress Europe. Of course it did not hurt that even before the embrace, Gaddafi in 2000 had unleashed massive repression and abuse against African migrants in Libya that was so severe that Ghana and other countries scrambled and organized rescue missions to bring their citizens home.
And then there was that other preoccupation of the embrace: the anti-democracy project. During his ten-year tenure as a ‘friendly tyrant’ for the west, Gaddafi participated enthusiastically in kidnapping, renditioning and torturing Libyan activists – after finishing with listed enemies of the Americans and the British. No matter how couched, this was an old-fashioned war to ensure that no democratic tendencies sprouted inside Libya; simply put, a war against any Libyan foolish enough to take democracy seriously.
Here is a cherished dream and vision: A united Africa where democracy has taken healthy root and is vibrantly spreading. In this envisioned Africa, democracy, in addition to guaranteeing dignity and equality to all citizens, forms the basis for tackling the continent’s many remaining challenges, from poverty to environmental stress and natural disasters, to global prejudice and marginalisation.
Now here is a sad fact: Today many Pan-Africanists and anti-imperialists seem to reject democracy in Africa. Insisting that Africa must grow democracy appears to strike them as waving a red flag in front of a very angry bull. You get a swift and fierce counter-attack. I must therefore clarify. I reject the nonsensical notion that democracy is western. One might as well say that gravity or electricity is western. I reject, too, the straw man erected by those with this strong phobia of democracy – their accusation that democracy begins and ends with elections. It does not. The democracy I fight to realise across Africa is indigenous and multi-component. Crucially, its essence is a strong skeleton of at least 15 inter-connected processes and institutions. These include rule of law, rights protection, independent media, civil society, well-crafted constitution and, of course, free, fair and regular elections that epitomize the will and consent of the governed.
Yes, a united democratic Africa remains a life-long dream and vision. Regrettably, realising that dream continues to be hindered by great enemies, two in particular. The first is foreign – global powers and entities that work to keep Africa weak and divided – the better to grab the continent’s unprotected cornucopia. The other is local – dictators, especially those who hire themselves out as ‘friendly tyrants’ serving the global powers.
Gripped by this personal vision of a united, democratic Africa, I find it an abomination that the west partnered with the Gaddafi dictatorship to wage their joint ten-year war to ensure that no hint of democracy springs up anywhere in Libya. Hence my question for fellow leftists: Why are we, activists who profess Pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism, not equally enraged by this ten-year war against Libyan democracy that the imperialists and Gaddafi waged jointly? That is my first lament.
Now to my second and far bigger worry. I fear that if we leftists allow our rage to control us instead of vice versa, there will be trouble. That kind of consuming rage will blind and paralyse us. Let me explain.
The NATO bombing of Libya has also uncapped a gusher of criticism. Dire predictions – warnings of coming apocalypses, really – have dominated. Pundits have insisted that a post-Gaddafi Libya will: Ignite Africa’s reconquest and recolonisation; unleash many more military interventions across the continent; splinter the country along tribal and regional lines; install an imperialist lackey of a regime that hosts AFRICOM; impose a Taliban-like regime that obliterates the rights of women and other vulnerable groups; kick off an intensified plunder of Libya’s oil and water resources – the list is endless.
The leftists who sound these alarms are impeccably credentialed and legion. Former President Thabo Mbeki, the great Samir Amin, Mahmood Mamdani, public intellectual extraordinaire and rising star Charles Abugre and brilliant activist-intellectual Karim Abdul Bangura: These are only a few. Their warning therefore captures my attention.
And yet I am reminded of the parable of the darkness and the candle. Specifically, these thoughts arise: By all means let us, leftists, obtain catharsis by cursing the darkness. But in addition, should we also not become deeply engaged in the building of the new Libya? Should we also not devote our considerable talents, resources and passion to preventing the coming apocalypses and ensuring they do not become self-fulfilling prophecies?
This mindset explains my fear that our rage will prevent us, leftists, from waging the hard struggle to build a free, democratic and tolerant Libya whose wealth is used primarily to uplift the Libyan people. Let me repeat: that struggle will be protracted, a long war.
At the same time, it will consist of individual, discrete battles. One begs to be fought right now. I refer to the widely reported racist murder and brutality being visited upon dark-skinned Libyans and sub-Sahara Africans. Two initiatives suggest themselves for winning this battle to save African lives.
The first initiative is the responsibility of the African Union (AU)a. Though it stumbled by not ensuring that South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon sealed the loopholes on Resolution 1973 before voting for it, the AU has since redeemed itself. Its roadmap for the new Libya remains the best. And its insistence on an inclusive regime before Libya can take its seat is principled. It is also magnanimous since the AU charter disallows the seating of all new regimes that come to power through force instead of constitutionally.
And yet the AU’s job is to participate effectively in the games that nations play. That game is a dangerous, cynical, opportunistic neighbourhood – shark infested waters -–where scepticism, pragmatism and flexibility usually trump principle and magnanimity.
Therefore I have a suggestion for the AU: Adapt Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom. Emulate what Turkey is doing today in Libya. Lincoln was America’s 16th president. A self-educated lawyer and one-term Congressman, he harboured a passionate belief in America’s democratic experiment, while loathing slavery. As president, he refused to appease slavery to avoid war – as all his 15 predecessors had done. Though he agonised, he did not flinch and won the catastrophic civil war that broke slavery’s back and still kept the union intact.
When more impatient opponents of slavery thrashed Lincoln for moving too cautiously, he explained with a wise analogy. Lincoln likened slavery then to a viper in bed with precious children. At the beginning, he argued, caution is required and unappealing things may have to be done to save the children’s lives first.
In similar vein, the AU may have to begin in Libya by doing things it finds unappealing. For the urgent purpose of ending the murderous brutality against trapped sub-Saharan Africans, the AU must find a way to work with the new authorities – even if the AU considers them haters and betrayers of Gaddafi.
There would be an additional benefit as well – a (National Transitional Council) NTC working well inside the AU may hesitate just a little bit before obeying every diktat from NATO and AFRICOM.
Consider Turkey’s move. Ankara used to have close ties with Gaddafi’s Tripoli and as a result secured billions of dollars in lucrative contracts. And yet it has emerged that Ankara has been providing valuable covert help to the NTC. Turkey values its commercial interests higher than any loyalty to Gaddafi the person.
As mentioned, the above suggestion to the AU in Addis Ababa is not the only immediate initiative that must be undertaken to save the lives of sub-Saharan Africans trapped in Libya. There exists a second initiative. It belongs here in Washington. Experts have persuaded us that without the Pentagon, NATO remains toothless. Last March, a Pentagon reluctant to get involved in Libya was over-ruled by President Obama, according to news accounts. Reportedly the president was more persuaded by the humanitarian intervention argument of three top aides on his diplomatic team. Interestingly, all three are progressive foreign policy experts and women – Hilary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Powers. You could then argue that the NTC owes the US even more than the Europeans.
An even stronger argument is this one: President Obama has a moral responsibility for the removal of Gaddafi and its aftermath. He is therefore duty bound to do his part in ending the on-going abuse of the sub-Saharan Africans. I will leave unmentioned that their crime is possessing a dark skin, similar to his father’s. Instead I will stress high feasibility. President Obama can do this simply with a few phone calls to Mustapha Abdel Jalil and to David Cameron, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy. Even better, in their UN meeting in New York, Obama must tell Jalil he is not amused about the killing of blacks.
Next, Mrs Clinton must be sent to Europe and Libya to stress that the US is deadly serious about this. The fact that Jeffrey Feltman from the State Department just visited Jalil in Tripoli is not good enough; Mrs Clinton herself must do the follow up of the phone call and the UN meeting.
Yes, Mr Obama telling the NTC to cut it out would be relatively easy as presidential actions go. What may prove difficult is getting the president’s attention and persuading him.
But that is where our intense rage as leftists – especially those in the US – could prove useful. Our rage should galvanise us to pressure the president to speak out both publicly and privately and then dispatch Secretary Clinton. If we can do this, then our rage against the Libyan intervention may do some good beyond simply providing us catharsis.
Nii Akuetteh is an activist and policy analyst focusing on African and international affairs. He lives in Washington DC.