On 15th February 2011, the protests that had begun in Tunisia then Egypt swept into Libya, beginning in the west in the city of Benghazi before other cities and regions followed suit. The Libya leader colonel Muammar Gaddafi vowed to crush these uprisings and sent his soldiers into the fields. The attacks on civilians (some of them violent protesters) by Gadhafi in towns such as Misrata led to un security council resolution 1973 that imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and “authorizing the international community to establish a no-fly zone and to use all means necessary short of foreign occupation to protect civilians.” This led to NATO airplanes and helicopters joining the fray in the Libyan conflict that has lasted over seven months, and changing the momentum in the Libyan conflict in favour of the rebels.
Now that the conflict is reaching its final legs, one can attempt to review the happenings that have occurred since February 15th when the first major protests began, and what this civil war has taught us about the western media, humanitarian intervention, the African union, the fight for democracy and freedom in the middle east, the big man syndrome in Africa, and development and political freedom in the third world.
According to Wikipedia, humanitarian intervention "refers to a state using military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed." In Libya, this humanitarian intervention was perpetuated by NATO, and some elements of the Arab league. The French warships, British and French airplanes, and American intelligence and Qatari financial support were all rolled out to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians, and bombings of military installations, government compounds, missile and communications centres.
This military intervention was limited to the air operations, although the CIA did send covert operations as reconnaissance operations into Libya. The Special Forces troops from Britain, France and Jordan also entered the country in contravention of the UN Security Council resolution 1973.
The biggest questions arising from this humanitarian question, according to me, include: 1) what were the reasons behind it? That the government used excess force in shutting down the protests is without doubt, but the other reasons the west would have wanted Gadhafi to leave such as wanting a government that was less abrasive in rhetorical terms and to the interests of the west than Gadhafi’s. The Lockerbie disaster and the repatriation of who was supposedly suffering from life threatening ailments, among many other incidents with Gadhafi have soured relations down the years. However, the regime has improved relations recently yet this did not satisfy the west efficiently to stop them from carrying out the attacks.
It is impossible to talk of humanitarian intervention in Libya, or in any other state in 2011, without mentioning Syria. Why hasn’t Bashar al Assad faced the fate of his contemporary? The stronger military, protectors from the neighbourhood such as Iran and Hezbollah have all been touted as reasons. The simple fact is, some dictators will always have a near free reign to do what they want in their country due to the interests of the superpowers and other realistic reasons. Thus the only people who can change their fate are the citizens that are being oppressed. Help from the outside will always come with its complications, and as much as it can have a positive impact, the regional leaders and countries should always have the biggest influence over any interventions in such countries.
The second issue I have with the humanitarian intervention in Libya is the apparent lack of political will and support for the NATO operations in Libya by the populations back home in America, Britain and France, which these politicians ignored at the beginning and went ahead with the operations. This weakness and “leading from behind” led to the unnecessary deaths and destruction of property in Libya that could have been averted. The civil war could have been over in a much shorter time than was eventually the case. Multilateralism and coalition building seems to be the long term legacy left after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but how efficient is this when you need to get a well prepared, well-armed and determined dictator out of office?
The African union
The African Union was at best the smallest voice in the room, and at worst a confused spectator in this unfolding conflict. The African leadership, led by South Africa could offer no meaningful solution to the crisis and came out looking like Gadhafi apologists who were protecting their “king of kings” in the United Nations.
The torturously slow evolution of the African union from a “non-interfering” group to a continental body that can help solve the internal conflicts of the smallest country such as Comoros to the biggest is taking too long. What happened to the unified military? Making the tough decisions that are needed to resolve conflicts in Africa seems to be beyond many of the African leaders at the moment. Is the youth that is spearheading the change in countries such as Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia and Malawi ready to assume this leadership? Is there a new ideology ready to evolve the pan African ideals of Nkrumah and Nyerere to the 21st century conditions?
