|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 October 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Gaddafi turns to Africa
Last week, the Libyan state-owned radio which has been known for the past three decades as the "Voice of the Arab World" started broadcasting under a new name. It is now the "Voice of Africa."
This step was the latest in a series of moves aimed at reflecting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's disappointment with the support he has been receiving from Arab countries in his campaign to lift the UN air embargo imposed against his country since April 1992.
Last month, the state-run Libyan News Agency announced that one of Gaddafi's ministries, known as the Ministry of Arab Unity Affairs, had been cancelled. Gaddafi also called for unity between African countries, telling Libyans in his public speeches that Africans, and not Arabs, were their real supporters. Meanwhile, the Libyan media has been emphasising Libya's African identity, and the daily television news bulletin replaced the map of the Arab world hanging in its background with that of Africa.
The Libyan measures came immediately after foreign ministers attending the Arab League meeting in Cairo in September turned down a Libyan request to defy the embargo and follow in the path of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which took that decision at its latest summit meeting in Burkina Faso in June.
During the OAU meeting, African leaders decided to defy the UN embargo against Libya as of last month (September), as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the way the US and Britain have been handling the Lockerbie issue. The two Western countries insisted that two Libyans suspected of bombing an American flight over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 must be handed over for trial in either the US or Britain. Libya, backed by Arab and African countries, refused to hand over the suspects and demanded a trial in a third neutral country.
Many observers believe that the OAU decision and the fact that some African leaders started acting upon it by flying to Libya in defiance of the UN embargo, was one of the main reasons behind the recent change of heart in Washington and London. Both countries said in August they were now ready to accept a Libyan proposal for the two suspects to be tried by Scottish judges in the Netherlands. But Gaddafi insists on guarantees for the safety of the suspects and for a fair trial before agreeing to hand them over to the Netherlands. He also wants them to be jailed, if convicted, in the Netherlands or Libya, and not in Scotland as the US and Britain proposed.
The latest development in the Lockerbie crisis did not prevent several African leaders, however, from continuing their show of support for Libya by flying to Tripoli. The Presidents of Sudan, Chad, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso and Eritrea are among the African leaders who have visited Libya more than once since September to express their countries' support against what they see as unjust sanctions.
In a recent interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Talaat Hamed, the Arab League spokesman, insisted that the league has always been a major supporter of Libya in its eight-year-long suffering. He added that the US-British proposal prevented the Arabs from taking a decision to defy the embargo as the OAU had done.
"The US-British proposal [accepting trial in the Netherlands] was a serious development in the Lockerbie case. The results of the Arab foreign ministers' meeting in September concerning the Lockerbie issue would have been similar to that of the OAU if the two countries had not come up with that proposal," said Hamed.
Ahmed Bin Helli, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League for Arab affairs, also explained that the league prefers diplomatic efforts to lift the embargo "because we [Arabs] do not want to take any measures that will benefit parties other than Libya."
Meanwhile, Libya's public attack on the Arabs was criticised by some Egyptian political analysts. Fahmi Howeidi believes that the Arabs and the Africans have made different calculations. Howeidi agrees that the Africans adopted a more positive stance, however, he believes that African countries took this position because of their need for Libyan financial support.
"The [poor] African countries see that their backing of Gaddafi will bring future [financial] aid. They also believe that they do not have anything to lose by defying the UN," he said. Howeidi added that things are different for the Arabs who have strong relations with the West which "they do not want to jeopardise."
Howeidi, who sees Libya's attitude as "an outrage that will take its time and pass," also emphasised that "Arabism is not a dress that can be taken off any time one wishes. Libya could have intensified relations with Africa without withdrawing from the Arabs."
He also pointed out that major African countries such as South Africa and Senegal did not defy the sanctions even after the OAU decision. Leaders of both countries travelled to Libya by car from neighbouring Tunis.
According to Hamed, Libya has not officially cancelled its ministerial portfolio responsible for Arab unity. He added that consultations are still ongoing between the league and Libya to ease Tripoli's grievances.
Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan after last month's UN General Assembly meetings to discuss the guarantees Libya is demanding before the trial. Meanwhile, the league is launching an intensive international campaign to end the stand-off between Libya, the US and Britain. Contacts are also underway between the league, the Netherlands, Britain and the US, league sources said.