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Libya: A Regime in its Death Throes

As Gaddafi seems poised to fall, Frank Afful looks back at the last few months in Libya.
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In Tripoli it’s not over yet. Events are moving quickly. At the time of writing, the Libyan rebels have made their way into the capital. There are pockets of resistance from armed supporters of Gaddafi and the army. Bab-al-Aziziya, Gaddafi’s compound and a powerful symbol of the regime, is now the stronghold the rebels need to take as soon as they can secure Tripoli. The rebels’ successful entry into Tripoli is a laudable achievement for them and underlines the determination of a people that have decided to live no longer under the totalitarian rule of Gaddafi. The rebels have to make more tough decisions because taking Bab-al-Aziziya will be difficult; Gaddafi’s whereabouts is unknown and reports of the capture of his sons have proven to be premature. Gaddafi himself could be in his compound in Tripoli, he could be in Sirte, or possibly out of the country. In the fight for Bab-al-Aziziya, the rebels have to decide if they are going to call for Nato’s air support. Or, the rebels could wait and regroup, secure the rest of Tripoli over the next two or three days and then begin an advance on Bab-al-Aziziya. At the time of writing there seems to be no clear plan in place yet. However, it is likely that the rebels will ask for Nato’s air support in this all-important final push.

Misplaced Threats

Nato has played a major role in this conflict by default, in the absence of decisive action by the African Union (AU). There is the big matter of oil in Libya. The West moves quickly where oil is at stake: compare Libya with Syria, where there are no major oil reserves to pay the West for helping the embattled Syrians. Gaddafi was already using his soldiers to kill rebels in the east of the country in his attempts to put the uprising down. By the time that the AU sent an airplane of officials for mediation, Britain, France and the US had a no-fly zone imposed over Libya and were flying sorties to support and save the lives of the rebels. The AU plane had to return. Many Africans objected to the bombardment of Libya by Nato, but African governments and the AU had offered no credible alternatives to help the rebels, save offering negotiations when Gaddafi had unleashed a violent attack on them.

Nato’s air power secured Benghazi and its residents and also prevented Gaddafi from using the country’s airforce against the people. Nato’s intervention prevented a bloodbath in Benghazi at the hands of Gaddafi’s army. Gaddafi, his sons and the officials that have propped up his administration never took the opportunity to negotiate with the rebels when they had the chance. Possibly, the rebels appeared weak; possibly the regime surmised that untrained civilians taking up arms to force a change of government in their own country, demanding that they too want to benefit from its natural resources looked untenable, maybe even fundamentally flawed. But this was a crucial mistake. They underestimated the uprising, believing that it was a small resistance that could be contained and snuffed out violently if necessary. They were wrong.

When Benghazi fell to the rebels, Gaddafi in a radio broadcast on March 17 promised the people of Benghazi that his army will march on that city and that they will be ruthless, putting down any opposition house by house, and room by room. The people of Benghazi knew this was no empty threat but this threat too, was another crucial mistake by Gaddafi. The Libyan leader only had to look across the Arab world and the “Arab Spring” uprisings that had won the sympathy and support of many around the world. The Libyan uprising too quickly won support around the world. In Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled his country and in Egypt President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 30 years in office. Both presidents left office in the face of strong popular public protest and demands for change and an end to authoritarian rule.

All around Gaddafi, protests have unfolded across the Arab world. Yet still, somehow, Gaddafi and his immediate supporters believed that they were immune to popular calls for change. This belief on their part could only be driven by arrogance and the fact that they had lost touch with the people they were in office to serve. They remonstrated that the Libyan protest was driven by foreign elements and al-Qaeda. Gaddafi miscalculated. He expected that by blaming al-Qaeda, he would gain the support of the West and other countries to end the protests using force if necessary. But the people protesting on the streets of Libya were not terrorists; they were ordinary innocent people who merely wanted a change of government. They wanted Gaddafi and his sons and their supporters out of office.

The marginalisation of the AU?

Now reports suggest that the rebels in Tripoli have taken the national TV station, a mouthpiece of the Gaddafi regime, and the airport. Muammar Gaddafi has also lost any chance he ever had of negotiating with the rebels. Latest reports suggest that South Africa has a plane on standby in Tunisia for him to go into exile in South Africa, Cuba or Venezuela. As things stand now, America will press for an end to this uprising in Libya and behind the scenes, Obama and his Whitehouse team will want to wash their hands of this conflict soon because Congress is unhappy with US involvement in “another war”. Obama has elections on the way. A good end to the Libyan uprising for Obama would be Gaddafi gone, the rebels taking the reins of government and doing so with no internecine fighting; and of course, American oil companies having direct access to Libya’s oil and its new leadership.

In this end game in Libya, tough questions remain. The Africa Union is unhappy that Nato’s mandate to protect civilians has extended to support for the rebels who have now effectively overthrown Gaddafi’s regime. NATO has bombed Gaddafi’s compound fully aware that he could be killed. Was this authorised by Security Council Resolution 1973? On one such bombing raid, Gaddafi lost a son and three grandchildren. The AU has not challenged Nato’s extended interpretation of its mandate under this Security Council Resolution or the bombing of Gaddafi’s compound in a manner that suggests Nato’s aim is to kill him. Neither has the AU challenged the matter of regime change that now seems to be included in the operations. 

The Responsibility to Protect

On a more positive note, Libya’s crisis has seen the application of the R2P(responsibility to protect) concept in international law. First established by the International Commission on Intervention and State Responsibility, R2P states that governments are responsible for the protection their nationals from atrocities. If they fail, then that responsibility will pass to the international community. R2P in the case of Libya would have failed because Security Council Resolution 1973 when passed did not have a standing UN military force ready to enforce it. However, the UK, France and the US were ready to provide the military manpower to back up the responsibility to protect Libya’s rebels from their government and army. Without the US, UK and France’s gesture, the R2P principle would have failed here.

The real work of uniting and organising a government will begin after Tripoli is won, this could be soon, or it could take a few days, but most importantly depends if Gaddafi has the will to fight on in Tripoli.

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