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Southern Africa’s Support for Muammar Gaddafi

Submitted by on September 23, 2011 – 7:24 pm 8 Comments |  
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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  • Luis Aldamiz

    It’s interesting that Syria and Iran voted for the NTC recognition. Syria and Yemen are suffering unfinished popular revolutions and some in NATO have pointed their finger at Syria as next in line after Gaddafi (though unlikely because a democratic Syria would be a much greater threat for the Apartheid regime in Palestine, aka Israel). Syria is ally of Iran and Iran is ‘friend’ of the ALBA bloc, yet these seem to hate Gaddafi enough to vote against him. Is this because the NTC is largely islamist?

    • Interesting points … I wish that I could give a good response. As you suggest, Islamist forces within the NTC are probably part of the answer. 

  • Anonymous

    Based on this report I suggest Iran directly recognised the NTC at the end of August.

  • Martin, what the two little grey circles (dots) in Northern Caucasus? Does this map present Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries? As per Russia’s recognition (yeah, and Nauru)?

    • Yes, they do represent Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Russian recognition does not seem to be the reason.  Note the dot between Moldova and Ukraine, which represents Transnistria. Trannistria is not recognized by any generally recognized countries, although Abkhazia and South Ossetia do recognize it! 

      • Actually, all three are listed as “countries that didn’t participate in the vote” — because they don’t exist? 🙂

        Who decides on which things count as countries for this map? What’s the criteria?

  • Matthew Reisman

    Hi Martin – hope this message finds you well. I sat down to write you a note to ask you  about your thoughts on Gaddafi and his links to Sub-Saharan Africa. I then discovered this post; I should have known that you’d already have given this some thought.

    I’m thinking back to your “Myth of Continents” book, and how (as I recall – it has been awhile since I read it) you argued that the idea of “Africa” as a unified entity has tenuous foundations at best, and that the countries north of the Sahara really had more in common with other countries in the Mediterranean Basin and Middle East than the countries south of the Sahara. I can remember talking with you about the work of some scholars who sought to demonstrate that the links across the Sahara were longstanding and thus demonstrated the unity of Africa across the desert, but I recall your finding that work unconvincing.

    Besides being a brutal dictator, Gaddafi was a one-man battering ram for the idea of an Africa unified across the Sahara. So my question is this: with Gaddafi and his powerful voice for this idea gone, do you think that the sun will set on the “single Africa” idea? Or will bureaucratic structures like the AU keep that concept — and aspiration — alive? Very curious to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi Matthew, and thanks for the comment. I don’t think that the idea of Africa a single entity will ever disappear altogether, although with Gaddafi gone its appeal will diminish to some extent. It does seem true that most of the people of Libya rejected the Africanist discourse that Gaddafi worked so hard to promulgate. Certainly there are some issues for which a “pan-African” perspective is appropriate, but I am suspicious of most arguments about the intrinsic unity of any geographically defined entity. Trans-Saharan linkages, historical and present-day, are fascinating and deserve much more investigation, but there is a danger in exaggerating their significance. I also think that the AU will live on, but I doubt that it will ever be very powerful.

      From your experiences in Madagascar, what would you say is the Malagasy take on pan-African unity? My understanding is that there is a lot of questioning of the idea there as well.