About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, May 30, 2011

The futility and dangers of a NATO-installed regime in Libya


The incentive structure created by NATO’s commitment to the rebels will breed a movement of opportunists, not democrats.

Recently, NATO airstrikes killed the son of Libyan leader Maummar Al Gaddafi and his three children. Officially, NATO’s role in the ongoing conflict in Libya is to protect that nation’s civilians. However, quite often one has to worry why (or whether) western powers care more about the welfare of Libyans than Libyan leaders! Besides, how does this deliberate targeted killing of innocent babies constitute “protecting” civilians?

Gaddafi is certainly an intolerant despot who has dominated Libya for 42 years. During this time, he has done a couple of good things for Libyans. However, he has also oppressed his people, tortured and killed many of them, abused and misused their resources, despoiled their common patrimony and much more. There is a broad consensus that he should be kicked out. However, there is a real challenge on how to organise his exit in a manner that protects Libyans from jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Yet most commentary on Libya today ignores the possibility and even the probability of the risk of such an outcome in the country.

There has been an international outcry in support of the rebels fighting him. But opposing Gaddafi does not make the rebels democrats; they could be worse. Those intervening to save Libya need to pause and reflect on what credibility these rebels have demonstrated to win anyone’s trust. Fighting Gadaffi in and of itself does not make anyone and everyone a democrat; even a psychopath can join resistance against him. This simplistic embrace of everyone and anyone who shouts “wolf” at a sitting tyrant has produced many pseudo liberators in Africa.

Our continent is full of them. Gaddafi came as a liberator. The fallen Ivorian leader Laurent Bagbo, Uganda’s brutal tyrant Idi Amin, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, etc all came as liberators. It is therefore very frustrating that many African elites who have gone through these experiences of liberators turning into tormentors of our people are also the same elites to jump on the bandwagon of change before considering the real possibility that change of leaders may not mean change in leadership style. There is little reason yet to believe that Libyan rebels are genuine democrats other than the fact that they resist Gaddafi.

Initially, NATO intervened in the conflict in Libya because Gaddafi was using air force planes to bomb unarmed civilian demonstrators. However, the struggle has since transformed into an armed conflict; peaceful protest has given way to a violent struggle for power. This gives the government a legitimate right to use military power against the rebels. At this point, NATO should have left since its role was to “protect civilians” Gaddafi was bombing. It has instead stayed, thus transforming its mission into one of helping armed rebels to depose a government of a member state of the UN. This new self-arrogated NATO mandate goes against the spirit and letter of UN Resolution creating a no-fly zone.

Yet many observers have argued that left on their own, the anti-Gaddafi rebels would be wiped out by his superior firepower. This argument is inadequate. There is no evidence to suggest that indiscriminate bombing by a powerful military always succeeds against a defenceless people. The US spent 12 years bombing the people of Vietnam. It lost! A similar experience was suffered by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Today, the US and her NATO allies have been bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan for nine years. By 2009, US military assessment was that the Taliban were winning the war. Gaddafi does not even have 1% of NATO’s bombing power.

Other people argue that the international community should not sit idly and watch another Rwanda in Libya. Yet the international community intervened in Rwanda. There was a UN force called UNAMIR. The international community was trying to impose a standard solution on Rwanda – a ceasefire, followed by a government of “national unity” and then general elections. These standard solutions were ignoring the intricacies of the problem. The result would have been an unstable government of conflicting parties characterised by a low intensity conflict in which millions would have died over several years leaving the country in a mess.

This scheme failed, the country degenerated into genocide and one million people died in three months. However, out of that catastrophe, a more enlightened group – the RPF – captured power. It has been able to stabilise the political dispensation and build one of the most effective states in post-colonial Africa. Rwandan teaches us that Africa does not need external saviours, however well intentioned, because they do not understand the complexity of our problems. They try to impose solutions that have worked elsewhere but are not suited to our specific experiences.

Even where Africa fails, it should never justify us submitting to foreign control. We need to organise our own social movements to overcome tyranny. And this is not because the outside world is ill-intentioned. Rather it is because even when noble in their intentions, they do not understand our intricacies. Foreign solutions often fail to take into consideration the uniqueness of our problems. The people of Egypt and Tunisia have shown that our societies have capacity to bring down entrenched tyrants.

NATO’s particular approach to the Libyan problem will undermine the democratic content of the current struggle. By guaranteeing rebel victory and babysitting them all the way to power, it is actually encouraging opportunists without strong commitment to reform to join. Many former Gaddafi handlers are now joining the rebellion in order to be on the winning side, not because they believe in the objectives of the struggle. With time, the opportunists will crowd out the genuine democrats.

