Category Archives: North Africa and the Sahel

The Libyan Sandstorm – a story of Libyans, Gaddafi and revolution: book review

By Keith Somerville

Lindsey Hilsum, Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution

It’s all too common that when leading reporters and correspondents write their accounts of events, they become the key player, the focus of the action and their feelings, responses and interpretations become the prism through which the reader is invited to view events. One need only to think of John Simpson in his burqa and his personal liberation of Kabul to realise how the main story can be forgotten. So, it was refreshing as well as enlightening to read Lindsey Hilsum’s thorough, informative and, dare I say it, entertaining account of the Libyan revolution. This is not a whimsical or satirical account in the style of Bill Bryson or P.J. O’Rourke, it’s just that the elegance, pace and sheer quality of the writing make it not only a comprehensive account of events and, most importantly of all, of their context, but one written in a way that now again brings a wry smile to the reader’s face. A good example is when Hilsum discusses the Libyan revolution as part of the Arab Spring. She explains that “while the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria might be similar to each other in corruption and nepotism, and might employ the same brutal tactics…Every country was unhappy in its own way” (p. 19). Neat, concise but also incisive and avoiding the simplistic accounts you get of the Arab spring.

The book starts with the brutal, vengeful beating, sodomising and killing of Muammar Gaddafi. The account pulls no punches. The fate meted out to him was violent and hate-filled, but the writer neither descends into a stock condemnation of human rights abuses nor an apologia for the perpetrators, rather she sets out why it happened. The act is explained but not justified, as is the public display of his body. As a good journalist, Hilsum conveys atmosphere, feeling and explanation, placing Libyans at centre stage, not herself. We find out why these things happen, rather than their effect on the journalist.

The book is well-structured, moving from the death of the Brother Leader to an account of the strange, massively contradictory and bombastic nature of the man – a man who could denounce the West and all its manifestations on the one hand and, at the height of his denunciations, fund a Hollywood style film about a Libyan hero, Omar Mukhtar, in which the hero is played by Anthony Quinn. She captures his fascination but effective contempt for women but also some of the positive effects of his fascination – the allegations of his womanising are detailed but this is accompanied by a detailing of the progress women were able to achieve under his rule in terms of education and employment. The strangest of all the revelations in the chapter on his Strange World are those concerned with his crazed message to Madeleine Albright, the USecretary of State, to wear green when she’s on TV to show that she loves him or his obsession with Condoleezza Rice, who he referred to as his “African Princess”.

There follows a well-researched narrative of the rise and consolidation of the Gaddafi regime – with its rejection of parliaments, formal state structures and its interwoven system of Revolutionary Committees to both mobilise and watch over the population. Hilsum also charts the rise first of the secular and then the Islamic opposition to Gaddafi and his brutal suppression of the revolts, with first-hand accounts from witnesses of killings and of the infamous Abu Salim massacre, in which 1,270 political prisoners were killed.

From an Africanist’s point of view, the King of Kings of Africa is one of the most fascinating chapters. Again, we see the contradictory, almost schizophrenic, nature of his policies. But behind it all there is a logic and that is based on his view of the interests of his regime and his standing in Africa. He supported liberation movements in southern Africa when they most needed funds, weapons and training –for this he earned the undying gratitude of Nelson Mandela. For those bordering Libya or within what he saw as his sphere of interest in Central and West Africa, gratitude is not the word most would use for their feelings towards him – hatred, bitterness and contempt for his high-handed and mercenary policies would be nearer the mark. Here was a man who thought nothing of seizing the territory of neighbouring states (Chad), fuelling but then helping extinguish revolts by movements according to narrow self-interest and helping build up brutal killers like Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor in Liberia, not to mention his support for Idi Amin in Uganda. Gaddafi’s manipulation of the Tuareg, of the revolt in Darfur and of movements like Polisario show the way that his self-interest perverted popular or resistance movements, undermined African governments and complicated the already tangled legacy of colonialism.
Of key interest to readers now, will be the clear, empathetic but balanced account of the rising against Gaddafi, its progress, its dynamics and the challenges that now face the Libyan people. There’s no wide-eyed excitement and optimism that with Gaddafi gone all will be golden. The splits, rivalries and fault lines of the rebel movement (if it can even be called a movement) are revealed, providing an understanding of the clashes and fracturing of alliances now taking place. What is fascinating, too, is the account of why the West intervened (with guilt over Rwanda and Srebrenica mixed with less compassionate motives) and the role of Gulf states, particularly Qatar in that intervention – with nothing held back on why those states supported intervention in the hopes of averting intervention to stop the suppression of their own popular uprisings.

