“What has Muammar Gaddafi been up to for the past two decades? And who are these ‘African mercenaries’ who are killing civilians?” asked confused Western spectators as they watched the Libyan head of state begin a campaign of terror against his citizens.
Was this the same buffoonish character that we all watched in 2009 as he delivered that embarrassingly incoherent, bumbling address to the United Nations? He seemed so cartoonish, so ineffectual and irrelevant then—an aging despot too out of touch to pose a real danger to anyone. As such, we shoved the troubling elements of that speech aside—and decided not to worry about them.
To be fair, Arab governments weren’t paying much attention either. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Gaddafi was roundly mocked for an over-inflated ego of such grand proportions that he routinely spoke of himself in world-historical terms. A self-styled “Che Guevara” of the Arab world, Gaddafi mostly annoyed the neighboring despotic regimes.
They saw not a revolutionary in Gaddafi, but a competitor, someone who endangered their geopolitical influence. As such, they repudiated Gaddafi for his ill-conceived invasions of Egypt and Chad—and stepped up efforts to decrease his political power in the region. A kind of “cold peace” took hold between Libya and its neighbors for the next two and a half decades, as neighboring despots ignored Gaddafi’s eccentricities in exchange for a piece of Libya’s oil wealth.
The West did not anticipate Gaddafi’s war against the Libyan people. Neither, it seems, did the Arab states. Gaddafi hid below the radar of Western and Arab leaders for nearly a quarter of a century, engaging in a pseudo-isolationism that allowed his political activities to go mostly unchecked. After he lost his battle for dominance in the Arab world, you see, Gaddafi reinvented himself.
No longer the Arab incarnation of Che, Gaddafi retired his military garb and replaced it with royal dress inspired by Libya’s former King Idriss. Abandoning his doomed political maneuvers in the Middle East, Gaddafi now saw himself as a pan-African prophet, destined to take up the project of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and imbue the African citizens to the south with a new sense of anti-colonial zeal. An African liberator who would raise the collective consciousness of the sub-Saharan population, taking Fanon’s postcolonial message to the masses.
Thus, Gaddafi went South of the Sahara—and, indeed, all around it—and spent the next two decades there delivering populist speeches, sleeping in tents, kissing babies, organizing photo ops, bribing sub-Saharan autocrats and funding intrastate conflict. On witnessing some of his campaigns throughout southern Africa, one could legitimately wonder if he ever spent any time in his home country. As many people outside of Libya ignored Gaddafi for a very long time, the people of sub-Saharan Africa got to know him quite well.
As a result, millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa were not at all surprised by Gaddafi’s fierce repression. After all, Gaddafi had been pillaging their resources, cozying up to their dictators and exploiting their conflicts for decades before his crimes against the Libyan people caught the world’s attention.
Johannesburg journalist Mondli Makanya minces few words in his account of Gaddafi’s wide influence:
Short answer: he paid a lot of people good money. He had many presidents, prime ministers and kings on his payroll. He also filled the coffers of some nations and financed the election campaigns of many parties.
Although Gaddafi neither romanticized sub-Saharan life nor volunteered himself as “King of Kings” in a “United States of Africa” until the dawn of his pan-African persona, he did send troops to support Idi Amin’s regime in Nigeria as early as 1972. In the 1980’s, he funded an anti-government uprising in Chad and furnished military equipment and rebel training grounds to two of sub-Saharan Africa’s most brutal up and coming war criminals: Charles Taylor of Liberia and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone.
South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reports that Gaddafi used Libya’s oil wealth to buy influence among African autocrats as well as African Union votes. His influence within the African Union was so pervasive that he became the body’s chairman in 2009.
In some cases, heads of state could not easily disavow Gaddafi because they badly needed the developmental aid that he provided. Limited by the demands of structural adjustment, they had to make unholy alliances in order to fund most any public works. Indeed, Gaddafi’s regime funded relief and development projects in an impressive number of African states, including but not limited to Cameroon, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And unless he had political and/or economic reasons for fomenting conflict throughout the region, Gaddafi could sometimes be relied on to provide useful diplomatic advice or even broker peace deals.
Like many other heads of state, he was single-minded about pursuing his own political and financial interests. The surprising element here is that he managed to do so for about two dozen years without raising much ire or suspicion among the international community outside the African continent. Gaddafi must have figured out that dictators could pillage African lands and abuse African human rights and more or less avoid the notice of international human rights courts or itinerant journalists.
Given this history, can anyone be surprised at Gaddafi’s connections to criminal syndicates from sub-Saharan Africa? Mercenary armies flourished in the region during the twentieth century—particularly in the aftermath of the South African apartheid regime, when ex-Nationalist Party members disbursed to maximize profits and destabilize the region as mercenary fighters. It would not be too much of a stretch to point out that mercenaries have been involved in approximately every violent conflict south of the Sahara throughout at least the past twenty years.
It’s hard to say exactly who the mercenaries are, as most of the major news outlets, including Al Jazeera, are affording little attention to the question. Some of the fighters may not be mercenaries at all, but members of the Libyan army, some of whom happen to have sub-Saharan African heritage. We also know that some are not fighters, but day laborers who were caught up in the conflict and captured. But we also know that the Libyan government has trained many mercenaries throughout sub-Saharan Africa for a very long time.
Libyan human rights advocate, Ali Zeidan, claims that Chadian fighters lead the group of fighters from Chad, Niger, Mali, Liberia and Zimbabwe—and that they are being paid between US$300 and US$2,000 per day. Fighters from Ethiopia are also reported. Analyst Na’eem Jeenah says that “it is safe to say that they number at least in the hundreds.” Gaddafi maintained an active military presence in all but Zimbabwe for the past few decades. In the case of Zimbabwe, he is a long-time supporter of embattled autocrat, Robert Mugabe. Some of the fighters may not be sub-Saharan at all, as anti-government Libyan diplomats claim that fighters from Algeria and Tunisia are also working for Gaddafi. The Serbian news site, Alo! suggests that Serbian fighters are also involved.
But until human rights groups have more access to the unraveling crisis on the ground, it’s difficult to assess the abuses wrought by mercenary fighters. And it is crucial to question the idea of “African mercenaries” in the first place. The question itself should be understood in the context of Libya’s history of black slavery and racial inequality. Blogger Pambazuka points out that “[there] is a distinct minority of ‘black’ Libyans whose slave origins mean they are still regarded with contempt by some,” and that some Libyans have a habit of referring to sub-Saharan Africans in general as mercenaries. Gaddafi, of course, has manipulated these prejudices by deploying black “African mercenaries” from the start.
At best, Gaddafi’s political contributions to sub-Saharan Africa are complex, morally ambiguous, and contested. At worst, Gaddafi actively supported genocidal violence against the Africans he spoke about with such affection for so many years. In short, African regimes are not uncomplicated allies of the Gaddafi regime. The citizens of these regimes most certainly do not comprise an undifferentiated mass of potential murderers-for-hire. Indeed, untold numbers of sub-Saharan Africans are also the victims of Gaddafi’s war crimes.
As such, racist dismissals of “African thugs” and “African mercenaries” are as outrageous as they are infuriating. After all, a persistent war criminal will connect with and/or create criminal syndicates as needed.
In spite of the vast publicity accorded the ANC’s fondness for Gaddafi, Africans are far from united in support of Libya’s despotic ruler. After investing that much time, resources, and energy in any region, many a despotic ruler would be capable of making friends and raising an army. Let’s focus on Gaddafi’s crimes, then, rather than casting masses of black Africans—or Eastern Europeans or Northern Africans, for that matter—as The Villains here. They are not.