By this I don’t just mean those unfortunate innocent civilians caught up in Colonel Gaddafi’s monstrous backlash against his own people.
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Wednesday’s claims by Libya’s former justice minister, Mustafa Abedel-Jalil, that Gaddafi himself personally ordered the Lockerbie terrorist bombing is just the start. Whether Abedel-Jalil’s claims are ultimately borne out only time will tell. In some ways we should almost expect people like him to say such things. After all, anyone who has held high office in a state like Libya must have a well-honed sense of self preservation. In the coming weeks or months should Gaddafi find himself just another decommissioned dictator or be discovered in his Bab al-Azizia military redoubt with a bullet in his brain, there will doubtless be many of his former henchmen keen to ingratiate themselves with the world outside. Should they prove true Abedel-Jalil’s Lockerbie claims would of course be damning for many in Libya and beyond. But almost certainly they would constitute only a tiny part in the load of political dirty laundry that might be aired in Gaddafi’s wake and prove embarrassing to the international community.
For years his regime has given the west nothing but grief but been kept sweet for reasons of oil, trade and on the spurious notion that the “Great Leader” might be a useful ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Earlier this week a fresh batch of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks again revealed the true nature of the corrupt and lavish lifestyles of the Gaddafi family. In what amounts to a personal fiefdom, his oldest son, Muhammad, dominated telecommunications, while another like Muatassim, was National Security Adviser, Hannibal was influential in maritime shipping, Khamis commanded a top military unit, and Saadi was given the job of setting up an Export Free Trade Zone in western Libya.
It’s probably fair to say that in each and every one of these roles, the Gaddafi siblings did business with international companies and representatives. Only this week the UK firm NMS International was at pains to defend its sale of military equipment that allegedly was used to quell protests on Libya’s streets. The company has also been involved in training the Libyan police on how to control riots and helped at least 50 British firms attend arms fairs in 2008 and as recently as last November.
On that last occasion, among others, Richard Northern, Britain’s ambassador to Libya, and Whitehall’s arms sales unit got a chance to see the artillery and infantry weapons on show. In light of this, isn’t there something rather ironic and hypocritical about the international clamour these last few days over Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries to do the killing and dirty work needed to help maintain his fearsome rule during the current uprising?
Chad, Niger, Mali, Sudan, perhaps white South African and Serbs, the origins of these soldiers of fortune has varied as widely as the speculation surrounding their role on the ground. Some reports even suggest the mercenaries arrived on a number of separate flights to both the Tripoli and Benghazi military airports, possibly indicating a number of different recruitment sites. The mustering of these fighters appears to have been undertaken quickly, either without the knowledge of the intelligence agencies and security services of their countries of origin, or with the full knowledge and approval of those same states.
Should the veracity of such reports stand up, then such actions would of course be in breach of the African Union’s 1977 Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa. But then such legal niceties have often been flaunted, sidestepped or simply ignored in reciprocal military, trade or political deals involving Libya and other states. I well remember during the civil war in Liberia watching a cargo plane landing at the main airport in Monrovia and being told by an official that it had come from Libya and was carrying arms to help shore up the then faltering rule of that other African “strongman”, Charles Taylor.
In the political world men like Gaddafi and Taylor inhabit, such things are commonplace. Almost as common too is the turning of a blind eye or active covert involvement of our own and other states when doing deals with such devils proves profitable or expedient. Frankly, at times over the years Britain’s political relationship with the Gaddafi regime has been breathtaking in its double standards. Throughout this time rarely did we utter any disquiet over how he ruled at home. Latterly, we were even happy to parade him as a “friend” because he was willing to enter the embrace of western influence. Yes, there may be mercenaries now running the streets of Tripoli through terror and intimidation, but as recent history shows Libya is no stranger to soldiers of fortune. For years we too have been mercenary in our own dealings with the “mad dog” of the Middle East when it proved convenient.
Forgotten along the way in all of this were the ordinary people of Libya and the horrors of the police state they had to endure. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, I remember coming across buildings in Baghdad and other town and cities that had once been the headquarters, prisons and torture centres of Saddam’s feared Mukhabarat secret service. In the ruins of some of these building lay discarded files containing the details of those deemed to be enemies of the state and those with whom shady collaborative deals had been done at home and overseas. In the coming weeks and months should Gaddafi’s security apparatus find itself toppled and in similar disarray, who knows what might be found in the files uncovered there?
As I said, there must be many people running scared as they watch events unfold in Libya right now. Should the country have the chance of a new start, how interesting it will be to find out who exactly did what, and who, if anyone, is held accountable.