By Eskinder Nega
Nero was famously eccentric in Roman times. He longed to be remembered for his theatrical abilities rather than leadership of one of the world’s greatest empires. But his other quirks were more horrifying than amusing. He imagined, for example, an implausible bed—yes, bed— which would commit murder. And there were the psychotic eccentricities of Russia’s Ivan the terrible who, as legend has it, had an elephant killed for refusing to bow to him.
Modern times’ eccentrics have generally been less deadly. There is, for instance, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian asylum seeker who lived in the departure lounge of Charles de Gaulle’s Airport for many years. (He inspired Tom Hank’s fictional 2004 movie, The Terminal.)
At the opposite end of the pole, though, the modern age also has Libya’s ominous Muammar Gadhafi as a world famous eccentric.
Gadhafi was born in the great Saharan desert in 1942. His parents were Arabized Berbers. Libya was under the inept rule of Fascist Italy back then. But twenty years later, in 1961, with the first wave of decolonization on the verge of sweeping Africa, Libya was hastily transformed into an independent, and hopefully conservative, Kingdom by Western powers. But with next door revolutionary Egypt exciting passions across the Arab world, a revolution in Libya was only inevitable from the very outset.
Inspired by the success of Egypt’s Nasser and his free officers in the mid-fifties, radicalized young Arabs joined their countries’ militaries with the hope of eventually using them as revolutionary weapons, too.
And so a Nasser-awed, aspiring revolutionary Gadhafi, one of many like-minded youth in the Middle East, made his way to his nation’s military academy, where he was promptly accepted. Eight years later he was unexpectedly running Libya. Even he hadn’t planned it this way, though. It was a feat worthy more of fate than earthly being. Gadhafi was only 27.
His eccentricities were not really evident at first. But in retrospect, perhaps there was an early sign at Nasser’s funeral. Nasser died of a sudden heart attack only a year after Gadhafi’s accession to power in 1969. The Arab world was stunned. He had just presided over a pan-Arabic summit. Tens of thousands poured spontaneously into the streets all over the Arab world wailing in utter grief. On the day of the funeral, five million came out to pay their respects. And while tears rolled down the faces of PLO’s Chairman Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein, the Arab world’s newest leader, Gadhafi, fainted twice. An unusually passionate man had come to power in Libya.
Over the next forty years he would go on to amuse the world with his all-female bodyguards; his “voluptuous Ukrainian nurses;” his outrageous statements (“HIV is a peace virus;”) pitched tents from where he conducted state business; and, of course, his memorably colorful attires.
But there were also his less amusing internal polices and blood-tainted foreign adventures. Though himself one of the Berbers, North Africa’s indigenous ethnic groups, he systematically suppressed their languages and cultures. (He called it “poison.”)He killed internal dissidents at will; those who escaped to exile were assassinated. His intelligence agents planted bombs on Pan AM flight 103, which blew over Lockerbie, in Scotland, killing hundreds. Obviously, the value of life carried little weight with him.
This reckless disregard for human life was again apparent in the early days of February 2011 when serious protests, inspired by the Arab Spring, against his forty years rule broke out in several cities. He struck with vengeance. And when protests threatened to overwhelm him, he recruited mercenaries to shed more blood. He counted on the potency of mass murder and apathy of the international community to prevail. But he calculated wrong.
Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, who now leads Africa’s largest dictatorship, and who many suspect is calculating as Gaddafi did at first, should take serious note.
Killings enraged Libyans as it did Tunisians and Egyptians before them. Inexplicably and suddenly massacre failed to terrorize the young any more. Despite Gadhafi’s assertion that only a drugged youth could have refused to succumb to live bullets, hope is really what had fueled the protests.
Eric Hoffer had famously argued that it was hope not oppression that had made revolutions possible. And indeed neither Egyptians nor Libyans had more reason to rebel in 2011 than they did for decades. Too few were any more capable of imagining life free from the oppressive status-quo. Too many had been co-opted; many more had simply learned how to muddle through. But events in Tunisia changed everything. Change was proved possible. The people mattered, after all. And hope was born in the Arab world. There was then really nothing Gadhafi could have done to fundamentally change the course of events. Even without NATO’s involvement he could only have delayed not prevented his regime’s eventual demise. Hope is insuppressible. The surprise swift fall of Tripoli into rebel hands, despite numerous predications of a stalemate, underscores this fact.
Hope will come to sub-Sahara’s remaining dictatorships, too. The Arab Spring has already brought it to their doorsteps. It will not wait forever to get in. No one knows which sub-Saharan dictatorship will relent first. But that is almost irrelevant. What matters is that its spread will be unavoidable once it begins. The triumph of hope in only one sub-Saharan dictatorship will beget a continent wide African Spring, hopefully all peaceful. And as Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest dictatorship during Mubarak’s reign, was the Arab Spring’s golden prize, so will Ethiopia, sub-Sahara’s biggest dictatorship, be the golden prize for an African Spring. There couldn’t have been an Arab Spring without Egypt. There will be no African Spring without Ethiopia.
Hopefully, Meles understands this and is willing to do his country and Africa one big favor. When the time arrives, the inevitable must not be futilely resisted. This is the crucial lesson that should be learned from Gadhafi’s needlessly destructive finale. Ethiopia must and should avoid violence. If Ethiopia shuns violence so will most of sub-Sahara Africa. And only then will the advent of the African Spring be even better news than that of the Arab Spring.