The fight for democracy in Africa
The Libyan civil war has also brought to the fore many serious issues in the fight for democracy in Africa. One of the leaders of the transitional national council is, former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil. How democratic and revolutionary is he? Only time will tell. The fight for democracy in many parts of Africa has been always spearheaded by members of the elite that were part and parcel of the same government they are fighting. RaIla Odinga, Morgan Tsvangirai, Alassane Ouattara, Jalil, Kizza Besigye and others always get favourable exposure from the media and many foreigners. However, how democratic are these people who have been intimately involved, either politically, personally or professionally with the same dictators they are trying to oust?
Western media coverage
According to amnesty international, “much western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regimes security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrating who presented no security challenge.” This is despite there being numerous accounts of torched police stations, hanged police officers and mercenaries and violence by the protesters in Benghazi and other towns. The media were obviously trying to show a picture of peaceful non-violent protestors being massacred to their local viewers. This would have played into the hands of the NATO and the political leaders who wanted Gadhafi out at all costs.
Balanced and fair broadcasting of news events from Africa and other parts of the third world by the western media seems to be a dream. Who will tell Africa’s story to the world from our perspective then? Even Aljazeera can only do too much. The more important lesson to be learnt is that even private enterprises will always practice self-censorship, biasness and promote the interests of a given class of people, no matter how “developed” and “free” the society views itself. Hence the citizen TV, NTV etc. of Kenya can only follow this rule. It is time we started asking the media questions and not viewing them as above reproach or criticism, whether the international or local.
The prosecutor of the ICC hastily released arrest warrants for Muammar Gadhafi, his son and the intelligence chief after stories of rape, war crimes and using heavy machinery against civilians was reported. This is despite the amnesty international stating that “there is no evidence that mercenaries, aircraft or heavy anti-aircraft machine guns were used against the crowds. On several occasions the rebels in Benghazi appeared to have knowingly made false claims or manufactured evidence.” The international criminal court has prosecuted, or issued arrest warrants on Africans, and Africans only, since it was formed in 2003. This is despite war crimes being committed in Iraq, Syria and Guantanamo bay by the Americans and their allies.
The international criminal court’s inability to even complete a case successfully, let alone prosecute anyone not from the African continent needs to be evaluated. The crusade led by Kenya to leave the ICC is laughable and deeply embarrassing at the least. The solution for leaving the deeply flawed and partisan ICC would be to form an African or world court that can prosecute all war criminals from Donald Rumsfeld to Charles Taylor. Anything less than that is not workable, and we are better off with the international criminal court.
The big man syndrome and transitions of power
From strutting African union meetings and the world stage to releasing barely audible audio tapes condemning the rats and mercenaries from “unknown locations,” Muammar Gadhafi has come a long way. No doubt the man had ruled for more than his fair share of time since the last 1960s. The big man syndrome in Africa is well on its way out, yet the exit of some of the longest serving heads of state in the African continent, such as Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya, and Meles Zenawi among others can only be potential sources of conflict and upheaval in this countries. Is the opposition in these countries, the African union and the continent at large any closer to resolving these potential conflicts than they were at the beginning of this year? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Economic development and political freedoms
Many Africans believe that having a “benevolent dictator” such as Muammar Gadhafi is the better option for development, prosperity and stability in a country, rather than pursuing political freedom hand in hand with economic development. However, the development of the middle class that will occur with higher literacy levels, economic opportunities, and better standards of living all suggest that this can only be a temporary ideology. When the people start agitating for greater freedoms, bigger say in government and fighting corruption, the benevolent dictator has to be ready to deal accordingly with this. The response he offers will be the difference between taking his country down Morocco’s or Libya’s path.
In my conclusion, I think that the conflict that happened in Libya may yet occur in another part of Africa, with little or no change in strategy or response from the international community or the Africans. Lessons should be learnt, and I am not sure Africans and the world at large has learnt them.