Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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'Confidence in ourselves'

By Gamal Nkrumah

This week's Africa-Europe summit symbolically marked Libya's full return to active participation in international forums. Fittingly so, for the figure of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi continues to loom large in the politics of the continent and casts a long shadow over its relations with the rest of the world. Seizing the occasion, Gaddafi demonstrated once again that he remains the main driving force for pan-African unity. Determined that the summit should set a precedent for the continent's relations with Europe, he reiterated his refusal to rest until he has realised his dream of creating a United States of Africa. "We cannot afford to waste time prevaricating over African unity," Gaddafi told Al-Ahram Weekly. History, he believes, is on his side. "The entire world is moving in the direction of regional and continental blocs."

Gaddafi is no partisan of an enclosed, self-validating circle of "true believers" in African unity. Instead, his strategy is to propagate the concept as widely as possible among his fellow African leaders. To that effect, he has set up a ministry for African unity headed by veteran ideologue Ali Abdel-Salaam Al-Tereiki, a former ambassador to France. The ministry -- or more properly, "people's committee" -- is to oversee the strengthening of cultural, economic and political ties with Africa, as well as increasing trade and investment opportunities.

Al-Tereiki, a distinguished academic, was also in Cairo for the Africa-Europe summit. He told the Weekly he intended to take this golden opportunity to spread the word among his fellow delegates and spell out the functions of his new ministry for African unity.

Gaddafi was at pains to point out that he has carefully studied the OAU charter and the Abuja Treaty, scrutinising every article and every clause. "Liberation was the means, African unity is the end," he insisted. He has also consulted with legal experts, political scientists and economists from many African countries on various aspects of international law. "From these discussions, I gained important insights. I raised the question of African political and economic union with African leaders. When there is a will, there is always a way. We must have confidence in ourselves, and in our capabilities, and in the great potential of our continent."

Muammar Gaddafi Gaddafi's new-found African passion seems in part to stem from his profound appreciation of the continent's disregard for the Western-imposed UN embargo against Libya, which was only lifted last year. "Africa's brave stance at the OAU summit in Ouagadougou in 1997 was a historic moment of great consequence," he told the Weekly. "Africa's will prevailed in the international arena and Africa earned the respect of the world. Africa expressed the unity and solidarity of the continent. It also showed the world that it can stand up to difficult challenges, knows where its true interests are, and can take decisions independently. Africa supports just causes, and struggles against oppression and injustice. Africa now enjoys a distinguished status among the continents of the world. Africa which, in the past, was humiliated and treated as Europe's backyard, today imposes its will, and earns the world's respect. The collective African will plays a critically important role in the international arena. It is largely thanks to Africa, and the high-profile intervention of leaders of Nelson Mandela's calibre, that the unjust sanctions were lifted."

So much has been achieved. But even greater challenges lie ahead. "Africa must meaningfully participate in world politics and in the creation of a new world," the Libyan leader said. "Africa is larger than America and larger than Russia, France and Britain. Africa is almost as big as China, and yet Africa has no voice at the UN, and has no power of veto in the UN Security Council." This policy may turn out to be a strategic mistake for those who hope to benefit from it. "Those who wish to halt Africa's progress are blocking their own progress." The ethical imperative should also be a pragmatic priority. "Africa must unite, and others must not work against African unity and plot conspiracies that embroil Africa in civil wars, border disputes, ethnic and racial wars. Such evil schemes are against humanity, against civilisation. The world will be the ultimate loser if Africa is ruined."

The African unity ministry was created as part of the unprecedented overhaul of the Libyan state instituted this February to mark the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of "people's power" through the country's top legislative and executive body, the General People's Congress (GPC). "We are giving the world an example of rule by the masses without the intervention of government," Gaddafi recently told the GPC, which also doubles as Libya's parliament.

Questioned about Libya's support for terrorism in the past, Gaddafi vehemently denied all charges. "We never supported terrorism," he told the Weekly. "All we did was help freedom fighters in Africa, the Arab world and elsewhere, whose leaders -- people of the calibre of South Africa's Nelson Mandela -- were later officially welcomed at the White House." Gaddafi also pointed out that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Western intelligence agencies have, by their own admission, been involved in plots to assassinate him -- a claim further substantiated last month when former British MI5 officer David Shayler claimed that two MI6 agents had taken part in an assassination attempt against Gaddafi in 1996. "We have been the victims of Western aggression in the past, but we have never supported terror. We have fought for our people's legitimate rights. We have supported liberation movements in Africa and around the world, and we have struggled for a fairer world, where all peoples have equal rights."

Despite his harsh treatment at their hands in the past, the Libyan leader now demonstrates a more conciliatory tone in his dealings with the Western powers -- though there is still a sting in the tail. Gaddafi believes that opening a new chapter in Libya's -- and Africa's -- relationship with Europe does not necessarily entail forgetting all about the bitter past. Europe should make amends and compensate the continent for its historic "crimes against humanity." Yes, he is willing to work with Europe on an equal footing -- but not until the wrongs of colonialism have first been redressed. "Those who treated us as slaves must officially apologise to us," he said. "They must publicly acknowledge that they wrongfully harmed people who are characterised by a natural dignity, ancient and sound values and lofty principles. An official historic apology is an absolute must. It is imperative that those who humiliated Africa in the past, who treated Africans as slaves, recompense Africa for all the human and material losses they inflicted on the continent." He goes further, and insists that Europe and America make financial amends to Africa. "We have the right to demand reparations. They must write off Africa's $370 billion external debt."

In the meantime, while Libya waits for Europe to recognise its historic debt, it must continue somehow to earn foreign currency. Fortunately, earlier European conquerors left behind them a more useful heritage than did their modern successors. When most of the people's committees were being abolished earlier this year, the committee for tourism was, significantly, spared this fate. Libya's new minister for tourism, culture and information Fawziya Al-Shallaabi -- the only woman to head a people's committee -- was keen to stress the potential here. The sector is indeed expected to witness spectacular growth as the country opens up, thanks to Libya's unsurpassed array of archaeological and historic sites, especially those dating from the Roman and Greek periods. Libya possesses the best preserved -- and only complete -- Roman city in Africa, Lepcis Magna. Most tourists are expected to come from the European countries on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. "The close proximity of Libya to Europe is an added advantage," according to Al-Shallaabi.

Gaddafi, however, was unmollified, and quickly returned to his main theme of admonition. "The Europeans must return all the antiquities and treasures they stole from us, and which are absolutely essential if we are to develop our tourism industry for the benefit of our own people -- as well as all the profits which they accrued from stealing the antiquities, ancient scrolls and other treasures of Africa which have curiously found their way to the museums of the countries that colonised us. There they have served as a lucrative spectacle for intruders, tourists, scientists and archaeologists in the countries that colonised us. These are African treasures and must be returned to Africa. Western museums have made fat profits out of them, but these treasures justly belong to us."

This particularly contentious issue does indeed figure on the agenda of the Africa-Europe summit. Whether Europe is ready to hear what Gaddafi has to say on the subject, is another matter.

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