news analysis advocacy
For more frequent updates, visit the AfricaFocus FaceBook page
tips on searching

Search AfricaFocus and 9 Partner Sites



Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail! on your Newsreader!

Format for print or mobile

Libya: Reflections, Zeleza

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 19, 2011 (110919)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"That the West has always had a nefarious agenda in Africa is not news--we all remember the slave trade, colonialism, and structural adjustment. But we give the West too much power when we absolve our dictators because the West likes or detests them ... Our peoples' struggles and fundamental interests for well-being and freedom should be our only principled guide in supporting struggles for change. In focusing on NATO's role in the Libyan campaign it is tempting to underplay the role of the rebels themselves and the struggles and desires of the majority of Libyan people for freedom from Gadhafi's despotism." - PT Zeleza

As was the case for Tunisia and Egypt, there has been no shortage of day-to-day news coverage (often contradictory) and impassioned international policy debate on the Libyan component of the Arab Awakening. But there has been much less solid analysis, as the popular overthrow of Libya's dictator has been complicated not only by the turn to armed conflict but also by the decisive role played by NATO air power and significant external assistance to the rebels, primarily from France, Britain, and Qatar.

As the open military conflict at least appears to be in its final stages, there is also no shortage of advice to the new Libyan regime and speculation about its chances of success. But there are still few systematic analyses of what happened which carefully consider the internal dynamics of Libya and the Arab world as well as the significance of NATO intervention.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Libya, including a fundamental historical analysis by Fred Halliday and several Bulletins on issues related to migrants from subSaharan Africa, see

This series of AfricaFocus Bulletins on the significance of recent events in Libya provides a selection of material that I have found most useful, in three parts:

(1) a long commentary by historian and blogger PT Zeleza (this one, distributed by e-mail and on the web at This is the most nuanced broad analysis on the topic that I have seen.

(2) shorter commentaries by Mahmood Mamdani and Juan Cole (on the web at Mamdani focuses on the consequences for other Africa countries. Cole provides a sharp analysis of the myths invoked by many critics of the international intervention.


(3) a compilation of links and brief excerpts of additional articles, with short annotations/observations/questions by the AfricaFocus editor (on the web at Suggestions from readers are welcome for links to key analytical articles that might be added to this page.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

The Fall of the Gadhafi Dictatorship: The Lessons for Africa and the Arab World

By PTZeleza

Published on The Zeleza Post (

First Written August 21, 2011, revised August 25, 2011

[For the embedded links to a wide range of sources, see the original version of this blog post at]

After six months of protracted and ferocious fighting the end for the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, the colorful, eccentric, irascible, and ruthless tyrant of one of Africa's most enduring dictatorships [1], finally came with electrifying swiftness. In the last few days, the rebels have made lightening advances as they seized one city after another following months of setbacks and apparent stagnation. As they stormed into Tripoli on Sunday, August 21, the long anticipated rebellion broke out in the capital city, where about a third of Libyans live, which seemed to fall without the widely feared bloodshed. Jubilant crowds gathered in the Green Square, which was given its original name, Martyr Square.

Ecstatic celebrations broke out in other cities including Benghazi where the rebellion registered its first triumphant victories and the National Transition Council is based. The next few days were followed by some confusion and continued fighting in Tripoli. At one time it was announced two of Gadhafi's sons, who commanded some of the forces of the crumbling regime, were captured, but a day later one of the sons and Gadhafi's designated successor, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi [2], appeared in public to rally his father's diehard followers and battles raged in parts of the city [3] including the heavily fortified Gadhafi compound. A day later the compound, Bab al-Aziziya, fell to the rebels, a moment of great historic symbolism, [4] but Gadhafi was nowhere to be found and remained defiant [5] and vowed to fight to the end [6].

At the time of writing, outbursts of fighting continue in Tripoli as the rebels try to consolidate their gains, establish a government, and unblock frozen Libyan funds [7]. While the rebels cannot yet declare complete victory as long as sporadic fighting continues in Tripoli and other strongholds of the regime and Gadhafi remains on the loose, there can be little question that the curtain has closed on his 42-year rule and he will soon join the dictators' hall of infamy where his recently deposed neighbors, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the first culprits of the "Arab Spring" reside, and where other leaders such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe [8] ought to join soon.

