Ratnakar Sadasyula
Libya and the legacy of Gadaffi
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

With the capture of Saif Gadaffi, one can safely assume that the Gadaffi’s family chapter has been closed in Libya for now. Again this article is about a place with which I have a personal connect. Yep my father worked for 5 years in Libya as a doctor, and yours truly was there for 2 years too. There was a fairly large Indian community in Libya during that time, and we did have a good bonding, with lot of picnics, cultural events etc, anyway that is another story altogether.

So was Col Gadaffi good or bad? Reminds me of that famous scene from Nayagan, when Kamal’s grandson asks him are you good or bad, he just shakes his head not knowing what to say. Hard to classify him, but for sure, he ran one of the most brutal dictatorships ever. I was just a kid of 11 yrs, but still could make out the atmosphere of fear. We were not supposed to recite his name in public, even out of praise. My father worked as an Army doctor, and some of the tales he told of prisoners bought to him for treatment were harrowing. Gadaffi, was inspired by the Soviets, and ran a KGB style intelligence setup. Wives spying on husbands, sons on their dads, dads on their sons, yep it was all there. Families disappeared in the midnight to god knows where. Politically it was a brutal dictatorship, that would do Saddam or Idi Amin proud.

But then Libya had something called as Oil. What Gadaffi did was to nationalize the Western oil firms, and plough back the revenues into the development of Libya. Gadaffi acted smart, he used foreign expertise for the oil wells, while ensuring the Govt had a major stake in it, roughly around 70% of it. And in turn he ploughed back the revenues into the social and economic development. Libya was the richest nation in Africa, period, after South Africa, thanks to it’s oil wealth and also Gadaffi’s smart utilization of the revenues. While a devout follower of Nasser, he followed an ideology that was a mix of pan Islamism, Baathist policies,socialism, something he called The 3rd International Theory. In effect the Govt, maintained full control over the economy, at the same time, allowing MNC’s to invest, with all the contracts going to his close buddies and network. Gadaffi discouraged private initiative and enterprise, and instead established a state owned network of retail markets, private firms, most of them owned by party members. While Gadaffi’s measures improved the health and life expectancy, as well as the literacy rates in Libya, it also resulted in a massive brain drain. The more talented Libyans emigrated en masse, most of them well educated technocrats and managers.

When I was in Libya, the divisions were clear, Russians and East Europeans had the key positions in the Govt, Indians, Pakistanis made up the educated middle class, and the migrants again mostly from South Asia and sub Saharan Africa. The native Libyans pretty much did nothing, they really did not have to work for a living, considering the Govt just about gave them everything free of cost, right from subsidized housing to current to water supply. The biggest challenge facing Libya now is to get back the talent pool, that has migrated abroad.

So what resulted in the fall of Gadaffi?

Gadaffi did plough the oil revenues well into the economy. But there was a hitch, it was the capital city Tripoli and the Western region that received the largest share of the cake. The eastern capital of Benghazi was neglected as was the Eastern region of the country. It is this place where the revolt started against Gadaffi, a place for which he had no love lost. Benghazi was always the neglected step child, and the resentment was simmering. There earlier had been a student revolt in Benghazi in 1984, which Gadaffi, brutally put down. To call it brutal would be an understatement, students were actually hanged live on TV, and the audiences were forced to watch it. Tripoli on the other hand, was the beneficiary of Gadaffi’s largesse, and one reason why for a major period of time, it stood solidly behind him.

 Another reason was Gadaffi’s military misadventures, he often saw himself as the leader of a Pan African union, and he actively played a role in toppling unfriendly regimes in the continent. He sent an army to Uganda to help out his pal Idi Amin, during the war with Tanzania, but the Libyan squad ended up as cannon fodder,where Amin’s army was routed fully. His army was actually beaten by Chad, which is pretty much the equivalent of the American army getting defeated by an army of the Dominican Republic. Chad is one of the dirt poor nations in Africa, and to be beaten by them, well it was a major embarrassment. There was a huge anger and resentment among ordinary Libyans, over being dragged into those military misadventures, which resulted in an unnecessary way of life. Add to all this, Gadaffi’s financing a large number of Islamist, Maoist style radical organizations all over the world, notably in Phillipines,Sudan. It was quite funny to hear people call Gadaffi secular, when in fact, he was the patron saint of a whole group of jihadi outfits all over the world. It was the American air attack after the 1986 Berlin club bombing and then the sanctions, that made him somewhat change his stance.

Gadaffi like many other dictators, finally fell a victim of his own delusions and egomania. We could debate about his gory end, but for many ordinary Libyans victims of his despotism and the victims of the jihadi attacks he financed, it would be a just revenge.