How Mugabe interpreted Gaddafi's fall

Dec 11, 2011

After Mummar Gaddafi’s ignominious end in Libya, attention focused on who in Africa might be next to lose power disgracefully. It was inevitable that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe would be on the short list of long-serving presidents who many speculated, and some hoped, would exit power in similar fashion. That
may have been naïve and simple minded, but it is interesting to know how Mugabe saw the demise of Gaddafi, and whether he saw any lessons for himself in it.

There was a huge but not very sophisticated propaganda effort that accompanied the massive western military effort to ‘protect Libyan civilians’ from Gaddafi’s government by bombing much of their country to smithereens. A part of that propaganda was to plant the idea that Gaddafi had the support of other western-perceived ‘bad guys’ in oppressing his fellow Libyans.

For a brief while early in the Gaddafi regime-change targeted western bombing, there was the story of Zimbabwean soldiers and/or mercenaries being part of Gaddafi’s forces. With not a shred of evidence to back it up, and with many reasons to doubt its veracity, the likely planted story fizzled out.

Towards the end of the bombing campaign, when Gaddafi’s regime was on the ropes, about two months before the despot’s eventual public, filmed murder, there was baseless but fevered speculation that he was headed for asylum in Zimbabwe. Again, not a shred of even merely good guessing was provided for the rumor. There were easily more reasons to think the rumor unlikely and untrue than to believe it, but the delicious thought of ‘bad guys’ Gaddafi and Mugabe hanging out together proved simply irresistible for many news outlets. Many Zimbabwean websites eagerly ran with the planted propaganda as well.

Nothing came of any of this.

One reason Gaddafi and Mugabe seemed to many people like a likely pair was their common independent foreign policy and their anti-western stances, or at least rhetoric. Libya was one of the country’s whose help was sought when Zimbabwe experienced punishing fuel shortages in the years around 2005. But the two men and their governments had gone separate ways when Gaddafi was welcomed back into the good books of western countries eager for Libyan oil contracts and the country’s vast investment wealth.

One effect of Gaddafi suddenly going from ‘supporter of international terrorism’ to respectable statesman again in the west is that he largely turned his back on the Africa he had so assiduously courted during his estrangement from both the west and the Arab world. Libyan investments scattered around the continent (but no notable ones in Zimbabwe) continued, but Gaddafi was delighted to revel in the diplomatic attentions of the western governments and leaders who had previously spurned him, imposed sanctions on his country and called him a rogue supporter of international terrorism.

Still, there remained at least continuing sentimental attachments between the two governments. When the Libyan ambassador in Harare saw it to his benefit to switch his allegiance to the western backed ‘rebel alliance’ that took over from Gaddafi’s government in Libya, Mugabe’s government expelled him. To this day Zimbabwe has not recognized the new Libyan government.

Given the Mugabe government’s once good relations with the Gaddafi regime and its extreme sensitivity to and fear of western-sponsored ‘regime change’ efforts, its reaction to the events in Libya is not surprising.

But what other take home lessons might Mugabe have learned from Gaddafi’s fall? Not surprisingly, Mugabe declared that so-called ‘Arab Spring’ like events would not take place in Zimbabwe. Describing Gaddafi’s regime as having been ‘autocratic,’ Mugabe clearly doesn’t see his as being the same, which will strike many as being a surprisingly big blind spot, although the two countries were very different in how they were repressively controlled.

The biggest lesson Mugabe seems to have derived from Gaddafi’s experiences is that he was foolish and mistaken to befriend and trust the westerners. And indeed, the way the west suddenly turned against Gaddafi in unison in late 2010/early 2011was as stunning as the sudden eagerness with which they had previously welcomed him from the cold some years before.

Said Mugabe of his late old friend, “He had become friends of the West and the British and Americans knew everything about Libya before they came to attack him. His Europeans friends are the ones who killed him. He died a painful death. Gaddafi was taking the Libyan riches to Europe; he was not investing in Africa.”

All of this is objectively true, though one could now question how genuine was Gaddafi’s ‘friendship’ with the west, which of course is the point Mugabe is making.

When Gaddafi and Mugabe were similarly demonized and sanctioned by the west the two men must have particularly had a lot to share. This would have changed when Gaddafi became ‘friends’ with the west while Mugabe remained in the dog house. That those same ‘friends’ of Gaddafi’s are the ones who orchestrated his ouster must be a sort of vindication for Mugabe, a way of saying, “I knew he was making a terrible mistake. Look at what eventually happened to him at the hands of his friends.”

For Mugabe, that Gaddafi lost the affection of many of his people by his despotism is less of an issue than the fact that he was too trusting of westerners who eventually betrayed him.

A few months ago it seemed as if for the first time in years there were prospects of Mugabe’s government and the western countries that have imposed sanctions on it making moves to warm relations. Mugabe even uncharacteristically went so far as to ‘plead’ for improved relations with Britain to that country’s new ambassador to Harare. She, the U.S. ambassador and some from Europe also seemed to be making vaguely conciliatory noises that seemed to suggest a common desire to put the past behind and move forward to better relations with a Mugabe government that might yet hold on to power for a few more years.

That impetus for working towards improved relations seemed to have cooled down considerably on all sides recently. It would not at all be surprising if from Mugabe’s side, the events in Libya, and the manner of Gaddafi’s ousting and his death, would have strengthened his conviction that it is not possible to have genuinely ‘friendly’ relations with the west.

The Zimbabwe Review


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