The scenes and sounds of euphoria we have witnessed in Tripoli and other Libyan cities have an intoxicating familiarity to them. We have seen such images before, most recently in Tunisia and Egypt, and before that in the 1990s and 2000s in many capitals across the continent as the winds of the "second independence" shook several entrenched dictatorship from power. But sooner or later the excitement will dissipate in the unpredictable maelstrom of transition. Overthrowing a dictatorship is only the beginning in the arduous process of political reconstruction. The record of such transitions in the rest of Africa including the recent cases of Tunisia and Egypt serves as a cautionary tale that this is a process characterized by fitful progress, often littered with setbacks and disappointments.

The transition in Libya will be particularly complicated because of the manner in which the Gadhafi regime fell and the composition of the forces that brought this about. The collapse of the Gadhafi regime combines three elements that are unusual in their coalescence in the current conjuncture of tumultuous political change in Africa: armed struggle, popular uprising, and international intervention. In postcolonial Africa we are familiar with changes of regime that came about through armed struggle. An early example includes the seizure of power by the rebel forces led by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda in 1986. Popular rebellions and struggles have brought down numerous governments since the onset of Africa's current democratic wave that began two decades ago--Tunisia and Egypt are the latest examples.

The fall of the Gadhafi regime has involved both armed struggle and popular uprising. This recalls Africa's struggles for the "first independence" from colonialism rather than the struggles for the "second independence" from postcolonial authoritarianism. The closest and most recent parallel can be seen in the end of apartheid in South Africa. The obvious difference is that the South African liberation movement did not seize power by defeating the apartheid army. It succeeded in making the country ungovernable and forcing a negotiated settlement. This might explain the post-apartheid South African government's preference, indeed obsession, sometimes misguided, with negotiated settlements from Zimbabwe to Cote d'Ivoire and Libya.

Africa also has a long history of external interventions in which international and local forces collude in the overthrow of governments. The fall of Patrice Lumumba's regime in the Congo in 1960 and Kwame Nkrumah's in Ghana in 1966 enjoys particular notoriety in progressive African circles. On the flip side, there is Cuba's highly regarded intervention in Angola that saved the MPLA regime and humbled the regional military might of apartheid South Africa and accelerated the demise of its hold over Namibia and brought closer the winds of liberation to the apartheid laager itself. Most recently, there was the limited French intervention in Cote d'Ivoire against the obdurate regime of Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to accept electoral defeat.

The scale of international military intervention in the fall of the Gadhafi regime is unprecedented in Africa's recent struggles for the "second independence." There can be little doubt the victory of the rebels was facilitated by NATO, which provided air cover and helped degrade the Gadhafi military machine and enabled the rebels to advance on the ground. The NATO intervention was sanctioned by two UN Security Council resolutions. Resolution 1970 [9] "demanded an end to the violence and decided to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court while imposing an arms embargo on the country and a travel ban and assets freeze on the family of Muammar Al-Qadhafi and certain Government officials." Resolution 1973 [10] "imposed a ban on all flights in the country's airspace - a no-fly zone - and tightened sanctions on the Qadhafi regime and its supporters."

However, subsequently NATO's intervention attracted widespread criticism. Western detractors accused NATO of violating [11] the UN resolutions, scuttling a peaceful resolution, and perpetrating a cycle of violence that will haunt post-Gadhafi Libya. Many called attention to its high cost, the dangers of mission cluelessness [12], mission creep [13], or mission creak [14], of reproducing the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan [15], and worsening the plight of the Libyan civilians [16]. It represented, in one writer's words, imperial hijacking [17] and posed a major threat to the Arab revolution. "The west's approach to Libya [is] self-deluding, hypocritical and is proving to be counterproductive," another commentator railed [18]. In the United States, the Obama Administration was either accused of failing to take decisive action to avoid stalemate [19], or failing to get Congressional consent [20] thereby making the war illegal [21].

Some of the strongest criticism against NATO's so-called "humanitarian mission" in Libya has come from African governments, politicians, and commentators. They accuse NATO of committing a war of aggression against an African state [22] and undermining peacemaking efforts by the African Union [23]. Many believe NATO's "invasion of Libya," in the words of one commentator [24], "has little to do with protecting civilians and all to do with strategic interests" especially the country's vast oil resources [25]. To some the West has always had it for Gahdhafi for being a revolutionary and radical PanAfricanist [26]. He is being punished for his "long-term 'insubordination' to western imperialism." [27] One scholar vehemently condemns the three African countries [28], Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa that voted for the UN resolution and questions the suitability of Nigeria and South Africa on this account to represent Africa as permanent members on the UN Security Council should Council membership ever be reformed.

