By Andrew Irumba
Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar El-Gaddafi, born 1942 died 20 October 2011), commonly known as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was a Libyan revolutionary, politician, and political theorist. He governed Libya as Revolutionary Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic from 1969 to 1977 and then as the “Brotherly Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977 to 2011. He was initially ideologically committed to Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, but he came to rule according to his own Third International Theory.
Gaddafi was born near Sirte to an impoverished Bedouin family. He became an Arab nationalist while at school in Sabha, later enrolling in the Royal Military Academy, Benghazi. Within the military he founded a revolutionary cell which, in a 1969 coup, deposed the Western-backed Senussi monarchy of Idris. Having taken power, Gaddafi converted Libya into a republic governed by his Revolutionary Command Council. Ruling by decree, he ejected both Italian colonists and Western military bases from Libya while strengthening ties to Arab nationalist governments—particularly Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt—and unsuccessfully advocating Pan-Arab political union. An Islamic modernist, he introduced sharia as the basis for the legal system and promoted “Islamic socialism”. The oil industry was nationalised, with the increasing state revenues used to bolster the military, fund foreign revolutionaries, and implement social programs emphasising house-building, healthcare, and education projects. In 1973, he initiated a “Popular Revolution” with the formation of General People’s Committees, purported to be a system of direct democracy, but retained personal control over major decisions. He outlined his Third International Theory that year, publishing these ideas in The Green Book.
In 1977, Gaddafi transformed Libya into a new socialist state called the Jamahiriya (“state of the masses”). Officially he adopted a symbolic role in governance but remained head of both the military and the Revolutionary Committees responsible for policing and suppressing dissent. During the 1970s and 1980s, Libya’s unsuccessful border conflicts with Egypt and Chad, support for foreign militants, and alleged responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing left it increasingly isolated on the international stage. A particularly hostile relationship developed with the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel, resulting in the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya and United Nations-imposed economic sanctions. From 1999, Gaddafi rejected Arab socialism and encouraged economic privatisation, rapprochement with Western nations, and Pan-Africanism; he was Chairperson of the African Union from 2009–10. Amid the 2011 Arab Spring, protests against widespread corruption and unemployment broke out in eastern Libya. The situation descended into civil war, in which NATO intervened militarily on the side of the anti-Gaddafist National Transitional Council (NTC). The government was overthrown and Gaddafi, who had retreated to Sirte, was captured and killed by NTC militants.
A highly divisive figure, Gaddafi dominated Libya’s politics for four decades and was the subject of a pervasive cult of personality. He was decorated with various awards and lauded for his anti-imperialist stance, his support for Arab and then African unity, and for significant improvements that his government brought to the Libyan people’s quality of life. Conversely, domestically his social and economic reforms were strongly opposed by Islamic fundamentalists and he was internationally condemned as a dictator whose authoritarian administration violated the human rights of Libyan citizens and financed global terrorism.
His Pan-Africanism credentials:
At the 20th century’s end, Gaddafi—frustrated by the failure of his Pan-Arab ideals—increasingly rejected Arab nationalism in favour of Pan-Africanism, emphasising Libya’s African identity. From 1997 to 2000, Libya initiated cooperative agreements or bilateral aid arrangements with 10 African states, and in 1999 joined the Community of Sahel-Saharan States.In June 1999, Gaddafi visited Mandela in South Africa, and the following month attended the OAU summit in Algiers, calling for greater political and economic integration across the continent and advocating the foundation of a United States of Africa. He became one of the founders of the African Union (AU), initiated in July 2002 to replace the OAU; at the opening ceremonies, he called for African states to reject conditional aid from the developed world, a direct contrast to the message of South African President Thabo Mbeki.
At the third AU summit, held in Libya in July 2005, he called for greater integration, advocating a single AU passport, a common defense system, and a single currency, utilizing the slogan: “The United States of Africa is the hope.” His proposal for a Union of African States project, a project originally conceived by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in the 1960s, was rejected at the Assembly of Heads of States and Government (AHSG) summit in Lusaka (2001) by African leaders who thought it was “unrealistic” and “utopian.” In June 2005, Libya joined the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and in August 2008 Gaddafi was proclaimed “King of Kings” by a committee of traditional African leaders. They crowned him in February 2009, in a ceremony held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; this coincided with Gaddafi’s election as AU chairman for a year.
The era saw Libya’s return to the international arena. In 1999, Libya began secret talks with the British government to normalize relations. In 2001, Gaddafi condemned the September 11 attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaeda, expressing sympathy with the victims and calling for Libyan involvement in the War on Terror against militant Islamism. His government continued suppressing domestic Islamism, at the same time as Gaddafi called for the wider application of sharia law. Libya also cemented connections with China and North Korea, being visited by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in April 2002. Influenced by the events of the Iraq War, in December 2003, Libya renounced its possession of weapons of mass destruction, decommissioning its chemical and nuclear weapons programs. Relations with the U.S. improved as a result, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gaddafi in March 2004.The following month, Gaddafi travelled to the headquarters of the European Union (EU) in Brussels, signifying improved relations between Libya and the EU; the latter ended its sanctions in October.
During his 2008 visit to Russia, Gaddafi pitched his Bedouin tent in the grounds of the Moscow Kremlin. Here he is joined by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French singer Mireille Mathieu.
In October 2010, the EU paid Libya €50 million to stop African migrants passing into Europe; Gaddafi encouraged the move, saying that it was necessary to prevent the loss of European cultural identity to a new “Black Europe”. Removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2006,Gaddafi nevertheless continued his anti-Western rhetoric, and at the Second Africa-South America Summit in Venezuela in September 2009, joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in calling for an “anti-imperialist” front across Africa and Latin America. Gaddafi proposed the establishment of a South Atlantic Treaty Organization to rival NATO. That month he also addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the first time, using it to condemn “Western aggression”. In Spring 2010, Gaddafi proclaimed jihad against Switzerland after Swiss police accused two of his family members of criminal activity in the country, resulting in the breakdown of bilateral relations.
Libya’s economy witnessed increasing privatization; although rejecting the socialist policies of nationalized industry advocated in The Green Book, government figures asserted that they were forging “people’s socialism” rather than capitalism. Gaddafi welcomed these reforms, calling for wide-scale privatization in a March 2003 speech. In 2003, the oil industry was largely sold to private corporations,and by 2004, there was $40 billion of direct foreign investment in Libya, a sixfold rise over 2003. Sectors of Libya’s population reacted against these reforms with public demonstrations, and in March 2006, revolutionary hard-liners took control of the GPC cabinet; although scaling back the pace of the changes, they did not halt them. In 2010, plans were announced that would have seen half the Libyan economy privatized over the following decade.
While there was no accompanying political liberalization, with Gaddafi retaining predominant control, in March 2010, the government devolved further powers to the municipal councils. Rising numbers of reformist technocrats attained positions in the country’s governance; best known was Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was openly critical of Libya’s human rights record. He led a group who proposed the drafting of the new constitution, although it was never adopted. Involved in encouraging tourism, Saif founded several privately run media channels in 2008, but after criticizing the government they were nationalized in 2009. In October 2010, Gaddafi apologized to African leaders for the historical enslavement of Africans by the Arab slave trade.