This is a compelling and comprehensive account of the uprising, its context and its complexity, uncluttered by jargon or the “big I am” tendency that mars many first-hand accounts by journalists of the chapters in history they have witnessed and reported.

Lindsey Hilsum’s Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution is published by faber and faber, London, 2012. ISBN 978-0-571-28803-8

Africa 2012: A year of opportunities and threats

Keith Somerville

A week into 2012 is a good point at which to stop and consider what the year is likely to hold for Africa, with of course the caveat that what holds for one state or region does not automatically hold for another state or region.

The continuing political evolution in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia may encourage popular movements in other north or sub-Saharan states, as people bereft of control over their futures and with detatched, distant, unresponsive and often rapacious governments decide that they too can bring about change.  Though as is developing in Egypt, that change may not be what protestors thought they had brought about or is more long-drawn out and violent than they hoped at the start of their “spring”.

In 1989 and the early 1990s, there was, to steal from Harold Macmillan, a new wind of change blowing through Africa – brought about b y many factors including the end of the cold war, the withdrawal of aid from socialist or western countries or the loss of strategic salience for some areas, and also a result of a slow build-up of anger among populations at the excesses and inadequacies of their leaders.

The results of that wave of change in Africa were patchy.  The USA and EU, often using aid or the threat of its withdrawal as a lever, sought above all else to encourage free market economic reforms and the holding of Western-style elections on timetables that were unrealistic and favoured incumbents who still had their hands on the levers of power.  President Omar Bongo of Gabon said in 1990 that the ‘wind from the east is shaking the coconut trees’.  He bent with the wind a little and survived with his auocratic rule intact – it is is still intact following his detah with his son in power and able to ensure victory in elections through his entrenched power, control of key media and immense powers of patronage.

But in other areas of Africa more change continues – Ghana holds regular, fiercely contested but generally fair and trusted elections.  Senegal is approaching elections with the prospect of a serious and popular challenge to President Wade.  Zambia saw elections in which a fierce critic of corruption, Michael Sata, came to power and set about rotting out corruption and challenging some of the excesses of Africa’s new best friend, China, in its unbalanced relations with African partners.

Effective political processes like those are needed rather than what we’ve seen in recent months in DR Congo, Cameroon and other states, where the popular will is not seriously reflected through votes – either through outright fraud or use of state power, wealth and political clientism to ensure the victory of the sitting leader.

There will be crucial elections, though, this year elsewhere in Africa.  Kenya‘s, due in December, could be key to the country’s ability to escape from political corruption, cronyism and the use of communal violence for political ends.  The last vote there, in 2007, was not fair and EU and other observers found that Kibaki’s victory was not a true reflection of the voting.  Violence on a huge scale followed the annoucement of the “results” and the indecently fast swearing-in of Kibaki.

Much of the evidence available from commissions of inquiry (Wako and Krielger) and from human rights groups shows that elements on the governing PNU side and in the opposition ODM, had no great faith in elections to ensure their access to power and had planned violence prior to the announcement of the result.  groups within the ODM had plans in place to make areas of Kenya ungovernable if Raila Odinga did not win.  PNU leaders had co-opted the Mungiki gang/sect on to their side and were ready for violence.  The police and security forces were used initially to crush with extreme violence the first demonstrations by ODM supporters.

What followed was political gangsterism that took on the appearance of ethnic violence, as pro-ODM Kalenjin in the Rift attacked Kikuyu and Kisii, and Kikuyu attacked Luo and carried out revenge raids against Kalenjin.  This was violence led by politicians greedy for power and the wealth that flows from it at all costs – it was not, as it was too often depicted in the Western media, an ethnic war fueled by long-held, primeval “tribal” hatred.

Six key figures accused of fomenting that violence (three from the PNU headed by Uhuru Kenyatta) and three from the old ODM alliance (chief among them William Ruto) will hear within three weeks whether they are to be tried.  The six are charged with a number of crimes including murder, forcible transfer (effectively ethnic cleansing), persecution and rape.  None are personally acussed of committing these crimes but of planning and implementing violent political cmpaigns using these crimes as instruments. They all deny the charges.

