Saturday, 22 October 2011

Death of Muammar Gaddafi: the Curse of Oil

Muammar Gaddafi is gone. He is not just history; he is biology and chemistry. The longest ruling non-royal in the history of modern world was dragged out of the drain pipe in which he was hiding (after the convoy in which he was travelling was  bombed by the NATO forces) by the rebel forces which pursued his convoy out of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town where he was holing out for the past few weeks. The former dictator who was crowned in 2008 as the king of kings was then murdered with a bullet in his head; he was also shot in the chest and abdomen. His body was then dragged through the streets by the forces which are calling themselves liberators of Libiya and promising a new dawn, and which are supported by a number of European nations, notably France and Britain.

The Russians are not happy about this. They have believed for a while that they were duped by the mendacious European nations into not vetoing the action in Libya. They also believe that NATO forces clearly exceeded the UN mandate which was to ensure that civilians be protected. The Russian spokesman has formally accused the NATO forces of acting illegally when they bombed the convoy travelling out of Sirte as no civilians were demonstrably at risk of harm.

The Russians have a point (which they perhaps feel they need to make as countries like Britain have availed themselves of the opportunities in recent times to teach the Russians lessons in morality). Needless to say, though, that these concerns will not be answered by the European nations. Which will be par for the course seeing as one of the European countries meddling into Libyan strife, Britain, even before the UN mandate, tried to smuggle weapons, false passports and currency into that country. (When the ‘mission’ was intercepted, the ridiculous William Hague had the gall to make the ridiculous claim that it was a diplomatic mission.)

On the day of what was essentially an extra-judicial killing of Gaddafi by the ‘liberation forces’ which some of the European countries (e.g. France) hastened to declare as the legitimate government even as the civil war was raging in that country, I watched on Question Time smirking politicians across parties lining up to make trumphalist jingoistic noises (‘A bad man has come to a bad end and we are proud of our role in his downfall’ etc.)

The same day came the spectacularly distasteful advice from the British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, to the British firms that they pack their suitcases and head for Libya to secure contracts. These guys really have no shame or decency. Every time they open their gobs it is to say vile things which offend senses and intelligence.

The idiots in the previous Labour government fondly thought that Britain would secure contracts to rebuild Iraq after she had played a major role in destroying that country. Leaving aside the questionable morale of this, that did not even happen. The contracts were grabbed by the Americans and Chinese (and the brave Americans who had no stomach for sending their civilians into what had become an extremely dangerous region, subcontracted Indians in Iraq as also in Afghanistan.)

If what is reported in British media has any truth in it, the death of Gaddafi is generally met with great fanfare and joy and happiness in Libya.

As you watched barely adolescent boys roaming on the streets of Tripoli in frenzy, totting AK  47 and firing into the skies as if they were bursting crackers, you wondered whether this was the same city which, in a different era and different times, was renowned for its libraries and books. It is noted that the Libyan king in the 13th century, when he defeated Christian hordes, demanded books rather than material wealth from the defeated nations.

It is all very sad: a country that once was a beacon of civilization has sunk to a level where a dead ruler’s body is dragged through the streets and his death is celebrated in a manner that would make any civilized person hang his head in shame.

If we look at the more recent history, Libya was a part of the mighty Ottoman empire up to the nineteenth  century, despite its periodic attempts to be free of its fetters. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapacious Europeans, in particular Italy and France (in case of Libya), looking to loot the region and fleece it off its wealth, did what other European nations (like Britain and Holland) had done in other parts of the world. With scant regard for the opinions and wishes of the people the European powers divided the region amongst themselves by signing treaties (as if that made it alright). Italy controlled Tripoli and Cyrenaica. The rest of the region was divided amongst other European vultures like Britain and France. In the 1910s there was even a minor war between Italy and the declining Ottoman Empire (Turkey) over this region. Interestingly, if one reads some of the accounts of that war, one finds out that the war that had begun between Italy and Turkey, ended with Italians fighting and killing Tripolians.

During the First World War, which was essentially a European war, different parts of what a few decades later would become Libya fought against each other, not because they had any animus amongst themselves but because the European nations controlling the regions were fighting against each other.

There is no dearth of jingoistic British ‘historical books’ giving accounts of the war between General Rommel and the British 8th division during the second world war. Suffice it to say that, like the First World War, this was essentially a European conflict in which this part of Africa got involved only because it was controlled by European powers. (The British forced tens of thousands of Indians (who died needlessly)  to fight in the Second World War even though the Indians had nothing to do with the shenanigans in Europe; indeed they had come to hate the British rule so much that they wanted the British to get out.)

When the Second World War ended it was Britain who controlled Tripoli and Cyrenaica while the French controlled Fezzan. 

Eventually, in 1951, Libya as we know it today came into existence. Landlocked on all sides save one, Libya is an African country that also has links (religious) with Arabia.

King Idris became the ruler of the newly created country which was not on the radar of the European countries or the newly emerging superpower, America.

That all changed in 1959. Oil was discovered in Libya. Suddenly America developed an interest in the region. America had already twisted arms of the Saudi King (Mohammad Bin Ibd Saud) to sign a 60-year treaty (the battle ships sent by Roosevelt to the Suez canal went a long way towards the Saudi King swiftly making up his mind) wholly favourable to America, and now similar tactics were used in Libya.

It may oversimplification, but the Western powers essentially took unfair advantage of these relatively less developed regions of the world, and exploited them. The rulers of these countries had no agenda beyond accumulating personal wealth and self-aggrandizement and were bought. In return the regions became legally and officially open to the multinationals to dig for oil. This is what happened in Libya.

