Gaddafi deals with his demons

Despite all the anti-US rhetoric, Libya is set to talk business with the so-called `enemies of science and education', learns Alex Duval Smith
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LIBYA will maintain an outwardly defiant stance towards the United States and to a lesser extent Britain, despite the suspension of sanctions imposed over the Lockerbie bombing. But behind the scenes Muammar Gaddafi's regime plans talks with both countries.

During the first visit by a Western newspaper to Libya and its leader, Colonel Gaddafi, since sanctions were lifted two weeks ago, The Independent on Sunday also learned of lucrative trade deals in the offing.

Ahmed Ibrahim, a government spokesman, said on television last week that Libya should have "two foreign policies - one for friendly countries and one for enemies". In an outburst during a speech in his Bedouin marquee in the Sahara, Col Gaddafi made it clear which category the US fell into: it was, he said, "an enemy of science and education".

The "friendly countries", said Mr Ibrahim, were those in Africa and the Middle East which breached the ban on commercial flights during seven years of United Nations sanctions. Foremost is South Africa, which helped broker the handover two weeks ago, for trial in the Netherlands of two men accused by Britain and the US of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

The explosion aboard Pan Am 103, bound for New York from Frankfurt, killed 270 people on 21 December 1988. In 1992, the UN imposed air and arms embargos against Libya and later ordered some of the country's assets to be frozen until the handover of Lamin Khalifa Fhimah and Abdelbasset Ali el-Megrahi.

But Libya's stated defiance may be mere rhetoric. Despite seven years of internal propaganda, during which "imperialism and its agents" were demonised, Ali Triki, Libya's foreign minister for Africa, said in an interview that talks would start soon in New York with Britain and the US. "The three countries are looking forward to normalising relations and boosting trade," he said.

It is believed that lucrative contracts, including a $16bn (pounds 10bn) purchase of Airbuses by Libyan Arab Airlines, will be woven into the talks, which are conditional on UN sanctions - currently suspended - being permanently lifted. "Friendly countries" will get a head start in re-establishing air links: South African Airways is due to start its service this week.

The New York talks will be an opportunity for Western human rights groups to press for greater access to Libya. The mostly urban population lives in comfort, with oil revenues paying for free health care, schooling, rent-free housing and subsidised food and cars, but the country has no political opposition. Fearing police brutality as a result of denunciation by fellow citizens - a means of achieving favours such as cars and better housing - ordinary people are terrified of discussing politics.

Col Gaddafi, now 57, is celebrating his 30th year since overthrowing King Idris and becoming "Guide of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah" (country of the masses). He can be found, far from his people but close to his Gaddafa tribal roots, in the desert near his birthplace, Sirte.

You only come to Sirte, 280 miles east of Tripoli, by appointment. That is abundantly clear as you approach from the air the desert runway ringed with bunkers, tank pits and anti-aircraft artillery. Last Wednesday Col Gaddafi was busy. Sirte airport was jammed with private jets as African leaders flew in for "Brother Leader's" blessing, maybe funding, or instructions even.

The former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, facing a witch-hunt in his own country, stripped of his citizenship and possibly needing funds for his Supreme Court appeal, was there. Frederico Mayor, secretary general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, came to present a medal to Col Gaddafi for giving $1.4m towards a 35-year project for African historians to write the history of their continent. The leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and the new Prime Minister of Niger also came for a meeting of Comessa - a year-old, Libyan-initiated group of Saharan states.

Col Gaddafi, wearing a beige gown, held court far from the airport, in a large white marquee buffeted by the Saharan wind. From a large pink armchair resting on Persian carpets, he launched an anti-American rant as the electric lightbulbs swung overhead. By his side was his aluminium crutch, a constant prop since last year, when, according to unofficial reports, he was attacked by Chadian Islamists.

"The Western perspective of Africa is of a slave market - an undeveloped, backward people who lack civilisation and culture. That is why the world acts as it does against Africans. So when this world organisation [Unesco] took the right approach, the United States boycotted that organisation," said the Libyan leader, referring to the American withdrawal 14 years ago from Unesco, followed by Britain (which has recently rejoined).

"That shows that America is an enemy of science and education. World culture and civilisation are not hostage to the US," he said.

There was no mention of Lockerbie; Col Gaddafi will not talk about it. Nor will he denounce acts of terrorism - indeed, he recently justified them: "in a certain time and place, when we were at war".

It is not clear how firm is his hold on power. He rules by tribal favouritism, and there is speculation that he is edging towards handing over to one of his two sons. But diplomats who know Libya well sense changes afoot which are not of his making.

With sanctions, he could hide and he could demonise America, said a European diplomat in Tripoli. "Libyan people are poorly educated and ripe for the promises of the Islamists, who are waiting in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. The West and Europe should realise that it is in their interest to take an interest in Libya now."