Libya: How the hero became a Nero

Sri Lanka feels for Libya. Since the then handsome leader made that dashing visit with all the paraphernalia and theatrics, to Sri Lanka in 1976 for the Non-Aligned Summit, Muammer Gaddafi has been a household name here.

For many decades, Sri Lanka and Libya shared the same non-aligned values in foreign policy and have stood for one another in times of crisis. Even when the West called him a mad man and treated him like a pariah for his alleged sponsoring of terrorism, Sri Lankan leaders extended him the brotherly embrace.

Today, the crisis he faces is strictly internal. Sri Lanka leaders, like Gaddafi's many friends in Africa, have been restrained by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Yet the old friendship lingers and is worth recalling.
It was only last month that President Mahinda Rajapaksa through his son, Namal, extended an invitation to Col. Gaddafi to visit Sri Lanka. When Rajapaksa was Gaddafi's guest in Libya in April 2009, the Libyan leader extended his country's fullest cooperation to end the scourge of terrorism that had been throttling Sri Lanka for three decades, pledged a US$ 500 million aid and agreed to allocate 100,000 jobs for Sri Lankans. A country that buys Rs. 2.7 billion worth of Sri Lankan tea every year, Libya has invested in Sri Lanka's livestock and poultry sectors, generating jobs for thousands of rural youths. The Libyan leader expressed his willingness to invest here more when Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan leader to visit Libya, broached trade and investment talks with him.

Libya, a country 27 times larger than Sri Lanka and having a per capita income six times that of Sri Lanka's US$ 2,000 and only half of Sri Lanka's population, is burning today.

Inspired by people-power revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the revolt in Libya is still murky. Is it democracy they want or the ouster of the man who has been ruling them for 42 years? Is the revolt spontaneous or being engineered by a foreign hand? Is the uprising widespread across the country or largely confined to the eastern part? Answers to these may come in the weeks ahead. The latest reports indicate the country is fast plunging into a civil war and the United States is mulling the option of humanitarian assistance -- a euphemism for intervention. President Obama is seeking the opinion of his military leaders and western allies over what to do with Libya and how to tackle the crisis.

What went wrong with Gaddafi? Wasn't he the beloved leader? After he captured power in a military coup in 1969, he declared Libya a Jamhouriyah — a republic, like the Romans who had been ruling his country a millennium and a half ago called their country. His mistake was he made himself the leader for life — a dictator for life, like Caesar.

He mixed socialism, Islam and pan Arabism into a political ideology — a Gaddafi Chinthanaya — which was presented to the masses in his famous Green Book.

Gaddafi's fate underscores a golden rule in politics — the time a ruler remains in power is inversely related to his popularity. Well, dictators drunk with power or leaders who begin to believe their own propaganda think they are infallible and what they say or do is right for the country and the people. Nobody is so infallible as those who boast or think they are always right. Gaddafi started well but as years passed, he became a victim of the very cult he had built up for himself. Surrounded by cronies and kindled by a keen desire to hand over the reins to his favourite son, Gaddafi became blind to the ground realities and failed to see that the masses of the republic, even if they are tent-dwelling desert tribes, are averse to dynastic politics. His yes men fed him with stories that made him happy — stories that only widened the gap between the ruler and the ruled.

So when a section of the people protested, Gaddafi was caught unawares. He started rambling, calling the very people, for whom he claimed he had dedicated his life, cockroaches, drug addicts and Osama bin Laden's terrorists. The Libyan crisis assumes all the more importance because of this North African country's oil and gas. Libya, which now accounts for merely a two percent of the world oil output, is sitting on US$ 3 trillion worth unexplored oil and gas reserves — a honeypot for capitalist bees that are now reaping the benefits of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

True, Gaddafi in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion has mended fences with the West to ward off a possible invasion of his country by George W. Bush's military. No sooner the sanctions on Libya were lifted after Gaddafi became a good boy for the West — with measures such as dismantling the weapons of mass destruction programme, owning up to the Lockerbie bombing and paying billions of dollars in compensation to the victims of that terror attack — than the western countries rushed to do business with him, his dictator credentials notwithstanding.

The armoured personnel carriers and the water cannon the Libyan regime has deployed against the protesters are made in Britain. The helicopters are from Italy. Germany sold communication equipment and technology. For business' sake, Britain even freed the cancer-stricken Lockerbie bomber on "humanitarian grounds".

The European Union did some $474 million worth of business with Libya in 2009 alone, while in the United States the Big Oil and the Big Gun (the defence industry) which had been shut out of Libya during the two decades of economic sanctions formed a US-Libya Business Association. BP, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Chevron, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Dow Chemical are some of the big names which pay the US$20,000 membership subscription to the association. Last year, trade between the US and Libya reached $2.7 billion. But the Big Business wants more.

With Libya plunging into civil war and facing the prospect of being fragmented or being invaded on "humanitarian grounds", the Big Business and the Big Oil are smelling billions of dollars worth of profit from the disaster. Of course, the campaign of the human rights activists and the lopsided coverage of the Western media are in their favour.

The West is also concerned that the regime change could result in an Iran-like Libya. It is already anxious about the rise of political Islam — the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Shiite uprising in Bahrain and the anti-West democracy movement in Yemen.

But for us the concern is the rising oil prices, which is nearing $120 mark from $80 two months ago. A high oil price is no good news for struggling economies like Sri Lanka.

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