The Libya Mirage

August 30, 2011     
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This Sunday’s edition of the New York Times carries an article on how the grandiose splendor of the Gadhafis have been exposed now that the extensive ring of palaces and residences have been breached by the rebel coalition. It brought to mind my own personal experience with the life style and excessiveness of the regime during its heyday in power.

I had been asked by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to act as his envoy to try to resolve the bitter and debilitating border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a situation which caused a major breakdown in political, trade and economic relations in the Horn of Africa. In my view a contributing factor in the parlous state of famine and poverty that affects that region.

One of the techniques that I and Joe Stern (an experienced development advisor who had worked extensively in the region) employed was to try to persuade the leadership of African states to apply pressure to the respective and recalcitrant presidents of the two countries to come to the negotiating table.

In the midst of our efforts we were advised by UN headquarters that Gadhafi was hosting a meeting of African heads of state in his home city of Sirte, located in the Libyan desert and there were signs that he might be prepared to put the border impasse on the agenda. Talk about wishful thinking.

In any event, Joe and I made our way to Libya and soon found ourselves in a cavalcade of somewhat aged Mercedes racing down a deserted four-lane highway with security operatives in tow. Then on the horizon we saw what can only be described as a mirage inspired by the tale of Arabian Nights. A vast compound of pink marble buildings appeared signaling our arrival at the site of the conference and the beginning of one of the more bizarre experiences of my career.

We were first shuffled off to an empty villa with multiple rooms decorated in an extravagant and ostentatious array of furniture and artifacts, where we cooled our heels waiting our summons from the “Brother Leader”. We finally asserted ourselves and went to the palatial conference center where we were able to buttonhole several African leaders — who promised to take our brief to the meeting — resulting finally in being invited inside the hall where we were then treated to a diatribe by Gadhafi on the perfidy of the UN trying to stick its nose into African affairs, another example (in his mind) of western imperialism. That outburst led quickly to our decision to get out of town as soon as possible, chalking it up to the vagaries of UN envoyship.

On our way out we asked for a tour of Sirte as seen from outside the compound walls. The contrast couldn’t have been greater. Even though this was the beloved birthplace of the Gadhafi, it was as drab and impoverished as the other parts of Libya we visited –clearly it had not been a beneficiary of their leader’s largesse.

The point to be made is that the downfall of the Gadhafi regime, whatever the twists and turns yet too evolve in the governance of Libya, is to be applauded and supported in any way possible. Both for the sake of the people of Libya, and the hope that a different kind of leadership will arise that enables Libya to play a constructive role in working towards similar displacements of despots who abuse power and extravagantly consume resources purely to satisfy their mega egos, along with the greed of family and cronies who feed off the monopoly control of the instruments of the state.

This is also an appropriate opportunity for the Western leaders to reevaluate its policies when dealing with similar tyrants. If we are to position ourselves as the paragons of democracy, based on human rights and the rule of law, it remains in our future best interest not to prop up violent leaders such as Gadhafi. His excesses and those of others like him are merely reflections of our over focus on security and protection of oil interests.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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