The Gaddafi Diaspora

7 September 2011


Libya borders six other North African nation-states: Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia. All of these nation-states have been in the news in recent months, and are sometimes delicately referred to as being “in turmoil.” Last February, in The Geography of Revolution, I suggested that since Libya is sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, both of which had recently overthrown their long-standing authoritarian heads of state, that the natural population transfers within these regions would, by idea diffusion, give currency to the real possibility of regime change through popular revolt. Libya was in fact the next domino to fall of the Arab Spring (now the Arab summer, and soon to be the Arab fall), and its geography must be counted among the factors that made this possible.

Libya’s geography has also made it possible for regime cronies to escape the country. Travel in the desert is less dependent on roads than elsewhere (which is what provided the perpetually open flank of the North African Western Desert campaign). If you have sufficient fuel and a vehicle that can cope with the desert, the Sahara is your friend. You can drive to any number of lonely crossing points in the desert and quietly disappear into another country.

In some cases these desert crossings were homecomings: Gaddafi had hired mercenaries from the ethnic Tuaregs, many of which he had trained in warfare in previous decades, and these Tuaregs made their way back, primarily to Niger, when they could. But the Tuaregs are nomadic desert people; they range throughout this part of the Sahara, and are represented in Algeria and Mali as well as Niger. There have been stories that ethnic Africans remaining in Tripoli after the departure of Gaddafi and his forces have been assumed to be mercenaries and have been treated accordingly by the rebels with predictable reprisals. However, many peoples of the region sought work in Libya. Libya is a petrol state, and Gaddafi used his oil largesse liberally to increase his stature in Africa, relentlessly promoting his vision of a United States of Africa.

Even as Tuareg Leaders in Niger and Mali Urge Tuareg in Libya to Work With NTC, it was reported that a convoys of dozens of vehicles with prominent Gaddafi regime figures, as well as “gold, euros and dollars,” have crossed into Niger (Libya conflict: Gaddafi aide Mansour Daw ‘in Niamey’). The Sahara desert, famous for its vast expanses of emptiness, is rapidly becoming an interesting place. In fact, the Sahara is likely to be the theater of coming conflicts: between the Libyan NTC and a presumptive Gaddafi-financed insurgency; between Islamists and secularists; between North African Arabs and subsaharan Africans; and even, or ultimately a three-way conflict between nomads, nation-states, and transnationalists.

Previously it had been reported that Gaddafi’s wife, Safia, daughter, Aisha, and two sons, Hannibal and Mohammed, had crossed into Algeria (Did Algeria flout U.N. sanctions by taking in the Qaddafis? and Libya conflict: Why did Algeria take the Gaddafis? by Aidan Lewis of BBC News). The diaspora of Gaddafi regime figures into surrounding nation-states — permission or no permission — is predictable. What is not predictable are the long term consequences of this Gaddafi diaspora. I have already read interestingly contrasting opinions in the media, some claiming the Gaddafi’s oil largesse distributed in Africa has won him enough friends that he will not want for shelter (Gaddafi: African asylum-seeker? by Farouk Chothia, BBC African Service; see also Libya conflict: Where could Muammar Gaddafi be hiding?), while other commentators have suggested that the government of Niger, elected only earlier this year in the wake of a coup, will want to safeguard its legitimacy by refusing sanctuary to Gaddafi sympathizers.

While the long term consequences cannot be predicted with any certainty, there are some things that can be said with certainty. Even if Gaddafi can’t get his country back, he can cause trouble for Libya and its new rulers. With gold and cash looted from the national treasury, he can fund an insurgency which can go on for quite some time. An insurgency that has been bought and paid for (unlike a popular insurgency) can continue as long as the money holds out, regardless of whether the movement has support. Such a strategy on the part of Gaddafi and his loyalists would destabilize Saharan Africa. Gaddafi could exploit existing tensions between Arabs and Africans and between nomads and settled peoples in an attempt to carve out an ongoing political niche for himself and his loyalists. Since the region is poor and their are few television cameras present, violence in the region may be unnoticed by global media assets. On the other hand, the fragile and unstable governments of the region, as interested in regime survival as any other political class, may decide that they cannot put up with this sort of thing, and they may use the same media invisibility to persuade Gaddafi’s dead-enders to take their fight elsewhere.

Another predictable consequence will be the steady realignment of the new government of Libya away from any governments perceived to have helped or supported Gaddafi and toward those that helped or supported the rebels. This is already happening. If the NTC is a template for the government to follow, these process will be consolidated in practical ways: oil contracts, trade relations, border security, and diplomatic missions. The parallel jockeying for influence in the Sahara by the Libyan NTC and the Gaddadi loyalists could sputter along for decades, or it could feed into the larger conflicts in the region mentioned above.

The most interesting theater of the Gaddafi diaspora will be Algeria. Algeria has a violent and revolutionary history. No sooner than the French were forced out, but an indigenous Islamic insurgency conducted a brutal and bloody civil war that is still little understood, little appreciated, and little documented (coming, as it did, prior to 11 September 2001). No sooner had the iron fist of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika defeated this Islamic insurgency, but another indigenous popular movement burst on the scene: the Arab Spring. Had Bouteflika ruled in earlier decades, or in world in which the Arab Spring never happened, he would have been seen as a leader to back who would be, if not friendly to western interests, at least not hostile. Under other circumstances, we would have been seen as a bulwark to prop up. Now we cannot count on the kind of support that is forthcoming to those perceived as holding back the tide of chaos, and he is weakened as a result.

President Bouteflika sits on a powder keg: the same idea diffusion that demonstrated the possibility of successful revolution to the Libyans will have penetrated Algeria. If the Gaddafis can cross the border, so can smugglers and job seekers and human traffickers and those who have families on both sides of the border. Stories will be told. Audiences will listen in rapt attention. And this falls on the fertile soil of Algeria’s revolutionary tradition. But then there is the Gaddafi family thrown into the mix: they will have money and some political resources to draw upon. They will perhaps seek to exercise influence through connections and wealth, even as the Algerian government seeks to isolate and silence them. In this contest, both parties and weakened, and both will fight as an injured animal fights for survival.

If I had been Bouteflika, I would have bent every effort to keep the Gaddafis and their sympathizers out of the country, and I would have done everything to appear to the international community as a responsible stakeholder in the region, enforcing law and order, but not so harshly as to appear oppressive. Now it is too late for that. The Gaddafis can make trouble for years to come, especially if their patriarch uses them as mouthpieces, and the Algerians themselves may yet overthrow Bouteflika in their own Arab Autumn.

As I hope I have shown from the above considerations, North and Central Africa are complex crossroads, made all the more complex by recent events. With all these forces in play, the Sahara Desert may become a periphery that decides the fate of the political centers of the region. The momentum of history, at least in Africa, has passed into the vast emptiness of the interior of the continent. This will be a theater to watch in coming years.

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Note added Sunday 25 September 2011: Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha, ostensibly allowed into Algeria for humanitarian reasons, has made a public statement that has been broadcast on Syrian television. (cf. Alive and well! Libyan leader Gaddafi continuing his fight for power insists daughter) This comes after the oasis Sabha has fallen to NTC forces, and as breaking news is reporting that NTC forces have entered Sirte. It is difficult to believe that either al-Assad or Bouteflika could be so stupid as to allow themselves to get drawn into a losing fight, and at a time when revolutions are sweeping autocrats from power. Thus one instinctively seeks for some other motive at work. I can’t guess what that might be. Grasping at straws, I can only suggest what I suggested in Libya’s Seat at the UN: that they are standing up for the “principle” of autocracy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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