One Region
August 30, 2011
Libya: A rough road ahead

For those governments that had been courting Muammar Gaddafi for the money that he handed out to spread his influence around the world, his fall from power in Libya is bad news.{{more}} And, the news is unlikely to get better, whatever regime replaces him.

As this commentary is being written, Gaddafi is being sought in and near Tripoli. If he is still in the country, it is only a matter of time before he is caught. His treatment, if he is captured alive, will depend on who catches him. In any event, his almost 42-year rule as leader of Libya, which began when he seized power in a military coup in 1969, is at an end.

Despite the recognition by several Western governments of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), it is by no means certain that as events unfold in the coming months, the Council or the persons who constitute it, will remain in charge. Indeed, confusion and chaos are likely to reign for some months to come.

There are now large groups of people throughout Libya who are armed with heavy weapons and who feel that, having confronted the Gaddafi power machine, they are entitled to share in the spoils. They are unlikely to go quietly into the night.

Perhaps it is in acknowledgement of this reality, that Western governments and commentators have been calling for no recriminations (except against Gaddafi and his sons) and to maintain in office the military and public service that served Gaddafi. They recognise that they made an error in Iraq by getting rid of the military establishment, police and public servants. There was no one in place to take charge, except the Americans and the British, and they had little or no experience of Iraq. They also had to train a complete police force and rebuild a military capability. In the meantime, lawlessness was rampant everywhere.

One thing is for sure, whether it is the NTC or some other body, Libya now needs a government urgently, so as to bring order after months of chaos. And, whatever government it is, it will be a long time to come before it starts seeking influence and allies by spreading abroad the revenues from Libya’s oil. The focus of any new government will have to be on rebuilding Libya’s damaged physical infrastructure and in building a democratic society. Building such a democratic society will be much more challenging than replacing physical infrastructure.

Libya is not short of money now. Nor will it be in the future. The immediate problem confronting the NTC, which will seek to run the country, is that more than $150 billion of Libya’s assets are locked up abroad, much of it frozen as part of sanctions applied against Gaddafi. No doubt the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), who backed the uprising against Gaddafi, will want to release some of that money to NTC to allow it to assert its authority in the country.

Other countries, such as South Africa, where Libyan assets are also lodged, will want to be more cautious about to whom the funds are released. They will want to be sure that there is a de facto government in place. South African President Jacob Zuma is on record as saying he wants to see a government in place in Libya and his government has criticised Nigeria for recognising the NTC even before Gaddafi is officially no longer in any kind of authority.

At the moment, many government salaries have gone unpaid, including the police and the army. The NTC will only persuade these people to work if they are assured of being paid, and they see an early sign of it.

The NATO countries, themselves, are unlikely to release all of the frozen funds to the NTC at once. The United States, Canada and the European Union countries will be keen to see swift attempts at drafting a constitution for

Libya and no doubt will expect to see it in the model of constitutions governing Western countries. They will also want plans to be put in place for general elections, by which the people can choose a government from contending political parties.

The latter will not happen overnight. A country with no history of political parties and general elections will require a great deal of information and training simply to put the necessary institutions in place. Forming political parties will be even more difficult, because they are bound to be fashioned first on narrow political and regional interests before those interests can be merged into bodies with a national reach, if that can be achieved.

It can also be taken for granted that the NATO countries will be pulling strings behind the scenes and openly. The NTC will clearly do business with the countries and agencies that helped them to topple Gaddafi. Those countries that remained supportive of Gaddafi or assumed a neutral stance will hardly get a look-in. The only two exceptions to that rule would be China and Russia, with whom Libya would want to continue sensible relations for strategic reasons related to security.

The experts claim that Libya has Africa’s highest oil reserves. But, its national production has been reduced to virtually nothing, because of the conflict over the last few months. They also claim that it will take at least a year before production reaches the level it was before the conflict. All the more reason why Libya will not be opening a cheque book to governments around the world any time soon.

The spoils of oil are already well and truly in the hands of French, British and Italian companies, and the US can be assured of supplies to meet its demands in the coming years. What is more, the price of oil is showing signs of going down. The UN Security Council, in giving NATO a chit to help save lives in Libya by protecting those who rebelled against Gaddafi from his warplanes and bombs, also unintentionally provided a license for helping with regime change. Many will rightly ponder how to guard against a similar occurrence in the future.

It appears that the majority of people inside Libya are pleased to see the back of Muammar Gaddafi and his reign of terror, both inside and outside of the country, but the vacuum he has left needs to be filled. No one should expect Libya to be stable and well-ordered for some time to come – NATO countries had a role in the war; they must now play a significant role in ensuring the peace.

In the meantime, Libya’s cheque book diplomacy is also at an end.

(The writer is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)

Responses and previous commentaries at: