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Times Online
Wednesday, 22 January, 2003

Mad, or just bad?
The man who would be king of Africa

January 22, 2003

TIMES ONLINE

Reportage

Mad, or just bad? The man who would be king of Africa
By Rosemary Righter


Libya is to chair the United Nations Human Rights Commission, prompting outrage in Washington. But Colonel Gaddafi has even grander ambitions

EVEN BY UNITED NATIONS standards, it was a spectacular excursion through the moral looking glass. On Monday, Martin Luther King's birthday, African governments overrode America's horrified protests and installed, as their unanimous choice to head the UN Commission on Human Rights, the ambassador of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. To avoid "alienating Africa" and "poisoning the atmosphere", Britain, France and Italy abstained when the US forced a vote; of 53 governments, only Canada and Guatemala joined Washington's corner. A regime that has abducted and assassinated opponents, used torture and arbitrary detention, has yet to admit blowing up PanAm Flight 103 and a French airliner over Niger and has bankrolled terrorists all over the world thus becomes the UN's watchdog-in-chief for human decency.

"It is a shining victory which gives back their rights to the oppressed peoples," declared the Libyan foreign ministry, in appropriately Orwellian mode, not forgetting to thank London very nicely. And indeed it is a "shining victory" for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. It is the first fruit of his latest, typically extravagant, and at first sight irrational foreign adventure.

At just over 60 his birth in the desert near Sirte is popularly believed to have coincided with the Battle of Alamein Gaddafi has a new love. The object of his desire is not, this time, any of the half dozen Arab and North African neighbours that this perennial suitor has at various times, and without success, bombarded with proposals of indissoluble union; or invaded, equally unsuccessfully, to compel submission to his capricious embrace.

This time the Casanova of Permanent Revolution has his hoary eye on an entire continent. The ubiquitous billboards drive the message home.The questing, wart-studded profile, jaw uptilted, his eyes half-hidden behind the retro blue-tone signature shades that stamp Libya's "revolutionary guide" a child of the Sixties, directs his people's gaze south across the Great Sand Seas of the unforgiving Libyan Sahara, towards lands and peoples as alien to most Libyans as the far side of the moon. Many times life size, Gaddafi's head and torso rise out of giant roadside cut-outs of Africa, soaring up over the top of the continent like a wrinkled jinni out of a bottle. And like all Gaddafi passions, this is a no-holds-barred affair. His latest big idea is for Libya to "melt and merge into Africa" by means of full-fledged union. His "solution" for the day when Libya runs out of oil, and of the sub-Saharan aquifer water now piped into Libyan homes along the inordinately costly Great Manmade River, is to abolish the concept of countries clean across Africa. Libya itself would cease to exist; but Libyans would then have the run of Africa's "20,000km of rivers ... gold and diamonds, iron and copper, forests, fruit and vegetables, animals, seas, rivers and freshwater lakes ... a real paradise, not just a promised paradise".

The Brother Leader famously turned Libya upside down in 1976, and has kept it off balance ever since, with his Third Universal Theory of governing, laid out in the little Green Book whose indigestible jumble of Greek democracy, Islamic egalitarianism and Communist economic theory is still, literally, the law of the land. Gaddafi abolished all conventional political institutions, including the Government and head of state to this day he has, formally, no title whatever. He imposed a "direct democracy" of popular congresses served by people's committees, and even rewrote the calendar. The result was a revolutionary perpetuum mobile, with administrative near-chaos counterbalanced by ruthlessly effective ideological surveillance.

Evidently Gaddafi has lost none of his zeal for "final solutions" to problems of his own invention. And he has matched this new rhetoric "now we are Africa, we are no longer Libya" by throwing open the frontiers to all African citizens. As a result, four million mainly Muslim Libyans now play noticeably resentful and occasionally violent hosts to at least one and a half million indigent Sub-Saharan migrants. On 9.9.1999 the Universal Theorist is apparently not above superstition Gaddafi persuaded African leaders to sign the Declaration of Sirte, agreeing on the new African Union that was formally launched in Durban last July.

For most African politicians, the Union has been little more than a convenient way to kill off the embarrassingly ineffectual Organisation of African Unity. But for Gaddafi the goal is the creation of a single African state that would at a stroke "turn Libya into a continent".

To be wooed by Libya's Golden Leader can be a somewhat overwhelming experience. Gaddafi arrived in Durban with a personal jet, two Antonov transport aircraft and a container ship loaded with buses, goat carcases and prayer mats; his personal mobile hospital; jamming equipment that fouled up local networks; $6 million in petty cash; and, to the consternation of South Africa's security forces, 400 security guards (including his luscious female bodyguards) equipped with assault rifles, submachine guns, rocket launchers and 60 armoured cars.

The stand-off over security nearly came to a shoot-out; but Gaddafi certainly got people's attention. So did his subsequent motorcade back across southern Africa, through Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the entire length of Malawi. From his car, Gaddafi tossed fistfuls of dollars to ever-growing crowds, tactlessly remarking that this way he could be sure they went to the poor. Indignant African commentators accused him of "pickpocketing votes" and "distributing money by windpower". They missed the point. This was theatre. On money, Gaddafi is pretty dry-eyed. Asked by Mozambique's President Chissano to cancel or convert $140m (88m) owed to Libya, he referred him to the Koran's insistence that debts must be paid. Libya has more invested in London real estate than it has in Africa.

Gaddafi is unlikely to get much of a welcome for his bid to house a pan-African parliament in Tripoli, since the Third Universal Theory happens to ban political parties and considers representative democracy a counter-revolutionary heresy, but at Durban he got what he wanted. With the chairmanship of the Human Rights Commission falling to Africa this year, under the bad old UN convention of rotation, the African Union's very first decision was to make Libya its nominee. And he obtained, too, a promise to hold a special African summit this year to discuss his single state project.

African union is this strange man's chosen escape route from isolation, sanctions and international ostracism and it marches with his pronounced, if erratic, efforts to mend fences with the West. The synergies in this dual manoeuvre are not obvious, but then Gaddafi has never lacked originality. The son of an illiterate Bedouin herder, he launched the 1969 coup against the British-backed King Idris not, as you might expect, from the turret of a tank, but at the wheel of a baby-blue Volkswagen. Or so all Libyans are instructed: surrounded by some of the most breathtaking Roman statuary in the world, the battered Revolutionary Vehicle occupies pride of place in the lofty entrance hall of Tripoli's national museum.

Opportunistic, idealistic and, like Dryden's Achitophel, so mercurial that "in the course of one revolving moon" he can turn "chemist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon", Gaddafi has always been too big for his desert boots, restlessly hunting for worlds to conquer, revolutions to sponsor. Fomenting violence, meddling and murdering from Palestine to the southern Philippines, from Liberia to Londonderry and Lockerbie, he has worn the badge of renegade with pride. "They used to say Libya was a rogue state," he said in a rambling but remarkable speech marking the most recent annual commemoration of the First of September Great Revolution. "They were right. Of course we used to act in a revolutionary manner and support liberation struggles and they used to consider it as deviation."

"They" still do. What has changed is that Gaddafi wants Libya released from confinement. Hence the decision to seek safety in numbers. He is explicit about this. "We can no longer remain like a piece of fluff in the air ... we must have a base to anchor ourselves to."

He desperately wants Libya taken off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism; he has even been persuaded that letting in foreign investors is a necessary part of Libya's international rehabilitation. But first he has to bury the terrorist past; and his quirky solution is that if Libyan foreign policy is integrated into that of the African Union, "then the accusation that Libya is a rogue state will be removed".

This love affair with Africa is also, however, about Gaddafi's quarrel with the Arab world, where he bitterly resents his status as barely tolerated outsider. His quasi-communist Green Revolution inspires nervous distaste, his noisy rejection of Israel's right to exist is an embarrassment, his mood swings exasperate; above all, he is a radical in a profoundly conservative world, given to telling Arabs to rise up against their benighted masters. Gaddafi, for his part, has not forgiven Arab leaders for sticking with UN sanctions against Libya after he persuaded African countries to ignore them in 1997.

The official line is that because Africans stuck by Libya when Arabs betrayed them, Africa is where Libya's destiny lies. Do Libyans buy it? I ask the guide taking me around the vast and amazingly intact Roman city of Leptis Magna whether he is an African. He laughs so hard he loses his balance. I ask a leading light in Libya's small, cautious and constantly frustrated group of "modernisers". "So what? So we buy cows from Chad now. The beef is mediocre, the transport is hell. But we don't have to eat good meat." But the point? An eloquent grimace: "Remember, Gaddafi is a revolutionary. He doesn't think in terms of advantage, of cost-benefit. He thinks: the Arabs didn't help me. They are not my brothers. Africans are my brothers."

