Why we were wrong about Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak

Wednesday August 24 2011

Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi is still threatening to fight to the end, but surely it is over for the dictator.

Rebels who have been battling Gaddafi’s 42-year rule now control over 90 per cent of the capital, Tripoli, and overran his heavily-fortified Bab al-Aziziya headquarters on Tuesday.

Gaddafi has not been seen in public since May, reduced to being an audio president.

The man bankrolled several African presidents from the smaller and poor countries; invested his country’s oil billions in several economic projects all over the continent; and splashed even more of it on his plan for a United States of Africa.

Now that he is about to be history, questions are being asked whether the new Libyan government will keep up his big pan-African project.

Indeed, ever since the wave of “Arab Uprising” revolts ousted Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January and Egypt’s Mubarak a month later, the relationship between the mainly Arab North of Africa and its “sub-Sahara” south part have gained prominence.


One issue that has been discussed more than the rest is whether the North African uprisings can happen with the same result in sub-Sahara Africa.

To begin with Gaddafi’s United States of Africa project, it is impossible to see the government that succeeds him investing as much money and time into it as the colonel did.

However, that might be a good thing. Gaddafi’s first mistake was to think he could buy African integration.

The second was to be oblivious to the egos of his fellow African presidents.

He treated them like they were children, and tried to bully them into buying into his timetable for the formation of the United States of Africa.

The result is that the presidents who most supported the idea, like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, baulked partly because they thought Gaddafi was being disrespectful.

If the new government shuts up about the United States of Africa, or goes about it with a whisper, it is more likely to make more progress than Gaddafi.

You can say, then, that Gaddafi’s departure could be a boon for African unity.

But even without that, what has happened in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt has shifted the narrative about African politics in a progressive direction.

The division of the continent between the Arab North and sub-Sahara Africa is a myth that found reality in fact much later.

Thus the Arab North was supposed to be a region of fanatic Islamic fundamentalists, who would chop off the heads of the infidels in the rest of Africa at the first chance. However, the uprisings there have been led by largely secular forces.

Secondly, most discussions about democracy in Africa always excluded the Arab North as a matter of course, because it was assumed that Arabs were incapable of democracy — the rulers could never grant it, nor did the people want it enough to fight for it.

Now we know that this is not true. African Arabs want democracy, and are willing to die for it, as much as African Africans (does something like that exist?).

My sense, then, is that the events of the last seven months in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have demonstrated more similarities than differences between Arab Africa and sub-Sahara Africa.

What is happening in Libya today first happened in Africa in 1986 when the National Resistance Army rebels led by Museveni seized power in Uganda. Arabs, in that sense, arrived at the party 24 years late.

I see a possible new pattern. If the Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans manage to establish relatively free and democratic societies, a new division will emerge in Africa.

We shall have a new map in which the most democratic and wealthy nations in Africa are the bottom of the continent (South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Zambia), and its tip (Tunisia, Egypt. Libya).

The poor and repressive ones will be clustered in the middle. Sub-Sahara Africa as a political and economic concept will make less sense, and new classifications will have to be found.

The North African revolts tell us that Africans want the same things, and have a common view of politics.

I was one of those who early in the year asked whether the Arab revolt could spread to the rest of Africa. I was mistaken. I asked the wrong question.

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