Black sheep of Libya edges back into fold

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The Independent Online

You tell the French president to his face that he's a hypocrite. You urge the Italian prime minister to boot the US Sixth Fleet out of Naples. You insist that Africa needs not democracy but water pumps, and accuse Europeans of regarding Africans as "gorillas".

Not, it might be thought, the best way for one of the blackest of international black sheep to set about returning to the fold. But then, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was never one to go by the rules. Libya is starting to mend its fences with the world, but in typically idiosyncratic fashion.

For all its studied theatrics, his appearance at last week's EU-Africa summit in Cairo was but the latest sign of a rapprochement that has led the US State Department to the verge of lifting the 15-year ban on Americans travelling to Libya, and seen a senior politician of Israel - long regarded by Col Gaddafi as the root of all evil - officially invited for talks in Tripoli.

So what on earth is happening? The answer is a mixture of hard economics and, probably, the first intimations of mortality by the "Guide of the Masses", who has led his country since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1969.

By Arab leaders' standards, Col Gaddafi is a comparative stripling at 58. But his health has not been good for several years, Libya-watchers say. And while "permanent revolution" was and remains his preferred modus operandi, it is unlikely to guarantee a smooth transfer of power. Indeed, for the first time since the launch of the Jamahariya or "State of the Masses" in 1977, he has been talking of the need for Libya to have a formal head of state.

The clearest evidence that old attitudes in Tripoli were changing was last year's handover of the two suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, quickly followed by agreement to pay compensation to the family of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead in 1984 by agents firing from within the Libyan embassy in St James's Square, London.

The results were swift: a lifting of UN sanctions, the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Britain and Libya after 16 years, and the possibility that the US, which still demands that Col Gaddafi definitively renounce terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, might follow suit.

Undoubtedly, long diplomatic isolation was starting to wear down even the ever-truculent Col Gaddafi. But the real pressure was economic - the need to get foreign investment flowing again into the Libyan oil sector, critical for the revival of growth and the reduction of an unemployment rate of more than 30 per cent.

Oil, say Western diplomats, was the main factor in the Libyan leader's seemingly most bizarre recent decision: the abolition in March of a dozen ministries and the supposed transfer of their power, as the revolution's ideology dictates, to the grass-roots.

Since all the ultimate levers of power are in his hands, the change will make no practical difference - except in one way. Among the departments to go is the Energy Ministry whose bureaucracy, foreign operators complained, was delaying the allocation of new exploration and production permits.

As a result, oil revenues stagnated even though prices were rising, prompting an enraged Col Gaddafi to make an unscheduled appearance at the General People's Congress, Libya's supreme legislative body, to tear up the draft budget.

Last week, he appeared in similarly unpredictable vein at the Cairo summit, and the message was the same. Libya may be inching towards the international mainstream, and Col Gaddafi, in his own fashion, may be mellowing. But if anyone thinks he's turning into a soft touch - forget it.