So, beginning to feel like Kipling's "Elephant's Child, full of 'satiable curtiosity", I ask Gaddafi's closest revolutionary chums. People such as Dr Saed Hafina al-Ghaziani, a grand old 1968-vintage Leftist complete with beard and black French beret, for whom the pantheon still contains Marx and Mao and Nietzsche and the fire of permanent revolution still glows bright. Saed's answer is surprising. He supports the Africa policy, of course, because it is Libya's revolutionary destiny and because "we have nothing in common with the Arabs. We don't know how they think, any more than you do". But, he continues: "It's the Romans, the Venetians it's you who have been our neighbours and our shaping influences." When even Gaddafi's staunchest revolutionary mates are gazing north to Europe, change is in the air.

September 11 will have been the catalyst. Gaddafi was the first Arab leader to condemn the attacks (helpfully suggesting that the US bomb the safe havens of Islamist militants in London); and the most instantly alert to the implications, for the survival of his regime, of President Bush's division of the world into those who stand with, or against, America. He has told Libyans that they now have no alternative but "to submit to international law or be trampled underfoot", even if that means that "we must change our culture". He simultaneously denounces international law as an American-imposed fake; but consistency has never troubled a man whose political method could be described as "confuse and rule". Gaddafi now wants the world to believe that he can be trusted to play by the book; even that, as his foreign ministry gleefully declared after this week's vote in Geneva, Libya "has a clean sheet with regard to human rights".

He has broadcast to all who will listen Silvio Berlusconi, Hosni Mubarak, the British minister Mike O'Brien his eagerness to join the West's campaign against al-Qaeda. What took me to Libya was an event that would, before September 11, have been unimaginable a conference on security co-operation in Tripoli. The terms of reference might politely be called elastic (in Libyan parlance Israelis are terrorists and Palestinian suicide bombers are resistance heroes) but the eagerness for external contacts was unmistakable and the talk surprisingly frank. And on al-Qaeda, there is no reason to disbelieve Libyan claims to be in the Western camp. The Gaddafi regime is fairly secular and he himself has been a target of Islamists.

What interests Washington more is where Gaddafi would stand in the event of military action over Iraq. He would, without doubt, denounce it as the "recolonisation" of an Islamic state. But the best guide to what he would do may be this telling phrase in his annual homily: "The Arabs and Islam are both in the dock and, what's more, they are terrified, terrified."

Gaddafi is terrified. And his fear offers Libyans their first realistic prospect of escape from his weird revolution, its waste, its cruelties, its palpable lunacies, and the timewarp in which it has trapped them.

THE driver pulls off a potholed, nondescript back road in Tripoli, into a dilapidated packed earth compound of peeling one-storey houses. He points to the far corner, to what looks like a kitchen door. Inside there is a wrinkled red strip of landlady carpeting. No sign, nothing. I take the corridor that looks slightly better carpeted. A couple more turns, and there is a small outer office and a cheerful girl who waves me through the open door to a big cosy room a bit like a converted Nissen hut. How delightfully informal, I venture to the short and roly-poly but surprisingly agile, silk-suited man who leaps up to greet me. Shukri Ghanem, urbane former envoy to Opec, very model of a modern bureaucrat and now, for his pains, Secretary to the People's Committee for the Economy, roars with merriment. "My hidey hole," he announces.

He means it. Not only are ministers, even economics ministers, not allowed to be called ministers in Libya; they are not allowed offices. Not in Tripoli, that is, although it is where most business is done. When Gaddafi made Sirte, his desert birthplace, the capital and ministers proved reluctant to decamp to palatial but scantily appointed new offices there, he dropped a heavy hint by dynamiting the Prime Minister's magnificent colonial offices on the Tripoli seafront. Hence the "hidey holes"; the places where most work gets done do not officially exist.

Why, I ask him, with $12 billion a year in oil revenues and only 5.3 million people to share it, did Libya appear so surprisingly not poor, exactly, but shabbily unrich? "Yes we are rich," he instantly acknowledges, "but in Libya everything you construct costs so much. It is so dry. And it is so big, everything is unimaginably spread out schools, electricity, piped water. We built a lot of desert highways, often to tiny communities. And, of course, sanctions cost us a lot." So has the revolution. "Equality is not easy especially at the top. The state ran everything, and didn't know how, so we ended up with a lot of white elephants. Social justice is our concern; and sometimes it conflicts with development." Indeed it does. Libyan socialism is cradle to grave, reckless of cost; rich in hospitals where there are no patients, and roads to nowhere. In this land of free bread where Gaddafi is the one-man circus, people live cocooned from economic reality. Every staple imported flour, oil, sugar is so heavily subsidised that even poor families routinely buy sugar in 50kg sacks and feed bread to animals.

People get water free and they waste that too the precious, non-renewable fossil water pumped from deep under the Libyan desert and carried thousands of miles in massive 80-tonne precast concrete pipes at a cost, so far, exceeding $10 billion. "Yet we persist," Saed tells me, "in keeping cows. It takes 20 cubic metres of water to produce one 20kg bale of hay ask a Bedu which he would rather have. This means that to keep 15,000 cows takes as much fresh water as the entire one and a half million population of Tripoli requires for all their annual domestic needs. We must be mad." The lunacy does not stop there. Everybody has the right to education, right up to university so graduate supply vastly outstrips demand. A student told me that in her dental college alone, one of many, there are 2,500 first-year students. She is about to qualify, but has never touched a patient's mouth. The patients simply aren't there. "I practise on stray dogs and sheep's heads."

Libya has 290,000 teachers, including 110,000 with no one to teach. This is half-deliberate: "To be able to give your friend a job is a beautiful thing." But it is also symptomatic of an ideology that has made Libyans psychologically as well as materially dependent on state handouts and, along with Gaddafi's global mischief-making, has squandered the country's oil wealth.

It boils down to one question. How can you modernise Libya without "betraying the revolution"? Since betraying the revolution is a capital offence, this is a serious question. In China, Mao's Little Red Book long ago entered the realm of kitsch. But Gaddafi's Green Book is still the law. And among the things it forbids are:

Wages. Literally. Outside the state sector (where workers receive "entitlements"),no Libyan is allowed to work for another. "Wage-workers are a type of slave ... the ultimate solution is to abolish the wage system."You cannot hire anyone because there must be no "employees" in revolutionary Libya. The only way round this is to hire foreigners, or bring in a foreign partner, who is allowed to employ Libyans.

Profit: "Surplus . . . is impossible under the rules of the new socialism". Unsurprisingly, the private sector is puny, even "good" hotels are shoddily run and strikingly filthy and farmers cannot be bothered to harvest the magnificent old olive groves. No profit, no motive. Letting your house is exploitation; so is hiring out a vehicle. Because private transport is Gaddafi's idea of a human right, family cars are, by decree, sold dirt cheap. And you had better not let your house; if the tenant likes it he can go on living there and he then becomes the owner. It is a powerful disincentive to bending the rules.

Gaddafi has declared Libya "open for business". He has started to talk about "opportunity", modifying his doctrinaire egalitarianism. His sons have been allowed to dabble in the private sector keeping the economic reins within the family. But criticism of his Green "philosophy", and above all of his ban on "wage slavery", enrages him. People have got to understand that "the revolution is something difficult".

That Libya has to get out of this dead end is acknowledged in the inner circle of what might be called "licensed critics" the press is well muzzled and unlicensed critics go immediately to jail, or worse. The views of Dr Saleh Ibrahim, the reform-minded and highly influential director of the Academy of Graduate Studies (whose presence in the Libyan Embassy in London at the time of the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher is one of the topics best not discussed), are categorical: "Two things are agreed. One, Libya has to open up. Two, the state system has failed."

Churchill, he says, observed that when you come to a stable it is not the horse you like that you should choose, but the one that wins the race. But, he immediately adds: "We can't just dismiss people because they have no work. We have to move very slowly." On December 28 the annual ritual began. "Libyans headed today to the Basic People's Congresses . . . to entrench and consolidate people's authority." Each year it is whispered that dramatic change is imminent. But the permanent revolutionaries are still going strong, still banging enthusiastically on about "Thus spake Zarathrustra". It is like time travel, back to the Parisian boulevards of 1968, even to the Paris Commune of 1870. These are the comrades who keep bureaucracy paralysed, afraid to take decisions. Bureaucracy, not taking decisions, is all-encompassing.

And eyes are everywhere. Foreign mobile telephones do not work in Libya (local ones cost $1,500, confining their use to the elite). But when it came to making arrangements to meet, the answer was always a cheery "Don't worry, we'll find you." In the museum, for example. Photographing that Volkswagen.


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