Interestingly, Nigeria and South Africa have since taken different positions on the fall of the Gadhafi regime. A day after the rebels seized much of Tripoli, Nigeria announced its recognition [28] of the rebel National Transition Council as the "legitimate representative of the Libyan people." This drew flak from South Africa [29] which accused Nigeria of "jumping the gun in recognizing the rebels as representatives of Libya" in opposition to the current position of the African Union. South Africa initially blocked efforts by Britain and France to pass a UN resolution to unfreeze Libyan assets [30] and only agreed to allow the release of $1.5bn in frozen Libyan funds for humanitarian aid and other civilian needs when the NTC was formally removed from the request [31]. South Africa expressed strong resentment against NATO's [32] overreach and breach of the UN resolution, which it sees as "the latest example of Africa being shown a lack of respect by the rest of the world."

South Africa's original endorsement of the UN resolution elicited strong opposition in some radical political circles within the country; now there is growing domestic and international consternation and criticism against the government's reluctance to recognize the Libyan rebels. In the words of the renowned South African commentator, Alistair Sparks [33], "It strikes me as absolutely absurd that while people are dancing in the streets celebrating freedom, South Africa is resisting that. South Africa owes a lot of its freedom to foreign intervention, including the west. We end up on the wrong side, the side of tyrants."

There are many other African commentators who have found the support for Gadhafi against the armed rebellion quite troubling. Human rights activists have been particularly adamant. Civil society organizations [34] across the continent urged African "governments to protect the people of Libya against whom crimes against humanity are being committed by a vicious regime." In the words of one journalist [35], "Few would deny that Libya's lifetime president, Muammar Gaddafi, is the perfect caricature of a 'third world' dictator. In usual form, Gaddafi's regime was politically and economically sustained by the obvious global actors: Corporations and 'first world' regimes, keen to access geostrategically convenient gas supplies" and notes how this neo-colonial dependency sustains the inequities of Libya's political economy. Yash Tandon, [36] the Ugandan political activist and public intellectual has tried to distinguish between Gadhafi being objectively a "neo-colonial dictator" and subjectively an "antiimperialist."

The veteran Ghanaian journalist, Cameron Duodu [37] brooks no such sophistries. He laments, "I found it amazing that on some Internet forums, many of my fellow Africans who, one suspects, set a great deal of store by freedom and democracy in their own countries, and who would be the first to protest if their governments showed any signs of repressing them, were supporting Gaddafi." He proceeded to argue that Gadhafi had long shed any anti-Western, revolutionary, or progressive credentials he may have once had in his despicable self-deification and relentless terror against his own people. Horace Campbell [38] also contends "a close examination of the political economy and cultural practices of Gaddafi would show that far from being anti-imperialist, he was like a semi-feudal leader. Gaddafi used Libyan people's money to try to harness the reservoir of traditional rulers and buy over leaders from across the continent in order to gain support for his aspiration to become the despotic king of kings of Africa."

These commentators poignantly capture a common weakness in African political discourse, the troubling tendency to excuse African dictators on account of their tattered histories of anti-western or anti-imperialist rhetoric. That the West has always had a nefarious agenda in Africa is not news--we all remember the slave trade, colonialism, and structural adjustment. But we give the West too much power when we absolve our dictators because the West likes or detests them, when we sacrifice our peoples' rights to democracy and development on the altar of Western interests and rhetoric. Our peoples' struggles and fundamental interests for well-being and freedom should be our only principled guide in supporting struggles for change.

In focusing on NATO's role in the Libyan campaign it is tempting to underplay the role of the rebels themselves and the struggles and desires of the majority of Libyan people for freedom from Gadhafi's despotism. In fact, rather than regard this as a victory for NATO, one commentator contends [39] "Libya may have demonstrated that the days of conclusive, concerted, action by large military alliances is well and truly over."

Whatever one's views about the Gadhafi regime, it is clear that its ouster through an armed rebellion, popular uprising, and international military intervention will profoundly affect the political trajectory of post-Gadhafi Libya making it exceptionally complicated and contentious. The Western powers will seek to exact their pound of flesh, to reap the spoils of war [40] and try to turn Libya into an even more pliant neocolonial outpost. Clearly, the national legitimacy and regional and international credibility of the National Transition Council will depend to a large extent on its ability to break its dependency [41] on the western powers that have bankrolled NATO's intervention.

