An African view of the 40th anniversary of the Libyan “revolution”
by Anders Hastrup.
This past month have seen a lot of commentaries and analyses of the 40th anniversary of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, in the wake of the extravagant celebrations in Tripoli on September 1st. Various newspapers, magazines and online journals have focused on the changing role of Libya in world politics seen from the West and the Middle East. Focus has been directed at the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing and the change of Libya’s role in sponsoring terrorism along with speculations about the end of sanctions, oil concessions and the country’s tourist potential.
Middle East commentators, such as Fred Halliday have focused on how the Qaddafi regime was seen from the Arab World and emerged inspired by Nasserism to meddle in the many different conflicts throughout the Arab world. Fred Halliday’s article is an impressive firsthand account of the direct and indirect destructive influences of the Libyan “kleptocracy” throughout the Middle East in the past 40 years and is highly recommended.
In this piece I want to move away from the Arab Middle East and shed light on the destructive influence that Qaddafi has had on the African continent, especially in the Chad-Sudan border region, the region of Darfur, where the Libyan President holds significant responsibility for creating the janjaweed militias, responsible for the mayhem and destruction of Darfur.
An analysis of Qaddafi’s role in Africa is even more pertinent since Libya gained presidency of the African Union this year. Qaddafi has always been ambitious on behalf of his country and its role in the world. After trying out a series of political experiments and half baked alliances with radical groups of almost all dispositions in the Arab World, Qaddafi has looked to some of his African neighbours as a laboratory for his dangerous ideas. Nowhere have the effects of his megalomania been more destructive than in Sudan’s Darfur region.
In order to fully comprehend Libya’s role in Darfur, one must analyse the special triangular relationship between Libya, Chad and Sudan and the way the region of Darfur has been the stage where the regional ambitions of all the three countries have been played out, often in a very violent manner.
Qaddafi and the Chadian Arabs
The Chadian Arabs have for a long time formed the core of the opposition to successive Chadian presidents. Put simply, there is a dichotomy between the North and South in Chad that in some ways resembles the historical North-South divide of Sudan. In Chad, however, the roles are reversed: A poor marginalised Arab North revolt against the Christian South who has monopolized political power in the hands of a narrow elite.
As early as 1966, the Chadian opposition group National Liberation Front for Chad, FROLINAT, was formed in Nyala, capital of South Darfur State in Sudan, starting a long tradition of the use of Darfur as base for disgruntled Chadian Muslims and Arabs. The political mobilisation of the Arab tribes of Chad in the initial FROLINAT and subsequent Chadian rebel movements can to a large degree help explain the origin of the janjaweed militia, whose gang raping, horse-riding murderers hold the responsibility for the displacement of more than 3 million people and the disintegration of an area the size of France into impunity and chaos.
The role played by Libya is crucial in understanding the origin of the janjaweed phenomenon in the region. In 1969, Muammar Qaddafi took power in the country and promoted a series of grand schemes, not only for Libya, but for the entire continent. Initially inspired by the Arab socialism of Egyptian President Gamal Abd al Nasser, Qaddafi became a radical Arab nationalist and sought to export his radical ideas on the African continent. This meant creating a new sense of Arab/Muslim identity among many Bedouins of the Sahel region who received both ideological and military training for the creation of an Arab homeland, the “Arab Belt” across the region. The Christian government of Chad quickly became the focus for Qaddafi’s struggle for “Arab supremacy”. This struggle was one of Qaddafi’s many experiments, where ideologies are utilized as ad hoc creations for colonising and obtaining the raw political control over given areas. He armed the nomadic Arab tribes with weapons and a dangerous ideology of Arab supremacy in this ethnically diverse region. His short-sighted goal was the instability of the Chadian regime. Qaddafi wanted Chad. The long- term effect was a continuing culture of impunity for the region’s Arabs, now armed with modern weapons against the villages of the African populations of Darfur and Eastern Chad.
A look to the margins
In many ways, the origins of the janjaweed can be traced to the meeting of the Arab Chadian opposition, armed by Qaddafi, with the North Darfur Abbala Arabs: The Arab Chadian opposition had arms and moved across the border to their camel herding neighbours, themselves poor landless Arabs of Darfur who were desperately seeking recognition and triggered by a new found ideology where they were the master race.
Roughly speaking, the same dangerous alliance of weapons and an ideology of racial supremacy merged in Sudan’s Darfur region. The area of Darfur and Eastern Chad has historically been the same, the same tribes, Arab and African, live on both sides of the border. Like Qaddafi used the marginalised Arabs of Chad to create a loyal “Arab Belt”, the Khartoum government used the landless Arabs of North Darfur to crack down on the emergent violent opposition. The results of this meeting between these groups can be found in the fierce and ruthless militias unleashing an unprecedented mayhem in Darfur in the first years of the new Millennium.
The most important reason for the janjaweed phenomenon is sheer poverty, marginalisation and the lack of fixed land and land rights. In Darfur, the camel herding Abbala Arabs did not have their own dar, meaning abode or homeland. They shared this lack of spatial recognition with many of the tribes of the Arab tribes of Eastern Chad.
Both Khartoum and Tripoli under the rule of Colonel Qaddafi have skilfully looked to the marginalised Arabs of the triangular region of Libya, Sudan and Chad for the creation of an often short lived loyal belt for the control of the region. The present conflict in Darfur must be seen through these regional dynamics and the inverted roles of the marginalised and the marginalising. The North Darfur and Chadian Arabs, have thus gone from servants to masters through a skilful manipulation by Colonel Qaddafi and Omar al Bashir.
The 40th anniversary of Qaddafi’s “revolution” is the anniversary of one of the most controversial, extravagant and eccentric regimes of the past generations. The flamboyant character of Muammar Qaddafi has taken Arab political kitsch to a new level. The Green Book and subsequent ideological mutations of the Tripoli regime have been the laughing stock of many analysts who have mocked the weirdness and melodramatic character of the increasingly clown-like figure of the Libyan President.
However, Muammar Qaddafi might laugh last. Not many people have made any point of commenting on his current Presidency of the African Union and the fact that he, through this, remains incredibly influential on the African continent and not just a lone, howling mad wolf. He has, undoubtedly helped many Africans who have worked in the booming oil businesses of Libya, and many of my Darfurian friends still travel to Libya there and sustain large families in Sudan by their Libyan salaries. However, the indirect economic assistance to numerous Darfurians must be viewed against Colonel Qaddafi’s most dubious legacy in the region: he played a major role in sowing the seeds for the murderous janjaweed militias in Darfur. His Presidency of the African Union, its peacekeeping forces form the core of the international deployment in Darfur, is a scandal.