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The futility and dangers of a NATO-installed regime in Libya

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The incentive structure created by NATO’s commitment to the rebels will breed a movement of opportunists, not democrats.

Recently, NATO airstrikes killed the son of Libyan leader Maummar Al Gaddafi and his three children. Officially, NATO’s role in the ongoing conflict in Libya is to protect that nation’s civilians. However, quite often one has to worry why (or whether) western powers care more about the welfare of Libyans than Libyan leaders! Besides, how does this deliberate targeted killing of innocent babies constitute “protecting” civilians?

Gaddafi is certainly an intolerant despot who has dominated Libya for 42 years. During this time, he has done a couple of good things for Libyans. However, he has also oppressed his people, tortured and killed many of them, abused and misused their resources, despoiled their common patrimony and much more. There is a broad consensus that he should be kicked out. However, there is a real challenge on how to organise his exit in a manner that protects Libyans from jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Yet most commentary on Libya today ignores the possibility and even the probability of the risk of such an outcome in the country.


There has been an international outcry in support of the rebels fighting him. But opposing Gaddafi does not make the rebels democrats; they could be worse. Those intervening to save Libya need to pause and reflect on what credibility these rebels have demonstrated to win anyone’s trust. Fighting Gadaffi in and of itself does not make anyone and everyone a democrat; even a psychopath can join resistance against him. This simplistic embrace of everyone and anyone who shouts “wolf” at a sitting tyrant has produced many pseudo liberators in Africa.

Our continent is full of them. Gaddafi came as a liberator. The fallen Ivorian leader Laurent Bagbo, Uganda’s brutal tyrant Idi Amin, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, etc all came as liberators. It is therefore very frustrating that many African elites who have gone through these experiences of liberators turning into tormentors of our people are also the same elites to jump on the bandwagon of change before considering the real possibility that change of leaders may not mean change in leadership style. There is little reason yet to believe that Libyan rebels are genuine democrats other than the fact that they resist Gaddafi.

Initially, NATO intervened in the conflict in Libya because Gaddafi was using air force planes to bomb unarmed civilian demonstrators. However, the struggle has since transformed into an armed conflict; peaceful protest has given way to a violent struggle for power. This gives the government a legitimate right to use military power against the rebels. At this point, NATO should have left since its role was to “protect civilians” Gaddafi was bombing. It has instead stayed, thus transforming its mission into one of helping armed rebels to depose a government of a member state of the UN. This new self-arrogated NATO mandate goes against the spirit and letter of UN Resolution creating a no-fly zone.

Yet many observers have argued that left on their own, the anti-Gaddafi rebels would be wiped out by his superior firepower. This argument is inadequate. There is no evidence to suggest that indiscriminate bombing by a powerful military always succeeds against a defenceless people. The US spent 12 years bombing the people of Vietnam. It lost! A similar experience was suffered by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Today, the US and her NATO allies have been bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan for nine years. By 2009, US military assessment was that the Taliban were winning the war. Gaddafi does not even have 1% of NATO’s bombing power.

Other people argue that the international community should not sit idly and watch another Rwanda in Libya. Yet the international community intervened in Rwanda. There was a UN force called UNAMIR. The international community was trying to impose a standard solution on Rwanda – a ceasefire, followed by a government of “national unity” and then general elections. These standard solutions were ignoring the intricacies of the problem. The result would have been an unstable government of conflicting parties characterised by a low intensity conflict in which millions would have died over several years leaving the country in a mess.

This scheme failed, the country degenerated into genocide and one million people died in three months. However, out of that catastrophe, a more enlightened group – the RPF – captured power. It has been able to stabilise the political dispensation and build one of the most effective states in post-colonial Africa. Rwandan teaches us that Africa does not need external saviours, however well intentioned, because they do not understand the complexity of our problems. They try to impose solutions that have worked elsewhere but are not suited to our specific experiences.

Even where Africa fails, it should never justify us submitting to foreign control. We need to organise our own social movements to overcome tyranny. And this is not because the outside world is ill-intentioned. Rather it is because even when noble in their intentions, they do not understand our intricacies. Foreign solutions often fail to take into consideration the uniqueness of our problems. The people of Egypt and Tunisia have shown that our societies have capacity to bring down entrenched tyrants.

NATO’s particular approach to the Libyan problem will undermine the democratic content of the current struggle. By guaranteeing rebel victory and babysitting them all the way to power, it is actually encouraging opportunists without strong commitment to reform to join. Many former Gaddafi handlers are now joining the rebellion in order to be on the winning side, not because they believe in the objectives of the struggle. With time, the opportunists will crowd out the genuine democrats.

We have to distinguish the need for Gaddafi to go from the way he goes and the people who replace him. It is possible to jump from the frying pan into the fire. The incentive structure created by NATO’s commitment to the rebels is going to produce a movement of opportunists, not democrats. Look at how many people received Idi Amin in Uganda thinking he was liberating them from Milton Obote’s tyranny! Being frustrated by a tyrant should not lead us to believe that any and every alternative is better.

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