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Gaddafi’s Libya (and mine): Part Six



After an interval of some weeks, readers will be relieved (or alarmed) to discover that I have now got my head around the task of continuing my account of life in Libya under the Gaddafi regime. Some of this will be in the form of personal anecdote – for example, of a trip to the Fezzan (southern Libya), where I re-encountered my beloved Sahara. There will be some missing detail here, as I have mislaid my Libya notebooks and my recall isn’t as sharp as it once was. I’m going to end with an account of the 1986 bombing of Libya by the Western powers and its aftermath, both of which I recall in anxiety-inducing detail. And I’m going to begin with an attempt at a balance sheet, summarizing the admirable and the evil aspects of the regime. First, let it be said that, whatever depths the regime sank to, Western foreign policy towards Gaddafi was, as with Western policy towards the Middle East, chronically defective. I don’t understand the reasons for this, as the UK in particular is reputed to have excellent intelligence services. However low the Gaddafi regime could sink, if the West seriously believed that its downfall would result in the establishment of a Western-leaning liberal democracy, they were utterly deluded. You only have to look at a handful of news reports from the last few years to understand what a political cesspit and humanitarian disaster – and what a breeding-ground for international terrorism – the place has become. It is one of the world’s worst failed states. Of all the despicable comments made by Western leaders over the last few decades one of the worst – and most myopic – must have been Hillary Clinton’s Caesar-like pronouncement on Gaddafi’s death: “We came. We saw. We killed him.” The admirable side of the Gaddafi regime had mostly to do with the initiatives of the early years, before Gaddafi’s eventual slide into folie-de-grandeur and depravity. The regime established what must surely have been the strongest welfare state in Africa. There were massive building projects to provide everyone with modern low-cost housing, complete with 24/7 water and electricity supply, a luxury I never enjoyed during all my years in Nigeria. The road system was one of the best in Africa (though full marks also to the trans-Sahara highway and to some of Lesotho’s amazing mountain roads). This meant that people could travel around without seriously damaging their vehicles or their spinal chords. There was free education at every level, including places for political exiles and economic refugees and their children from elsewhere in Africa and the Arab world. Education did, however, include a substantial dose of propaganda, namely training in the precepts of Gaddafi’s part-bonkers Third Universal Theory, as enshrined in the Green Book (I took you through that in one of my earlier columns). There was also free healthcare, with hospitals, polyclinics and pharmacies set up all over the place. And then there was agriculture. Libya is mostly inhospitable to this, as the south is full of desert and the long coastal northern strip is saline. But things could be done. There were two types of farmland. One was communal, the upkeep of which was the responsibility of the local community. The other was farmed by waged workers, predominantly economic migrants from West Africa, who saw Libya as a primary refuge. Gaddafi wasn’t happy with the country’s progress in agriculture, especially when an economic blockade by the West made food imports difficult. During the very long speech by him I attended (because I was a member of the translation team: see one of my earlier columns) he let rip on the subject. He reminded his audience that after the downfall of Mussolini’s colonial regime, Italians stayed on to farm the land they had seized. There was, apparently, a huge farm near Tripoli run by a Comtessa (Italian for Countess), which produced the most marvelous fruit and vegetables. “You Libyans are so lazy!” screeched Gaddafi. “If you don’t mend your ways, I shall invite the Comtessa back to oppress you!” (“Yes, please,” murmured one of my Libyan colleagues). For the coastal strip the installation of desalination plants was an option, but apparently this is very expensive and unreliable (I can’t tell you more, as I’m not a water engineer). So Gaddafi came up with the audacious idea of the Great Man-Made River Project (I’m not sure which noun the Great was supposed to qualify, but you can guess who the Man was). This involved digging an immense tunnel and installing a huge pipe in it to bring to coastal Libya billions of gallons of fossil water from way underground in Sudan (I’m not sure what Sudan felt about this, but I believe compensation was paid for buildings that fell down as the tunnel was being bored). I was one of those who helped pay for the project, as a hefty GM-MR Project tax was slapped on all international air tickets. As a thank you I received with each of my tickets a garish sticker boasting a portrait of Gaddafi and the image of a massive length of pipeline gushing water. I must still have them stashed away somewhere. Wonder if they’re worth anything? To be continued Chris Dunton

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