By Andrew M. Mwenda
I hope that my prediction is wrong because future generations of Libyans will be happy that I was wrong.
I am writing this column on the morning of Monday August 22nd.
By the time it is read, Libyan leader Muammar El Gaddafi might no longer be supreme ruler of that country. He might either be dead, in jail or exile. It is one of those ironies of history that his sons and many of his apparatchik were caught in Tripoli before they could flee. It seems they did not imagine they could lose power so quickly. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, it also blinds people completely.
Gaddafi’s fall is both good and bad news for Libya. It is good news because finally, a psychopathic tyrant who had intimidated, terrorised and bullied Libyans for 42 years has been toppled. Of course this is not to say that Gaddafi did nothing good.
Stories abound of social welfare and other pro-people and pro-poor programmes under him. However, for many years he spent Libyan money on foreign wars and self aggrandisement; watching jubilant crowds in Misrata and Benghazi reveals that his fall is a big relief to many Libyans.
But it is also sad news for Libya because the effort to remove Gaddafi was largely conducted by western powers whose involvement undermined its democratic content. Initially, the Libyan uprising was a grassroots movement anchored in the people. Ordinary people took to the streets to protest his tyranny and even bring him down. When Gaddafi made his infamous speech threatening to kill everyone who challenged his rule and sent fighter bombers to kill peaceful demonstrators, he had crossed the line.
Initially, NATO intervened under a UN mandate to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s psychopathic mania. However, instead of protecting civilians and letting Libyans shape their destiny, NATO expanded this mandate to regime change. Of course regime change was not a bad idea – most democratic minded people wanted to see Gaddafi go. However, the way NATO decided to execute this plan has powerful implications on the future of democracy in Libya and the institutional integrity of the Libyan state.
For a movement to be democratic, the driving force has to be those most affected by the forces of tyranny. Secondly, the primary function of the state is to ensure basic law and order i.e. protection of persons and property. In the context of an armed struggle for power, success demands that the triumphant forces destroy the military and security infrastructure of the regime in order to seize power from the incumbents. However, such destruction leaves a power vacuum as the main infrastructure of security collapses.
In more successful experiences like the communists in China, Cuba and Vietnam or the NRA in Uganda, Frelimo in Mozambique, MPLA in Angola, RPF in Rwanda, EPLF in Eritrea and TPLF in Ethiopia, the victorious armed group had centrally directed and well developed military organisation to effectively take charge of the state and re-establish a stable and sustainable political order. This was possible because victory was a product of having developed internal capabilities. It is this initial endowment that makes post conflict reconstruction successful.
However, in cases where the victorious group was largely helped by a foreign power to capture power (UNLA in Uganda in 1979, Iraqi exiles after the fall of Saddam, Hamid Kazai after the fall of the Taliban and Lebanon during Israeli occupation), once the dictator falls, the country degenerates into anarchy. This is largely because the victorious group lacked internal organisational capabilities to ensure a stable political order while its external backers, however strong they may have been financially and militarily, lacked local knowledge and nuances that make stability possible.
Moreover, because its power-base is the strength of its external allies, the victorious group tends to have little incentive to achieve internal political and social integration. External backers tend to have a certain set of values and principles that drove them to get involved in a conflict. For example, western countries have particular principles regarding democracy, elections, free media and justice. So they tend to encourage their local auxiliaries to seek these ideals regardless of context.
Now, because the strength and legitimacy of the local group that has taken over power are derived from their external allies, the new power-holders may be encouraged to pursue such an idealistic agenda without being sensitive to local peculiarities. For example, they may seek victors’ justice to please their external patrons ignoring the tradeoffs, compromises and bargains that make internal political integration possible. For example, the UNLF may have feared to make peace with some of Idi Amin’s people for fear of being misunderstood by Julius Nyerere.
Yet Libya’s situation is worse. First, the rebels have achieved an artificial victory. It is not so much their fire power but rather the bombardment by NATO that tilted the balance of power in their favour. This means that rebels won artificially and Gaddafi lost artificially. Second, the rebels lack a unifying ideology. The only thing that unites them is hatred of Gaddafi. Now that he is gone, what else will unite them? Third, they lack a centrally organised and directed command and control centre. Fourth, they are all armed. Fifth, NATO is not sending boots on the ground to help them reestablish order.
There is nothing that tears men apart than a contest over money. Even in small companies with shares worth less than US$ 30,000, former friends turn into bitter enemies when the sharing of the benefits of such shareholding comes into play. Even in homes, when a father dies leaving a small estate, brother turns against brother, daughter against mother. Most divorces become nasty at the point of sharing property.
Now, bring this insight into post-Gaddafi Libya with all these structural problems pointed out above. The victorious rebels now have to sit down and decide who controls the billions of money from oil. Indeed, most rebel commanders will want to get access to oil proceeds immediately.
Because they are armed, it is very likely that any disagreement will be resolved militarily. And if a military confrontation begins before the political and security situation stabilises, it will be extremely difficult to build a stable political order. The road to Mogadishu will have been paved. I hope that my prediction is wrong because future generations of Libyans will be happy that I was wrong.