We have to distinguish the need for Gaddafi to go from the way he goes and the people who replace him. It is possible to jump from the frying pan into the fire. The incentive structure created by NATO’s commitment to the rebels is going to produce a movement of opportunists, not democrats. Look at how many people received Idi Amin in Uganda thinking he was liberating them from Milton Obote’s tyranny! Being frustrated by a tyrant should not lead us to believe that any and every alternative is better.

This is not to say that foreign support is bad per se. However, such support must be minimal, aimed at building the capacity of local actors to prosecute the war on their own. Rebels should be willing to pay the price of such an undertaking. They must be the drivers. They must demonstrate they can mobilise resources, build an organisation and inspire people. They must also demonstrate a willingness to pay the price of freedom. Many have already done part of this, and they should be given space to build that capacity over a period of time. The form of support by NATO today is decisive; it will decide who wins and who loses.

Besides, NATO is setting a standard for how Gaddafi should behave towards rebels that goes against its own practice. For example, US bombing raids have been killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan for nine year. US troops have been partly responsible for the death of many innocent civilians in Iraq. All that former US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, had to say about this was that “stuff happens.” Why is it that when the same crime is committed by NATO or the US, it is “collateral damage”; when done by Gaddafi, it is called mass slaughter of the innocents?

It seems therefore that the wider concept of international criminal justice and its body, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is merely an instrument for western powers to impose their wishes on leaders in poor countries. Yet the problem is not merely the targeting of leaders of poor countries who commit atrocities. Rather it focuses on those leaders who commit crimes and also threaten the interests of the western powers. There seems to be an attempt by the western powers to regain control over the management of affairs of poor countries that was lost through decolonisation.

Africa is coming under increasing pressure to surrender key decision making powers to the international community, the west. Today, international financial institutions like IMF and World Bank, international human rights groups, the global humanitarian effort to fight poverty and impunity in poor countries are trying to wrestle control of the management of African affairs from African decisions makers to themselves. The most effective instrument of this process, however, is intellectual; because elites in poor countries actually see these trends as legitimate. This movement is driven by a discourse on democracy and human rights that is actually disarticulated from the peculiar challenges our nations face.

Many of the criticisms raised by the international community in advancing the cause of Western control over our affairs are often correct. They also resonate with public opinion among a section of elites in our countries. However, my issue is not with the analysis of the problems but the solutions suggested. Many elites in Africa are frustrated by the forms of corruption, nepotism and incompetence of our rulers. But this frustration should not lead us to believe that external interventions are the solution, however well intentioned. Indeed, it is wrong to let one’s frustrations guide their vision. Not every/any alternative is better.

Thus, across a broad spectrum of our lives, someone else is claiming to be acting on our behalf and for our own good; our role is to be spectators. The people of Libya are protected by NATO, the hungry in Ethiopia are fed by World Food Programme, the sick in Congo are treated by Doctors Without Borders, Ivory Coast is liberated by French Special Forces, war in Sierra Leone is ended by British troops, Liberia is held together by US marines, at G8 summits it is Bono who represents the views of the poor.

In every effort aimed at our emancipation, someone else is doing it for us, on our behalf. We are victims to be “helped”; our role is to be passive spectators not active participants in efforts aimed at our own liberation. What we get are not hard won rights of a self determined people; it is charity from a caring and benevolent international community, the western world. So groups of activists have assembled on almost every single issue that affects our lives. They raise money, organise campaigns, speak on television, write in newspapers, organise seminars and lobby their parliaments in our name.

Yet this trend is not new. In the 19th century many high minded Europeans argued that colonialism was necessary to liberate us from the tyranny of our customs and the despotism of our chiefs. These were genuine ills in our societies and many African elites like Sir. Apollo Kagwa and Semei Kakungulu in Uganda joined the British to promote the colonial project. Colonialism was also meant to promote commerce, Christianity and civilisation but what we got was a regime of racial discrimination, exploitation and injustice.

Today, the situation is not very different. Every day I am watching on television Europeans and Americans discussing the liberation of Libya, not Libyans. I read newspaper articles written by the same people about freedom and democracy in Libya. The voice of Libyans is missing in this debate about their destiny, their future.

The lesson we learnt from colonialism was that although we face fundamental internal problems, foreigners are ill equipped to liberate us regardless of the nobility of their intentions. We need space to shape our destiny not because foreigners are bad but because they cannot understand the complexity of our problems. The problems our countries face are much more complex to be solved by a single stroke of removing one leader. We have seen many changes of government in Africa with little change in governance. Many tyrants have gone and worse have come into their stead.



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