Col Muammar Gaddafi will be remembered in the world’s history books as one of the longest serving rulers, and many would say, one of the strangest. Muammar Gaddafi was a military officer and the de-facto leader of Libya from 1969 until his death in 2011. He seized power in a coup, preparing the ground for a unique way of ruling his country. During his four decade-long reign, it’s fair to say Gaddafi was an enigma.
Right after assuming power, Gaddafi made a couple of reforms like establishing and reinforcing free healthcare and free education, which considerably improved the quality of life in Libya.The state maintained a higher literacy rate than most other countries in the area thanks to education investment. Unfortunately, expenditures in developing other government services and infrastructure were highly neglected throughout Gaddafi’s rule. The colonel did not hesitate to invest in increasing military capability, which is why Libya found itself in constant military confrontations with neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Chad.
It has been argued that this military overspending was motivated by Gaddafi’s megalomaniacal interests and his mission of ‘fighting against colonialism and neocolonialism’, a crusade which was perpetuated during Gaddafi’s rule. Despite his ambitious efforts, as soon as he died, Libya’s government was undermined and, although the country had a considerable amount of oil reserves, these weren’t enough to cover basic services due to poor infrastructure and heavily corrupted military organisations.
When it comes to foreign affairs Gaddafi was considered a ‘terror sponsor’ by some, as he provided financial and political support to several terrorist organisations. Moreover, Gaddafi gained a notorious reputation as he accepted responsibility for various terrorist attacks, while claiming they were cowardly acts committed by foreigners in order to discredit Libya.
Gaddafi’s violent reactions to demonstrations, led to global condemnation on the violence present in Libya. This caused the ‘Arab spring’, in which a wave of civil protests spread across countryside cities, such as Magrhib, Nalut and Zinta, sparking a revolution that eventually led to the death of Gaddafi.
Once the world witnessed Gaddafi’s unexpected death, debates stirred among political and international experts as to how such an unpredictable and powerful person could remain in power for so long. Some believed that the way Gaddafi treated his people played an important role on his ability to remain a leader for 42 years. By maintaining indirect control over the media, Gaddafi was able to halt foreign reporters from entering the country and to hide the government’s malpractice from the outside world. Additionally, he perpetuated oppressive tactics, such as mercenaries and secret police, providing the way for a total injustice.
Gaddafi came to power keen on increasing economic and social justice, with oil being the main economic cornerstone within Libya’s economy. Most energy investments came under the state’s control, which led to over 50% of jobs and 80% of GDP being created by state-owned organisations. This also led to wealth being concentrated among the bureaucracy instead of benefitting the people. In addition, Gaddafi’s control of the foreign currency exchange rate boosted imports while undermining exports, further centralising state funds.
The Libyan economy was heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, which led to the production of a rentier state in 1973. This increased Libya’s economic standing in the region, eventually leading to the globalisation of the Libyan economy and encouraging foreign investment to the country.
However, Libya greatly lacked transparency and accountability regarding government funds and funds from oil revenue were most likely used to finance military ambitions. Gaddafi restricted the public from joining political parties, organized groups or engaging in any type of public demonstration.
This lack of economic decentralization caused a dependence on a few central players, who were ultimately responsible for the government’s spending. This lack of control led to inflated military investments at the expense of other important sectors, such as agriculture and education.
On the world stage, Gaddafi was both respected and reviled. On one hand, he made efforts to increase influence in foreign policy, such as playing an integral role in facilitating peace efforts between Israel and Palestine. Furthermore, he was critical of the Western approach to problems such as those in Iraq, and the belief within NATO that pre-emptive strikes were justified.
It is fair to say, however, that Gaddafi’s reputation has been primarily marred by allegations of human rights abuses, terrorist platforming and oppression. His absolute control over the economy and complete militarisation of the state ultimately contributed to his international isolation. While Gaddafi presented a revolutionary rhetoric to the international community, his domestic policies were centered on maintaining an absolute level of control over ordinary citizens.
For example, Gaddafi became notorious for his oppressive tactics, with reports of secret police detaining and torturing people, as well as setting up dangerous vigilante squads to crack down on dissidents.
Despite the occasional truce and various diplomatic outreach initiatives, Gaddafi left behind a legacy of strongly divided opinions. To some extent, he was seen as a revolutionary leader, looking out for Libyan people and international justice, while to others he was a ruthless dictator and a modern-day Pharaoh.
Gaddafi was considered responsible for reforming Libya’s political structure by dismantling the ruling monarchy and creating a unique system of ruling. According to Gaddafi, this new political structure, which he named the ‘Jamahiriya System’, was based on the people’s direct involvement in decision making. However, the reality is that Gaddafi held all the power, being the sole leader of the country. He established a system in which the decision making process was highly concentrated, allowing the colonel to have ultimate control of his government.
Among the main characteristics of this political system, there was the elimination of multiple civil and political rights, leading to the suppression of all opposition. This political order was maintained by a sophisticated population control system created by Gaddafi, which incorporated the use of surveillance, mercenaries and secret police to oppress dissidents.
All these characteristics made Gaddafi’s dictatorship much more absolute than other dictatorships of the time. He ended up becoming a self-proclaimed leader of the Libyan people, a title that remained in place for almost forty years, until Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011.
Campaign For Change
In February 2011, public uprisings against Gaddafi’s government began, which eventually led to the formation of a National Transitional Council and the National Council of the Transitional Government. This public upheaval is what eventually drove Gaddafi from power.
Despite the attempt of Gaddafi and his forces to violently crack down on the dissidents, Libyans were able to come together and eventually form a unified stance against their leader. Opposition groups, including a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, coalesced to stand against Gaddafi’s rule.
The power of the people was brought to bear and eventually overtook the oppressive structure built by Gaddafi, allowing Libyans to rebuild their nation and form a new government. The country is still actively in the process of returning to stability.
Gaddafi’s legacy is hard to determine as opinions differ widely in regard to his time as leader of Libya. Many see his years of rule as a period of heavy oppression and disregard for human rights, while some of his supporters still cite his efforts in establishing a welfare state and advancing development.
What is clear, however, is that Gaddafi caught the world’s attention with his charismatic calls for revolution and daring schemes for revolutionising the area within a matter of just a few years. He is remembered today as a modern-day dictator who wielded absolute power and refused to yield despite growing global pressure.
Gaddafi built his own powerful image by presenting himself as a competent, determined and charismatic leader. He worked towards reforming Libya and providing a better quality of life for its citizens. Gaddafi also sought to establish independence from the Western powers, firmly believing that the power of a strong and independent nation would come from within.
Apart from his sole leadership of Libya, Gaddafi was a master orator and built an identity of one-man-rule in the country. Many of his supporters looked up to him as a vital weapon in the fight against colonialism and foreign occupation.
Gaddafi supported various liberation movements around the world, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the African National Congress (ANC) and the African Union (AU). He held summits and talks with many leaders, including Idi Amin, the late President of Uganda, Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO, and even the late US President, Ronald Reagan.
Gaddafi also co-founded the African Union, as well as several other pan-African initiatives. He invested heavily in foreign aid programmes and was a driving force in the promotion of peace and stability in Africa. He remains a symbol of African defiance against foreign intervention and his death marked the end of an era.