Humbug on Stilts

11 April 2011


Each day I get an e-mail from Foreign Policy magazine called The FP Morning Brief, and for Monday 11 April 2011 the morning brief was about an attempt by the African Union to broker a deal between Gaddafi and the Libyan Rebels. The Rebels were not impressed, rejected the proposed mediation, and for good measure protested in the streets of Benghazi. The rebels know that ousting Gaddafi (and his sons) is within their grasp if they do not falter, and they can clearly see that a “truce” with Gaddafi will not accomplish that aim.

Here’s part of the text from the FP Morning Brief today:

The AU negotiators met with Qaddafi on Sunday. “We have completed our mission with the brother leader, and the brother leader’s delegation has accepted the road map as presented by us,” South African President Jacob Zuma said. But more than 1,000 demonstrators protested the delegation in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, demanding the ouster of Qaddafi and his family.

Really, Zuma ought to have more sense than that, given that he was himself a former rebel, a member of the ANC under apartheid, and even served time on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. Though disappointing, it is not surprising. African heads of state have a remarkable tolerance for the depredations of their fellow leaders, and we must note in this context how little the leaders of South Africa have done to ameliorate the situation in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Another prominent African leader, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni wrote a fairly long piece in Foreign Policy last month, The Qaddafi I Know, in which he laid out five of Gaddafi’s mistakes, as he sees them, and four good things about Gaddafi’s leadership. This is followed by a list of eleven points that ought to be observed in dealing with the rebellion in Libya.

All of this is admirably clear and systematic, but much of it is also humbug, and, in some cases, humbug on stilts. Here is Museveni’s list of the four upsides of Gaddafi’s personal rule over Liyba (here in edited form — the reader should go through the entire argument in detail on the Foreign Policy website):

1. Qaddafi is a nationalist: Qaddafi has conducted an independent foreign policy and, of course, also independent internal policies. I am not able to understand the position of Western countries, which appear to resent independent-minded leaders and seem to prefer puppets… Qaddafi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests.

2. He raised the price of oil: He launched a campaign to withhold Arab oil unless the West paid more for it… I am, therefore, surprised to hear that many oil producers in the world, including the Gulf countries, do not appreciate the historical role played by Qaddafi on this issue. The huge wealth many of these oil producers are enjoying was, at least in part, due to Qaddafi’s efforts.

3. Qaddafi built Libya: When I was last there, I could see good roads, even from the air. From the TV pictures, you can even see the rebels zooming up and down in pick-up trucks on very good roads accompanied by Western journalists. Who built these good roads? Who built the oil refineries in Brega and those other places where the fighting has been taking place recently? …

4. He’s a moderate: Qaddafi is one of the few secular leaders in the Arab world.

Items 1 and 4 are tied together. Gaddafi is indeed a secular dictator, and this is indeed unusual in the Arab world, though less rare in Africa. Museveni is absolutely right that Gaddafi is a secular nationalist after manner of Nassar; I have made this point myself. And we recall that Nassar was a great advocate of Pan-Arabism. The United States of Africa, which Gaddafi backed and which makes Museveni’s short list of Gaddafi’s mistakes, is a megalomaniacal extension of Pan-Arabism to Africa, i.e., it is a vision of Pan-Africanism that has about as much chance of success as Nassar’s Pan-Arabism.

The fact that Museveni’s points of criticism are essentially involved with Museveni’s claims of Gaddafi’s good points is important: you can’t really have the secular dictator supporting Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism without it being bound up in Gaddafi’s folly of a United States of Africa with a continental government. Ideally, perhaps, you could separate the two, but not, I think, in fact. And we can go further with this line of thought. Museveni also criticizes Gaddafi for backing Idi Amin (against whom Museveni was himself a rebel, and therefore, indirectly, once fought against Gaddafi) and for ignoring the plight of Southern Sudan, but this policy of going easy on other African dictators and their depredations upon their peoples — a policy that the AU now wants to extend to Gaddafi himself, apparently with the approval of Museveni — is all part-and-parcel of Africa-as-one-big-happy-family.

Museveni himself invokes this rose-tinted Africanism early in his Foreign Policy piece:

Black people are always polite. They, normally, do not want to offend other people. This is called obufura in the Runyankore language, or mwolo in Luo — handling, especially strangers, with care and respect. It seems some of the non-African cultures do not have obufura. You can witness a person talking to a mature person as if he or she is talking to a kindergarten child. “You should do this; you should do that; etc.” We tried to politely point out to Qaddafi that continental governance was difficult in the short and medium term. We should, instead, aim at the Economic Community of Africa and, where possible, also aim at Regional Federations. But Qaddafi would not relent. He would not respect the rules of the AU.

So we are to believe, apparently, that it is African politeness that prevents Africans from dealing effectively and decisively with murderous dictators. It may well be true. Some time ago I was reading an interview with a high-ranking official in the South African government (I don’t remember who it was) and he essentially offered this as a defense for South Africa’s failure to address the depredation of Robert Mugabe upon the people of Zimbabwe. And I will concede that most dictators simply will not respond to polite persuasion. They understand only the language of power, and that it why they must be removed by force.

Unfortunately African politeness does not apparently extended to former colonial powers, since a great many Africans have nothing but criticism for former colonial regimes, and many of the most retrograde dictators in Africa, those most obdurate to polite persuasion, gained their political “street cred” through their participation in independence struggles. Indeed, one of the chief points of criticism of colonialism is that it decomposed the continuum of African into artificial nation-states based on the European model and which had little or no basis in the tribal politics of much of Africa. This is precisely while visionaries (even if deluded, but the deluded usually have the most grandiose visions) like Nassar pressed for a Pan-Arabism that would dispense with artificial nations, as well as Gaddafi who pressed for a continental government for Africa for the same reasons.

But recall the Museveni thought it was a good think that Gaddafi is a “nationalist.” What exactly is a nationalist in Africa? And what is the “nation” of Libya? Is it an African nation? Is it an Arab nation? Is it a Berber nation? Is it a Maghreb nation? Is it s tribal nation? Probably it would be impolite to ask either Museveni or Gaddafi this question directly.

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