This was also a period marked  by Arab nationalism. Gamal Abdel Nasser with his anti-American Arab nationalism inspired many in the region. He became the idol for many in the region. One of them was Muammar Gaddafi, who came to the conclusion that the only way to stop the looting of his country by the Western Powers which King Idris was allowing was to remove Idris from the power.

On 1 September 1969 Gaddafi engineered a bloodless coup and Idris was removed. Thus began the regin of Gaddafi that would last for 42 years and end with bloodbath and destruction of the country. Along the way Gaddafi, who wanted to stop the wealth of his country being siphoned off, himself became corrupted by the absolute power he came to yield over his vast country.

That Gaddafi became a tyrant and began abusing human rights in his country is without a doubt. It is also beyond doubt that the Western powers became very concerned about it only after Gaddafi became too big for his boots and started creating obstacles in Western multinationals' plans to dig oil from Libya and generate profits of billions of dollars. One wonders whether America would have been so concerned about Gaddafi’s abysmal human rights record if he had not (as if on a whim and without any warning) nationalised the American companies in Libya in the 1980s.

Until Gaddafi was favouring the Western oil companies nobody cared what he did in Libya. Gaddafi’s grandiloquent plans in the region (remember his quest to unite Libya and Egypt in order to combine the oil-wealth of Libya and the population and skills of Egypt?), his pan-Arab ambitions, and his economic alternatives to the Capitalist and Communist systems (he turned Libya, officially, into the Great Jamahiriyah, which meant State of the Masses; he expounded in his ‘Green Book’ how formation of committees everywhere would supplant the need of any form of government; and in his second volume dedicated to solving ‘economic problems’ he envisaged  a society that banished the profit motive and made money redundant) made many wonder whether the Libyan ruler’s connection with reality was becoming faulty. 

It was never going to work. Gaddafi’s pan-Arab ambitions were frustrated; Egypt which was an ally became a vicious enemy that fought a border war. Gaddafi now turned to more and more propaganda and openly started supporting what he described as ‘revolutionary outfits’ and the West described as terrorist organizations. He became America’s public enemy number one when he rejected American sponsored peace process in the region.

It was around this time that Ronald Reagan, a second rate actor of B grade Hollywood movies, who had become America’s president (and was probably showing early signs of senility) described Gaddafi as ‘the mad dog of Africa’ (very classy). From this point onwards an image of Gaddafi as an unhinged, slightly buffoonish, but nevertheless sinister, villain took roots in the psych of many in the West (reinforced by images of Gaddafi's near-zombified face). 

I heard the (equally buffoonish) BBC presenter John Simpson (who has the knack making himself the hero, somehow, of any conflict he is covering) on BBC Radio 4. Simpson who interviewed Gaddafi on many occasions said that in his view Gaddafi was totally barking. He (Gaddafi) was apparently on so many pills towards the end (according to Simpson) that it took him half an hour to take them all. (This seems like a typical Simpson exaggeration.) I read in the Guardian that a ‘soldier’ of the rebel forces which captured Gaddafi and killed him said that in his last moments Gaddafi was ‘blabbering like an idiot.’ Apparently Gaddafi was repeatedly saying, ‘What is going on? Where am I? What have I done?’ The ‘soldier’ said they could not believe this was the same man who had ruled Libya for 42 years.

It is also true that towards the end Gaddafi's public utterances became increasingly erratic, and it was difficult to make up one's mind whether he was being sarcastic or just incoherent. In his 2009 speech to the United Nations, Gaddafi accused the UN for failing to prevent a total of 65 wars; he demanded that Security Council had too much power and should be abolished (some sense in that; why are countries like France and Britain still permanent members of the security council? It does not reflect the changing power equation in the world); and also demanded that European powers pay their former colonies 7.7 trillion dollars in compensation or else face mass immigration. (He had a point, although how he had arrived at the figure of $7.7 trillion was not clear.) 

Gaddafi  is frequently accused in the West of sponsoring terrorist acts (e.g. Lockerby bombing). According to WikiPedia, as early as 1969 British Special Air Force was planning to assassinate Gaddafi in an operation dubbed ‘Hilton Assignment’, but the plan was called off at the last minute because United States (Britain was America’s lackey even then) pulled the plug, deciding that Gaddafi was ant-Communist and therefore acceptable. The dement Reagan famously bombed Gaddafi’s compound in 1986 in the full knowledge that several civilians would be killed along with Gaddafi (Gaddafi survived, having left the compound shortly before the bombing, after being tipped, but his adopted daughter was killed.). A renegade British Intelligence officer (who was hounded out of Britain) claimed that MI6 had assigned hundreds of thousands of pounds in the 1990s to assassinate Gaddafi. All these assassination plots were hatched in countries which claim to be civilised and democratic. The secret services and air forces and armies are ultimately accountable to politicians. If Gaddafi was a terrorist for the activities of individuals in Libyan intelligence (as in Lockerby bombing) what do these failed assassination attempts on Gaddafi make the Western politicians who must have known about (and in all probabilities authorized) them? Murderers? Terrorists?

The irony of course is that Gaddafi (like Saddam Hussain in Iraq) was also hated by Islamic extremists as well and a few of the attempts on his life were carried out by Islamic extremist organizations.

Ultimately it comes down to oil. If Libya did not have oil nobody would have cared what went on in that country. (Do any of the countries, always eager to invade oil-rich nations care about what is going on in Burma or Zimbabwe?) Libya alone is pouring millions of barrels of oil every day into the world; the oil is of such quality that not a great of expenditure is needed to purify it. If Gaddafi had been content in remaining the poodle of the Western powers and allowed the Western multinationals to dig oil and make profits worth billions of dollars, no one would have cared what he got up to in his desert country.

It is the curse of oil.