Whenever most of us think of oil-rich, Arab-speaking countries, our imagination performs a trick with our sense of geography, placing us by default in the Middle East.
Of the three North African countries at the heart of the popular uprisings that have riveted the world over the last several weeks, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi has always done the most to assert his country’s African identity, staking its prestige, its riches and his own personal influence above all on its place in the continent.
As a deep-pocketed and sparsely populated state ever in need of labor, it has always made sense for Qaddafi to look south. Libya is far too small and peripheral for it to ever aspire to real influence in the Arab world. By comparison, the almost equally small but far poorer countries of nearby West Africa, wracked as they are with chronic misrule and instability, loom temptingly on the horizon as fruit ripe for picking.
Whatever our loose or flawed sense of geography tells us, things have always been thus. For at least 1,000 years, Morocco’s kingdoms have periodically thrust southward, establishing shape-shifting realms from present-day Niger all the way to Senegal.
Qaddafi’s big idea was to meld a modern, anti-Western, anti-imperial discourse with an impassioned pan-Africanism, an ideal that still resonates deeply across the continent.
For decades in Africa, Qaddafi has put his money where his mouth was: showering petro-dollars on favored clients, funding liberation groups, nurturing political movements, and even paying civil servants. To make sure that no one missed the message, he has often paid a huge portion of the operating costs of the continental body, the African Union.
The problem with Qaddafi’s pan-Africanism, like his rule in general is that it has steadily turned into a vessel for his megalomania.
As a reporter with a career-long association with the African continent, I have been in a rare position to witness this trend beginning with some of Qaddafi’s earliest African exploits.
In 1983, I scrambled from Ivory Coast to Chad to witness the breakout of war between French and Libyan forces there. Qaddafi had recently spoken of fully “integrating” his country with its southern neighbor.
I quickly found my way to the eastern front, where I watched the conflict from a desert foxhole with French soldiers as they spotted screaming, low-flying Jaguar fighter bombers pounding Libyan positions nearby. That same year, I traveled to Burkina Faso, where Qaddafi had flown to celebrate the seizure of power by a charismatic young army captain, Thomas Sankara, who he clearly saw as a promising understudy.