Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces this week pounded rebels as they moved on the strongman’s home city of Sirte, halting their rapid advance and scattering them into the desert.
A few days ago, with the colonel’s forces degraded by allied air-strikes, it seemed that it would only be a matter of days before rebels drove the eccentric and neurotic colonel out of the power he has held a record 42 years.
Ironically, for the long-term well-being of Libya, it is actually necessary and good that there be a long stalemate between Gaddafi’s army and the rebel forces. This is because easy victories, in general, never produce changes that are deep enough.
I think that is one reason why coups were such a disaster for Africa in the 1970s through to the 1990s. They were too easy.
A few mutinous soldiers could sleep-walk to the state radio station, seize it, announce they had overthrown the government, and the president would hightail it out of town.
Then a staff sergeant in dark glasses would announce that he was the new man in charge.
This is the story of most of Africa’s struggles. The serious phase of the anti-colonial movement lasted on average 10 years in most African countries.
Even the insurgencies that brought a new class of rebel leaders to power, as in Rwanda and Uganda, lasted about five years.
Two of Africa’s longest recent struggle was Eritrea’s, which went on for over 30 years, while South Sudan’s war of independence lasted 25 years.
Now, compared to five years, these would seem long. But are they? South Africa might provide an answer.
The anti-apartheid struggle spanned about 50 years, more than South Sudan, Rwanda, and Uganda combined.
A long struggle exacts a high price (and I would rather write about it than be part of it). Thousands die, millions are displaced, livelihoods are destroyed.
But it is a formidable process to sort out the truly committed from the opportunists and gamblers.
Usually, by the time the struggle enters 40 years, only the toughest and best will still be standing. The opportunists will mostly have been weeded out.
The leaders who emerge will have truly earned their place. And the thinking about what to do when you take power will have been refined.
Take South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela. After years of anti-apartheid activism, he was imprisoned and released in 1990 — after 27 years.
Then, in a first in Africa, after just five years in office, he walked away from it and did not seek a second term that he would have won easily with a huge majority.
Mandela, as the story goes, believed that sometimes you win by quitting — and by quitting, he set an impossible standard.
You have to spend 27 years in prison to think like that. Being in the bush even for 20 years doesn’t seem to get you into the “Mandela Zone”.
Secondly, we have this terrible disease of presidents clinging on to power well past their usefulness.
It would seem that it’s important for a leader to have something greater than the power he or she holds as president.
So what could possibly be greater than being president for 30 years? Probably it is the name you make for yourself before you become president.
Again, to the Mandela example. Though his presidency was hailed for his courage in crafting a “rainbow” nation, he would never really become greater as president than he was as a prisoner.
The legacy that Mandela had to protect was not that of his presidency but his leadership of the anti-apartheid movement from prison.
A man who is in the bush for five years is unlikely to find his glory in the forest.
He is more likely to find it in State House, so he overreaches and clings to power to write all the chapters he thinks should be in the story of his political life.
So the rebels in Libya should not get an easy victory over Gaddafi.
The fight needs to go on longer; the pain needs to continue for a while; the merely enthusiastic and excited fellows who are in the rebel camp need to be weeded out by a bloody fight. Post-Gaddafi Libya requires it.