By: Angela Mudukuti
Whether the country was better off under Gaddafi than it is today is the wrong question. Gaddafi is remembered as a dictator and his era was marred with numerous accounts of grave human rights violations.
Fast-forward to Libya today, where news headlines include reports of heavy casualties as Islamic State battles for the city of Sirte. The comparison between Libya under Gaddafi and post-Gaddafi raises the question: Was the 2011 revolution a step forward or was Libya better off under Gaddafi? But is that the right question to be asking?
Gaddafi came from humble beginnings as the son of a Bedouin goat herder. After obtaining a good education and military training, he rose to captain and seized power in 1969.
Gaddafi’s political ideology was rooted in orthodox Islamic beliefs, a blend of revolutionary socialism and a strong sense of Arab nationalism. His strong anti-West agenda and the financial and tactical support he provided to various terrorist groups made him unpopular with many Western leaders. This precipitated the economic and political isolation of Libya.
Though Libya was economically stable and seemingly calm, Gaddafi ruled with an iron fist, crushing any opposition and preventing dissent. The 1970s in Libya were characterised by summary executions, arbitrary detention and the disappearance of anyone who posed a threat to Gaddafi’s draconian leadership. The repression continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One of the lowest points included the state-sanctioned massacre of 1 200 prisoners in Abu Salim prison in Benghazi in 1996.
According to the UN, Gaddafi used “arbitrary detention, torture and assassination on a widespread scale as a matter of official policy”.
His system of governance involved pitting tribes against each other and rewarding loyalty with access to opportunities.
Gaddafi nurtured and controlled tribal and ethnic tension to maintain power. Racial discrimination was also common, as documented by the UN. Black people (including Libyans and sub-Saharan immigrants) were discriminated against.
The discontent felt by the Libyan people culminated into the 2011 civilian protests. Civilians agitating for change were brutally and systematically attacked by Gaddafi forces. This led to international intervention. Nato provided aerial support to the anti-Gaddafi forces, helping them secure victory, and the UN Security Council referred the situation to the International Criminal Court.
Life under Gaddafi was by no means easy; however, Libya today is in ruins.
On Monday, 34 Libyan government soldiers were killed and 150 were wounded in a battle against IS in Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace.
Gaddafi’s demise has left a vacuum that has attracted extremist groups such as IS. Sirte was seized by IS in February last year and the Libyans loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord have been trying to get it back ever since. In addition to having to contend with the rise of IS and no centralised government, there are at least 100 different tribal and militia fiefdoms in the country.
Economically and politically Libya continues to be unstable. The proliferation of arms and the smuggling of people exacerbates the problems. Oil production has plummeted and the judiciary and law enforcement agencies are yet to recover.
Whether the country was better off under Gaddafi than it is today is the wrong question. While one can indeed question aspects of the revolution, including Nato’s involvement, questioning whether keeping a serial human rights violator in power is curious. Instead Libyans, Nato and the UN should be asking what should have been done to prevent Libya’s descent into chaos post-Gaddafi. US President Obama has reportedly admitted one of the worst mistakes of his presidency was failing to prepare for the aftermath of the Libyan revolution.
Yet it is undeniable that in Libya under Gaddafi, human rights abuses were extreme and the fact that the people themselves began the revolution speaks volumes about the desire for change. It’s clear most Libyans were no longer prepared to live under such repressive conditions and many were prepared to die to pave the way for a new Libya.
The scale of the protests and the number of people who took up arms to fight for their freedom renders questions about whether Libya is better or worse off redundant. The vast majority of Libyans no longer saw Gaddafi’s regime as an option. This is the salient point that is so frequently omitted when people compare Libya before and after Gaddafi.
Mudukuti is an international criminal justice lawyer at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.