The composition and inclusiveness of the NTC is also a critical issue. The Council is a loose coalition of recycled members of the political class, the functionaries of the Gadhafi dictatorship who belatedly saw the political light and defected to the opposition, long-term opponents of the regime both domestic and from the diaspora, and ordinary people and activists tired of the dictatorship and invigorated by the uprising. Mahmood Mamdani [42] has argued the anti-Gaddafi coalition comprises different political trends including what he "radical Islamists, royalists, tribalists, and secular middle class activists produced by a Western-oriented educational system."

Pundits in the American media seem to worry most about the divisive specter of the "Islamists" and "tribalism" over the new Libya. The uprisings in Libya, like those in Tunisia [43] and Egypt, were not inspired or led by radical Islamists. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood [43], which has sought to moderate its image [44] and bolster its democratic credentials has gained political ground [45], although it seems to be fracturing under the strain [46] of the new political order. The same is true in Tunisia where the once-banned Islamist Ennahda Party, which has sought to champion its tolerance and moderation [47], has re-emerged as a political force [48].

The question of ethnic and clan divisions cannot be discounted, although as is widely known in African studies the term "tribe" is an analytical canard [49] often imposed on complex African phenomena, processes, and problems by careless and uninformed western journalists and academics. The way these divisions are managed within the opposition movement will help determine the patterns and possibilities of transformation. What passes for ethnic divisions in African countries are often highly complex and intersected spatial, social, ideological, and religious divides. In Libya, spatially there is the split between eastern and western parts of the country as well as the coastal and southern regions. Hierarchies of social class are no less important in the beleaguered country's political economy and they can be expected to throw their weight on the transition. Ideological schisms cannot be discounted either.

The collapse of the Gadhafi regime will have a profound impact on its neighbors and the wider region. Likely to change is Libya's relationship with the rest of the continent. The days of the Libyan government bankrolling Gadhafi's self-serving causes and clients in the name of Pan-Africanism or radicalism will likely disappear with the ousted dictator. The alleged use of mercenaries from subSaharan Africa and the characteristically ineffectual diplomacy of the African Union might add to the souring of Libya's relations with its neighbors to the South. The new Libyan government will remember that the Arab League recognized them earlier than the African Union and they are unlikely to continue footing 15% of the AU's budget [50] as the Gadhafi regime did. This might explain the reluctance of the AU to abandon Gadhafi thereby biting the hand that has fed it for so long.

An intriguing question is whether this means Libya will become more Arab than African. Charles Onyango-Obbo [51], the Executive Editor of the Daily Nation in Nairobi offers a fascinating take. He argues that the North African revolutions including Libya's may actually lead to the dissolution of the mythical boundary between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, in which "most discussions about democracy in Africa always excluded the Arab North as a matter of course, because it was assumed that Arabs were incapable of democracy.... Now we know that this is not true. African Arabs want democracy, and are willing to die for it, as much as African Africans (does something like that exist?)." This might entail a political remapping of Africa. "We shall have a new map in which the most democratic and wealthy nations in Africa are the bottom of the continent (South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Zambia), and its tip (Tunisia, Egypt. Libya). The poor and repressive ones will be clustered in the middle. Sub-Sahara Africa as a political and economic concept will make less sense, and new classifications will have to be found."

Also likely is that the faltering energies of the Arab Spring and struggles against authoritarianism across Africa and the Middle East will be renewed. The fall of the Gadhafi regime brings back into the equation, it legitimizes, armed rebellion as an important part of the struggle for regime change and political transformation. The case of Libya has clearly demonstrated the limits of popular uprisings and peaceful protest against recalcitrant dictatorships. This should serve as a warning to other African and Arab dictators who continue to frustrate peaceful demands for freedom and democracy. The people of Libya have shown change will come sooner or later by fusing popular uprising with armed rebellions in the age-old tradition of anti-colonial liberation struggles even if aided by hypocritical imperialist western powers for their own disreputable interests. The real challenge is for the Libyan people to rebuild their country in pursuit of the age-old triple dreams of the African nationalist project: democracy, development, and self-determination.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Libya||Africa Peace & Security||Africa Politics & Human Rights|

URL for this file: