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LIBYA: ‘‘King of Kings’’ Gaddafi Tries to Flex Regional Muscles

Michael Deibert

PARIS, Apr 24 2009 (IPS) - Former pariah and now Europe’s cautious partner, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi seems determined to flex new-found diplomatic muscles on issues ranging from trade to regional security, North Africa observers say.

Elected to a one-year term to lead the 53-nation African Union (AU) in February, Gaddafi has been acting energetically in that role and in his capacity as the guiding force behind the Communauté des Etats Sahélo-Sahariens (Community of Sahel-Saharan States, or CEN-SAD).

Promoting an idiosyncratic brand of pan-continental leadership, Gaddafi has been welcomed back into the European Union’s (EU) good books after Libya announced in 2003 that it was abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

He has made his presence felt in recent months on a host of subject affecting relations between Europe and Africa.

Gaddafi has become a regular visitor in European capitals in recent years promoting, among other measures, the creation of a 250-million euro fund to fight poverty in the Northern African region. It was proposed at a February CEN-SAD meeting in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.

In February, the EU’s commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, travelled to Libya seeking to improve energy and trade relations between the two zones.


The two governments are currently in the midst of thorny negotiations to eventually ink trade deals called economic partnership agreements to govern trade in goods, services and investments. Libya’s recent acceptance to the World Trade Organisation will likely smooth the process.

‘‘Libya is seen increasingly as being an acceptable partner, quite apart from its domestic behaviour,’’ says George Joffe, the director of the Centre for North African Studies at the University of Cambridge in England.

Such high-level contacts mark a personal victory in the quest for international acceptance by Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 military coup that toppled Libya’s King Idris.

They also mark a stark turnaround from Libya’s relations with Europe and the United States over the past two decades when a litany of terrorist incidents were blamed by the former on the Gaddafi regime.

These included the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, which killed 270 people and resulted in the conviction of a former Libyan intelligence officer.

Following the bombing of a Berlin disco which killed three people and injured over 200, the United States launched an air assault on Libya which is thought to have killed at least 15 people, including Gaddafi’s adopted 15-month-old daughter, Hanna Gaddafi.

However, following the decommissioning of Libya’s nuclear program, the U.S. lifted long-standing economic sanctions against Libya and removed the country from its list of state-sponsors of terrorism, steps mirrored by the EU.

The creation of CEN-SAD, initially formed in 1998 with a membership of six and having since mushroomed to encompass 28 nations ranging from Tunisia to Liberia, is instrumental to Gaddafi’s current goals, many believe.

‘‘This is a project that is entirely designed to push Libya forward as a significant African state,’’ says Joffe. ‘‘Libya will provide the funding, Libya will disperse the funding, Libya will benefit when the projects are created.’’

In the last year, Gaddafi has increasingly sought to deepen political and economic links between the AU and CEN-SAD.

During a March visit to Guinea Bissau, for example, Gaddafi announced that CEN-SAD would be joining the AU in an inquiry into the assassinations of Guinea Bissau President Joao Bernardo Vieira and the country’s army chief General Batista Tagm Na Wai.

Nevertheless, some observers see the very rapidly growth of CEN-SAD as presenting a problem.

‘‘CEN-SAD is virtually half the membership of the African Union but it doesn’t have any clear regional focus like the (16 member) Economic Community Of West African States,’’ says Dr. J. Peter Pham, a long-time observer of North Africa who serves as the Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Virginia, U.S..

The creation of CEN-SAD is perhaps best greeted with caution as Gaddafi’s history in Africa itself, though not as well known as some of the spectacular acts of international terrorism, still makes for grim reading.

The Libyan leader served as one of the key initial backers of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) during Liberia’s 1989-1996 civil war, a period during which the NPFL was accused of committing gross human rights abuses against Liberia’s civilian population.

Taylor is currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the 1991-2002 civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone itself, senior figures in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel faction accused of the majority of war crimes in that country’s conflict, attended guerrilla training camps in Libya.

Gaddafi has also been accused by critics of playing an early role in creating the conditions that brought about the conflict raging in Sudan’s western Darfur region – which has killed over 300,000 people – by helping to create the Arab supremacist organisation Tajamu al-Arabi.

This is a group that announced that its intention was to empty the region of ‘‘African’’ tribes.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last month, accusing him of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.

At a recent AU summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Gaddafi cited the ICC’s indictment of al-Bashir as indicative of a ‘‘new world terrorism’’ and a desire by the European powers to ‘‘recolonise’’ their former spheres of influence.

Libya’s internal political dynamics have also remained controversial.

New York-based international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch enumerates various violations in its September 2008 report ‘‘Libya: Rights at Risk’’: ‘‘the continued arrests and incarceration of political prisoners, some of them ‘disappeared’; the torture of detainees; the absence of a free press; the ban on independent organisations; and violations of women’s and foreigners’ rights.’’

Human Rights Watch also criticised Libya’s political system as being ‘‘dominated by one leader, who tolerates no unsanctioned criticism of his rule’’.

Though on the surface more circumspect about his ambitions than the expansionist firebrand that he personified in years past, Gaddafi continues to provide strident opinions at often otherwise-sedate international gatherings.

At a June 2008 summit of North African officials in Tripoli, he lashed out at the then-nascent Union of the Mediterranean (initiated a month later by French President Nicolas Sarkozy), calling the body a threat to Arab and African unity.

Only last month, Gaddafi stormed out of an Arab summit in Qatar after denouncing Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, calling him a ‘‘British product and American ally’’ before proclaiming himself ‘‘the dean of the Arab rulers’’ and the ‘‘king of kings of Africa’’.

 
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