GADDAFI’S CALDRON AND OUR COCKTAIL

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 9 Feb 2009

The Gambia Journal - Editorial

The Heads of State Summit of the African Union ended Wednesday 4th February leaving a bitter after-taste in the mouths of many proponents of a new African Renaissance.  In his inaugural speech as new African Union (AU) chairman, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi said that multi-party democracy in Africa leads to bloodshed. Speaking at the AU summit in Ethiopia, Col Gaddafi said Africa was essentially tribal and political parties became inevitably tribalized, which he said led to bloodshed. He concluded the best model for Africa was to be found in his own country, where opposition parties are not allowed and he had served as erratic autocrat for nearly forty years.  

Col Gaddafi has been making pronouncements to this effect for as long as anyone can remember.  In the heat of the Cold War, he even propounded this in the so-called Green Book which claimed to have invented a Third Way that was different from the advertised models of both warring parties. But while his words stroke some anti-colonial chords in the hearts of many Africans then, today they sound out of tune with the democratic aspirations of hundreds and millions of Africans.

Most countries on the continent are experimenting with political democracy today and only Libya and Eritrea remain the few truly one party-states, but even tyrannical regimes in Ethiopia, Gambia, and Guinea Equatorial have to pretend being multi-party states. Even Gaddafi’s Libya cannot claim to have been completely unaffected by the new wind of change.

Over the last several years, his regime did not only disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, it was pressured into introducing some reforms that included ones that aimed at loosening the suffocating air of repression that weighed down on all aspects of Libyan life. The Gaddafi regime went out of its way to appease the Benghazi-based political opposition by releasing prisoners and relaxing police surveillance on them.

This is one of the reasons why many feel disappointed with his remarks on democracy. The other is that he has been made AU Chairman in an institution that has over the years tried to extend the frontiers of Democracy in Africa by having institutions like the Pan-African Parliament, peer review mechanisms and that appears to be interested in promoting respect for human rights and civil liberties. At a time when his initiated move towards a continental union government is on the lime light, his fascistoidal anti-democratic statements must be alarming.       

At the final press conference of the summit on Wednesday, Col Gaddafi sought to back up his argument by citing other countries like Kenya, where elections in December 2007 were followed by ethnic killings, and war-torn Somalia. “We don’t have any political structures [in Africa], our structures are social," he was reported to have said. "Our parties are tribal parties – that is what has led to bloodshed." But this in no way invalidates the system of multi-party democracy or justifies despotism. In spite of almost 30 years of iron-fisted one-man rule the age-old antipathies among people of Sabha, Tripolitanians and those of the Benghazi region continue to be a most significant undertone of Libyan politics and public life.

Gaddafi is detested by almost everyone from the Benghazi region, perhaps also because of his tyrannical rule, but also on the basis of ethnic sentiments and regional particularism. Africa is a cocktail of ethnic groups, as Mazrui will say, but in Gaddafi’s view it is a bubbling caldron of tribes that cannot sustain political systems much less those that tolerate pluralism, and that allow the diverse views to solidify into political parties. A multi-party dispensation is a leveled playing field where these divergent views freely and fairly contest for political power to put into practice their ideas.  

Though the contest should be about the quality of ideas, it is necessarily of numbers, an arithmetical contention with victory given to one with most votes.  Politicians may go out with ideas but they almost always also go for numbers and whatever can entice potential voters even if it means playing the ethnic card. This may be repugnant to many, but it is understandable and must be tolerated until voters grow out of the ethnic hang-up.

This may take its time, but there is little that can be done about it other than the political education that comes with progressive reform or the gradual evolution of nation building and there is no environment that facilitates this development better than a democratic dispensation. Brute force may help calm down the bubble of the caldron but it cannot extinguish it, only a free and fair environment can enhance the stake that citizens feel they have in the nation state that can change the frightful caldron into a cocktail of diversities that enriches and deserves celebration.

We therefore disagree strongly with Gaddafi’s tirades against political democracy and do think that he is hardly fit to take the seat of the African Union, be it a Commission or an Authority, much less, the dreamt of continental union government.

The days of despotism are numbered, the prolonged but maturing yearning of peoples for freedoms and greater liberty, our natural appeal for what is fair, recent advances in technology that keep on breaking the pockets of seclusion, and the force of globalization have combined to make the call for democracy irresistible.

There may be some occasional backtracking here and there, as has occurred in July 1994 when The Gambia tumbled from the hands of the Jawara-regime to those of the Jammeh regime, but these are just temporal and episodic instances that cannot  stop the long march to freedom and democracy, Gaddafi should know.  

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