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.
problem with Qaddafi's pan-Africanism, like his rule in general is that
it has steadily turned into a vessel for his megalomania.
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.
When I showed up,
Qaddafi, surrounded by his famous all female bodyguard corps, angrily
objected to my presence and demanded that Sankara not allow an American
to ride with the motorcade for their triumphal, flag-waving trip to the
capital, Ouagadougou. Sankara, who already knew me well, insisted on my
presence. Four years later, he would be dead, murdered by Compaoré, it
is widely believed, with Qaddafi's encouragement.
determination to eliminate his erstwhile protégé had nothing to do with
me, of course. Most signs point instead to Sankara's refusal to
acquiesce in a much bigger decision: to sponsor an invasion of Liberia
by Charles Taylor, a leader who is now before the Hague on war crime
charges related to his instigation of what would go on to become one of
Africa's most horrific conflicts.
Taylor, a kindred megalomaniac,
who was trained and financed by Libya, invaded Liberia in 1989. A few
years later, I would cover that war for The New York Times as well,
watching the rebel leader ride one of the first mass deployments of
child soldiers into power.
Were it not for the British
intervention in Sierra Leone's civil war next door, another Libyan
project, the Taylor-Qaddafi axis would have taken over that country
next, before turning its sights on other wobbling dominos nearby,
whether Guinea or Ivory Coast. From Liberia, I went to Zaire to cover
the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko at the hands of Laurent Kabila, an obscure
revolutionary who had cut his teeth in 1960 liberation movements before
seemingly going into hibernation. Although Rwanda was his main patron,
it turns out that Qaddafi had invested in Kabila, too.