How Qaddafi Reshaped Africa

The Libyan leader's dark legacy already includes some of the continent's worst regimes and conflicts

qaddafip.jpg
Whenever most of us think of oil-rich, Arab-speaking countries, our imagination performs a trick with our sense of geography, placing us by default in the Middle East.

Of the three North African countries at the heart of the popular uprisings that have riveted the world over the last several weeks, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has always done the most to assert his country's African identity, staking its prestige, its riches and his own personal influence above all on its place in the continent.

As a deep-pocketed and sparsely populated state ever in need of labor, it has always made sense for Qaddafi to look south. Libya is far too small and peripheral for it to ever aspire to real influence in the Arab world. By comparison, the almost equally small but far poorer countries of nearby West Africa, wracked as they are with chronic misrule and instability, loom temptingly on the horizon as fruit ripe for picking.

Whatever our loose or flawed sense of geography tells us, things have always been thus. For at least 1,000 years, Morocco's kingdoms have periodically thrust southward, establishing shape-shifting realms from present-day Niger all the way to Senegal.

Qaddafi's big idea was to meld a modern, anti-Western, anti-imperial discourse with an impassioned pan-Africanism, an ideal that still resonates deeply across the continent.

For decades in Africa, Qaddafi has put his money where his mouth was: showering petro-dollars on favored clients, funding liberation groups, nurturing political movements, and even paying civil servants. To make sure that no one missed the message, he has often paid a huge portion of the operating costs of the continental body, the African Union.

The problem with Qaddafi's pan-Africanism, like his rule in general is that it has steadily turned into a vessel for his megalomania.

As a reporter with a career-long association with the African continent, I have been in a rare position to witness this trend beginning with some of Qaddafi's earliest African exploits.

In 1983, I scrambled from Ivory Coast to Chad to witness the breakout of war between French and Libyan forces there. Qaddafi had recently spoken of fully "integrating" his country with its southern neighbor.

I quickly found my way to the eastern front, where I watched the conflict from a desert foxhole with French soldiers as they spotted screaming, low-flying Jaguar fighter bombers pounding Libyan positions nearby. That same year, I traveled to Burkina Faso, where Qaddafi had flown to celebrate the seizure of power by a charismatic young army captain, Thomas Sankara, who he clearly saw as a promising understudy.

They met at a military base near the border with Ghana. From there, Sankara's comrade, Blaise Compaoré had recently rallied paratroopers to free Sankara from detention and install him as president.

Presented by

Howard W. French is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, and is writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In