The ICC cases will have a huge effect on Kenyan politics.  Ruto and Kenyatta both intend to run for the presidency in 2012.  If they are on trial in the Hague they can hardly campaign strenuously or hold together coalitions of diverse groups and interests.  Their influence over Kenyan politics will be considerably reduced during the key election year and they may be taken out of the equation altogether.  Some feel this will lay the field open for Raila Odinga to beat whoever becomes the candidate for the Kibaki camp – as Kibaki cannot stand for another term.

Much will depend on whether Kenyatta and Ruto can exert influence and patronage from afar, what sort of alliances among individuals and communities emerge.  Manoeuvring is already underway, with the key Masaai leader William Ole Ntimama, throwing his weight (initially and possibly for tactical/bargaining reasons), behind a leading Masaai figure, Education Permanent Secretary James ole Kiyiapi.  He has standing among his community but hardly the stature of an Odinga, Musyoka or Kenyatta.

Personalities and the ability of rich and powerful individuals to put together strong but short-term coalitions have been at the heart of Kenyan election politics.  The ICC trials could break this mould or at least change the balance of power to weaken the power of individuals who have dominated the political scene for decades.  It is unrealistic to hope that the light the ICC could shed on the role power, wealth, corruption and violence in Kenyan politics will lead to permanent change on its own, but it is an opportunity for Kenyans to seize the initiative from the rich and powerful few who have used government as their personal playground since independence.

In South Africa, there is not a national election but there will be conferences and internal ANC elections that are just as important. The ANC holds a major policy conference in June, followed by its five-yearly elective congress in December.  The latter conference will choose the ANC’s leadership for the next five years and decide who runs for president on behalf of the movement in April 2014.

This year will see an intensification of the battle for the leadership and the soul of the ANC.  President Jacob Zuma – himself gaining power after a bitter fight with incumbent Thabo Mbeki in which dirty tactics and party factionalism were used by each to undermine the other – is fighting for his political life.  Always on the backfoot as a president personally because of the rape trial and corruption investigations, he rapidly came into conflict with his important support base in the Youth League as the league’s loose cannon, Julius Malema, tried to carve out  his own power base.  When Zuma tried to keep him in order they became bitter enemies with Malema repteadly embarrassing the government domestically and internationally and mocking Zuma personally.

Malema is still fighting to overturn his suspension from thr party and showed there is residual support for him, when he was elected to the ANC  provincial executive committee in Limpopo province.  He is unlikely to lie down and be quiet in such a key year for the ANC.  The question  is whether he can still command populist support and win g blocks of votes in the leadership contest, as his stature and credibility have been damaged.

Malema and his supporters in the Youth League are likely to fight Zuma tooth and nail and appear to favour the candidacy of  Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.  Motlanthe is a likely alternative to Zuma but doesn’t seem to want at this stage an open fight with Zuma, mirroring the one at the ANC Polokwane leadership election conference at which Zuma outflanked Mbeki with support from the Youth League.

An interesting political figure in the leadership struggle is Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale.  He is an  astute politician with a history of leadership in the Johannesburg townships, authority and respect within the ANC, and  experience as a successful businessman.  He was critical of the ANC over the Malema affair and called on the movement not to use disciplinary measures to settle political scores.  He could use his position to act as a peacemaker and kingmaker or could even emerge as an acceptable alternative to Zuma and Motlanthe.

However the factionalism and personality struggle pan out, it will be a fascinating but vital year from South Africa and the ANC.

Somalia is facing a tough year with the conflict between the transitional government and al Shabab now involving not just an AU force but also the Kenyan incursion (seemingly bogged down in the south and lacking a clear objective) and Ethiopian forces in the Ogaden.  As Mary Harper makes clear in her forthcoming book, foreign intervention and foreign-spawned peace conferences and artificial government have not solved but have usually exacerbated and prolonged conflict in Somalia.  It is time to leave Somalia to Somalis.  Developments in Somaliland suggest this can lead to innovative and positive progress.

Nigeria enters the year saddened and split by the growing violence in the north-east and repercussions at Christmas represented by the bloody attacks on churches in Abuja.  President Goodwill Jonathan declared a state of emergency, put tanks and troops in the street in areas of north-east Nigeria and threatened to crush to  the Islamist Boko Haram movement.

Amid what appears on the surface to be a Christian-Muslim split threatening a virtual civil war, there are complex social, communal and economic factors at play – as demonstrated by the widespread protests against the withdrawal of fuel subsidies, which threatened to get rolled into the whole Boko Haram conflict when protests took place in early January 2012 in Kano.

Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group formed in 2002.  It has carried out a series of attacks against both Muslim and Christian targets (as well as the military and police) in north-east Nigeria; starting in the town of Maiduguri, which has a history of violence by Muslim splinter groups dating back to the Maitatsine riots in the mid-1980s.  The attacks and bombings of churches have caused havoc and widespread fear in Nigeria, leading to Christians pledging to defend their churches and fellow-believers.

Boko Haram says its aim is to  overthrow the government and set up an Islamic state.  It is critical of what could be termed moderate Islamic leaders and politicians from the mainly-Muslim north, who it sees as too willing to compromise and to cexist with Nigeria’s Christians and secular system.  It has fed on poverty, resentment at the failure of successive governments to deliver basic services and it has used northern  and Muslim resentment or alienation at being ruled by a Christian southerner to generate support.  Some analysts have suggested that major Muslim politicians in the north, including former military officers, publicly condemn the group but have contacts with it and are not unhappy to see it undermine the current government.  It is not clear from where the movement gets its weapons and explosives.

Boko Haram proclaims an interpretation of Islam which makes it haram, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society or Christianity.  Prohibitions include voting in elections, receiving secular education and dressing in a Western style.  According to the BBC’s Farouk Chothia, Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

The movement’s full name is is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.  It was formed by charismatic Islamic cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, formed in Maiduguri in 2002.  Coming into conflict with successive governments, the movement carried out a major attack on Maiduguri’s main police station in 2009 – hundreds were killed in the clash.  Mohammed Yusuf was captured and died while in police custody – giving him martyr status among his followers.  Attacks by the movement had esclated since then in Maiduguri, Damaturu and then most sensationally in the Christmas Day bombings in Abuja.

President Jonathan and the security forces are committed to destroying the movement, though whether the army is totally unified in this remains to be seen.  The government has to tread a very careful line in its fight – avoiding a crusading Christian approach and ensuring that this does not become a war against the north-east or against Muslims.  He may not be helped by a US congressional report identifying Boko Haram as a potential threat to US interests. The last thing Nigeria needs is to be dragged into the American war on terror in a US election year.

Overall, Africa as a whole and not just Nigeria needs a year where it is allowed to deal with its own problems in its ways rather than by being roped into US or other external campaigns or plans.    External intervention – of whatever kind short of humanitarian aid in emergencies – in Egypt’s political evolution, the conflict in Nigeria or muddled, uninformed and ill-intentioned interference in Somalia will not be in the interests of those states, Africa or international relations.  The only exception I would make is the ICC process relating to the Kenyan post-election violence.  The inability of the Kenyan political or judicial system to seriously undermine the impunity of leading politicians means that the ICC could help bring about change in this vital area.

Libya conflict: Gaddafi’s son Saadi ‘arrives in Niger’ – BBC

One of the sons of the fugitive  Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi, has arrived in neighbouring Niger.

Niger’s justice minister said Saadi Gaddafi had been in a convoy which was
heading towards the capital, Niamey.

Col Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown. He has said he will die in Libya.

Anti-Gaddafi troops now control most of Libyan territory, including the
capital Tripoli. They have been trying to seize several cities controlled by
loyalists, including Bani Walid and Sirte.

Read more…

Gaddafi – hunt goes on as more flee to Niger

While the National Transitional Council’s forces search Libya for missing Muammar, more of his military leaders and forces are heading south into Niger.

Niger government officials in Agdez have said that General Ali
Kana, a Tuareg in charge of Col Gaddafi’s southern forces, has now arrived there. They were in a small convoy reported by the BBC to contain two generals and four other senior officials.

Last week, the NTC forces last week gave Gaddafi loyalists an ultimatum to stop fighting by Saturday or face an all-out assault.

There are currently tense stand-offs between Council forces and groups loyal to the former leader at Bani Walid, Jufra, Sabha and Sirte.

The stream of former fighters and officials into Niger could be an attempt to get men and materiel out before the Saturday deadline, or is perhaps a regrouping of forces to prepare for an insurgency.  Some might just be running away to escape retribution. In the confused situation in Libya, no one knows for certain.

If Gaddafi can stay at large, get forces, finance and weaponry out of reach of NTC forces, he could bid his time and hope for splits or conflicts between the various diverse groups who came together to oust him.  This might give him and opening and weaken his enemies.

He still appears to have the loyalty of Tuarge fighters who he has used in his regional destablisation efforts over the last forty years and mercenaries have never been hard to find in West Africa. So it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could still pose a threat, or at the very least be a real irritant in Libya and the western Sahel region as a whole.

See also:  Africa Confidential on Gaddafi’s options –