Southern Africa’s Support for Muammar Gaddafi

Map of UN Vote on Recognizing Libyan RebelsIn September 2011, the United National General Assembly voted to recognize the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya. As is evident in the Wikipedia map posted here, the countries voting against the resolution are concentrated in two parts of the world. One group, located in Latin America, is composed of the Venezuelan-led ALBA* alliance, which had close ties with the Gaddafi regime and more generally opposes NATO operations. Another larger group is located in southern and central Africa. This assemblage is closely linked to the membership roll of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). All SADC countries except Botswana, Mozambique, and the island states voted against the resolution; the only other Africa countries to oppose it were Kenya and Equatorial Guinea.

Given Gaddafi’s strongly pro-African rhetoric as well as his financial support for African initiatives, it is hardly surprising that a number of sub-Saharan states voted against recognizing the rebel forces that toppled him. Yet the African countries that were most closely connected with the former Libyan regime either abstained or voted to legitimize his usurpers. Supporters of the resolution included even Niger, a country that had just accepted members of the fleeing Gaddafi family and then warned a complaining France not to interfere in its relations with Libya.

Southern Africa’s loyalty to the previous Libyan government is heavily rooted in the belief that African affairs should be handled by Africans, and that any foreign military intervention on the continent risks ushering in a new era of imperialism. A few weeks before the UN vote, a group of some 200 prominent Africans, led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, “issued a statement warning about Africa being re-colonised as NATO continues its support of the Libyan rebels.” Such concerns have been voiced most vociferously in Zimbabwe, whose brutal rulers feel beleaguered by Western pressure and had maintained particularly close diplomatic ties with the Gaddafi regime. When Taher Elmegraghi, former Libyan ambassador to Zimbabwe, defected to the rebels, the Zimbabwean government quickly expelled him amid harsh denunciations from the pro-government press; one article went so far as to claim that “Not only did [Taher Elmegraghi] betray Gaddaffi, but also Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Julius Nyerere and all other pan-Africanists who fought or are fighting against all forms of neo-colonialism.” Another recent article notes that “Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has been on the record saying the Libyan uprising was a false revolution engineered by ‘vampires’ that seek to drain the North African country’s oil.”

Only one SADC country, Botswana, voted to recognize the new Libyan government. Botswana was in fact one of the first countries to break diplomatic relations with the Gaddafi government, as early as February 2011. A governmental spokesperson reported at the time that, “as a peace-loving country, [Botswana] is appalled by Gaddafi’s response which projects total disregard for human life,” adding that “those responsible for killings in the Libyan crisis would one day be hauled before the International Criminal Court to ‘account for their deeds.’”

Map of African Independence DatesHow can we account for these disparate reactions in sub-Saharan Africa to the fall of Gaddafi? One key seems to be the history of decolonization. In most of the region, colonial authority ended abruptly and peacefully in the early 1960s. It was a different story, however, over much of the SADC belt. In Angola and Mozambique, the Portuguese held on amid growing rebellions until the mid-1970s; even after they departed, warfare continued for decades. White-dominated South Africa ruled Namibia until 1990, and a white minority regime controlled Zimbabwe until 1980. The DR Congo gained independence much earlier (1960), but it was immediately racked by rebellion. Botswana, on other hand, gained sovereignty smoothly and peacefully in 1966. The country today is noted for having the most stable, democratic, and accountable government in the region, boasting Africa’s highest ranking on the influential Corruption Perception Index (where it ranks slightly below Israel, Portugal, and Spain, and slightly above South Korea, Costa Rica, and Poland). Proud of their reputation for good governance, Botswana’s leaders have little use for a mercurial strongman like Muammar Gaddafi.


Note: The Wikipedia map posted here is of interest not only for its explicit content, but also for the way in which it frames global geopolitical divisions. Unlike most political base-maps, it includes not just states that enjoy general international standing, but also those that lack such recognition but nonetheless generally act as sovereign entities. Note, for example, that Somaliland is depicted as a separate country, as are Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and even Transnistria (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic).

* The “Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America”

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Libya’s Fezzan: A Bulwark of the Gaddafi Regime

Compared to the Sahara, the deserts of North America hardly deserve the name. Whereas Las Vegas, the quintessential desert city in the U.S., receives about four and half inches (115 mm) of rain a year, and Death Valley, the continent’s driest spot, gets a little less than two inches (50 mm), roughly half of the Sahara receives less than eight-tenths of an inch (20 mm) annually. Over vast expanses of Saharan land, no vegetation can be found. The Sahara is also huge; roughly the size of the United States, it dwarfs all the deserts of North America put together.

But despite its extreme aridity, the Sahara contains pockets of relatively dense human habitation. Libya’s Fezzan region, located in the heart of the desert, has long supported sizable towns and extensive areas of irrigated agriculture, and is today home to almost half a million inhabitants. Most reside in oases where subsurface water allows the cultivation of dates and other crops. The oases of Fezzan tend to sprawl, with palm groves interspersed with uncultivated tracts stretching over many miles of terrain, punctuated with villages and small cities (see the Google Earth image above). On the economic map of Libya posted above, the Fezzan oases are deceptively large, as much of the land mapped in green is actually barren.

The extent of cultivated land in the Libyan Sahara has, however, vastly increased over the past several decades. The population of the region has also surged during the same period. While Fezzan held 60,000 inhabitants in 1954, by 2006 its population reached 442,000. Since the 1980s, it has grown at a much more rapid clip than the rest of the country. In 1984, Fezzan was home to 5.9 percent of Libya’s total population, whereas in 2006 it held 7.8 percent of the total. Relatively little of this expansion is linked to the oil industry, which is focused outside of Fezzan to the northeast. Recent growth here is associated instead with massive new irrigation facilities and with road-building and other infrastructural projects undertaken by the Libyan government. Some of this activity has been aimed at linking Libya more closely to sub-Saharan Africa, one of the cornerstones of Gaddafi’s ambitious foreign policy agenda.

As of March 1, 2011, Fezzan remained firmly under the control of the Gaddafi regime, with no indication of rebel activity in any of its cities or towns. The region’s loyalty to Gadaffi is linked to its relative isolation, as well as to the development funds that have been lavished upon it. But parts of Fezzan have also been singled out as bulwarks of the regime. Gaddafi attended secondary school in Sabha, the metropolis of the region (population 130,000). Many members of his own tribe, the Qaddadfa, subsequently relocated to the city, even though the tribe is based on the north coast. Sabha also supports a Libyan air base, which was linked to the country’s discontinued nuclear program, and has been used for rocket testing. The city is noted for its numerous migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, whose presence has been encouraged by Gaddafi and whose future in the country may be jeopardized by a regime change. Bands of Chadian and Nigerian mercenaries hired by the old regime are also reported to be present in the area. Although Gaddafi’s power in northern Libya has largely been reduced to Tripoli and its environs, it remains entrenched in the southwest. It will be interesting to see what happens in Fezzan if and when Gaddafi falls in north.

Regardless of the fate of the Gaddafi regime, it is unlikely that the new agricultural developments in the Libya desert will prove sustainable, as the next Geocurrents posting will explore.

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