Gaddafi swapped his pan-Arab robes for pan-African ones, but he was viewed with suspicion in the continent
As the fall of the 42-year-old regime of Libya's eccentric leader Muammar Gaddafi approaches, one of his most important legacies will be his mischief in Africa. After seizing power, Colonel Gaddafi modelled his rule on Egypt's pan-Arab leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, he failed to win support from Arab governments offended by his populist appeals to the "Arab street". Angered by the lack of Arab support, in contrast to strong black African backing following western-inspired United Nations economic and travel sanctions on Libya in 1992, Gaddafi swapped his pan-Arab robes for pan-African garments. These sanctions were eventually lifted in 1999 with the help of the South African leader, Nelson Mandela.
Despite claims of his popularity in Africa, Gaddafi was viewed with widespread suspicion. Libya became isolated within the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) following Gaddafi's 1980 military intervention in Chad. Most governments boycotted an OAU summit in Tripoli in 1982. Gaddafi sent troops to bolster brutal Ugandan autocrat Idi Amin's regime between 1972 and 1979. He called for a jihad by Congolese Muslims against the autocratic western-backed regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. In the 1990s, Gaddafi provided military training to vicious rebel groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and backed Tuareg rebels in Mali. In 2000, widespread xenophobic attacks in Tripoli and Zawiyah against thousands of black African migrant workers led to several deaths, damaging Gaddafi's pan-African image. Following religious-related massacres in Nigeria last year, he called for the dismembering of the country into separate Muslim and Christian states.
More positively, Gaddafi established a $5bn fund that invested in hotels, mobile phone companies, mosques and mining companies across Africa. He also did more than any other leader to ensure the creation of the African Union (AU) in 2002, hosting several meetings, and forcing Nigeria and South Africa to react to his frantic drive towards creating a federal body. The "Brother Leader's" quixotic vision of a United States of Africa – an all-African army and common monetary union – was, however, rejected by most African leaders. Gaddafi's delusions of grandeur were evident in his coronation as the "King of Kings" by 200 traditional African leaders in a bizarre ceremony in 2008.
The Libyan leader's ambitions, however, often failed to match political realities on the ground: all seven regional integration schemes that Gaddafi attempted in Africa failed. While using his oil wealth to buy influence within the AU, many governments took his money, but did not necessarily support him. Gaddafi finally ascended the chair of the African Union in 2009, but only after South Africa's Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo had left the political stage, leaving leaders of lesser stature unable to obstruct his ambitions.
His patronising bid to serve a second consecutive term as AU chair was, however, soundly rejected. He tried unsuccessfully to serve as a peacemaker in Ethiopia/Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau, and was accused of coddling fellow military putschists in Guinea, Mauritania, and Madagascar. Thabo Mbeki famously clashed with Gaddafi, while his successor as president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has enjoyed better relations with him, enabling him to serve as an AU envoy to Tripoli during this crisis.
The Libyan case, however, has revived the historical diplomatic rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria. Though both countries, as non-permanent members of the UN security council, voted to support Nato's intervention in Libya, Nigeria recently became the first African country to recognise the national transitional council: sweet revenge for Gaddafi's call for the partition of Nigeria. The Zuma administration, has, however, been stung by criticisms within the ruling African National Congress (in which Gaddafi still enjoys much popularity as a revolutionary leader) that South Africa's support of the UN resolution to protect civilians had opened the door to Nato's regime change agenda. Mbeki has also been involved in a vocal campaign, with 200 African personalities, to oppose the Nato intervention for having sidelined the AU. These pressures explain Zuma's cautious approach that delayed the unfreezing of some of Libya's assets, and South Africa has sought to stay close to the AU position of not recognising the country's transitional council.
Ironically, while Gaddafi became increasingly isolated in his bid to lead Africa, his status as an international pariah appeared to have ended with the unilateral dismantling of his weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003. He subsequently co-operated with European governments to deter African migrants seeking to reach Europe. Salivating western leaders from Italy, Britain and the US (now among Nato countries seeking to topple his regime) queued up outside his tent in Tripoli to sign lucrative oil contracts. Lord Palmerston had famously noted that countries have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but permanent interests. The strange disappearance of Libya's self-styled "King of Kings" and his abandonment by his former African and western friends certainly confirm this dictum.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR), Cape Town, South Africa, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War (Hurst, 2010).