Libya: after the cheers, the work

2011-10-25 00:00

LAST Thursday, the curtain came down on the life of Muammar Gaddafi. After about eight months of slow ascendance, the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces, moving from region to region, town to town, and after a bruising battle at Gaddafi's birthplace of Sirte, captured Gaddafi, humiliated and executed him.

The celebrations in the streets of major Libyan towns, especially Benghazi and the capital, Tripoli, are understandable. These are people who have been oppressed and marginalised for many years under Gaddafi. They have not enjoyed the fruits of the relative wealth of their country. They have watched as members of the Gaddafi family and his associates rose to positions of authority and enjoyed the country's wealth.

The ordinary Libyans have watched as Gaddafi's wide-ranging authority was seriously challenged for the first time. They saw him looking defiant, but rattled by the initial push by armed revolutionaries in Benghazi. They witnessed his authority wither away as his control over parts of Libya crumbled quickly, thanks to arms and so-called military advisers supplied by France and the United Kingdom, as well as incessant bombing of Gaddafi's positions by Nato warplanes and unmanned United States drones. Then he was cornered in Sirte while his first wife and some members of his family fled to Algeria.

These developments and the NTC promises also helped raise expectations not only of victory against Gaddafi, but also for future freedom and democracy. The NTC promised that it would put in place an exemplary democracy in the Islamic world. It reiterated this when the Turkish prime minister visited Tripoli in September.

The Libyans also began to hope that their lives would improve materially. All of these hopes depended on Gaddafi being defeated, and his killing last week suggested that nothing will stop the NTC from turning aspirations into reality. Like in all instances of liberation, expectations turn into disappointment and even disgruntlement.

The killing of Gaddafi was wrong whether it was driven by strong emotions or by fear that hauling him before a court would make him popular. The killing of a prisoner of war violates international law and offends every norm in the international system. The practice of baying for the blood of another human being, however horrible that individual is, is barbaric.

Execution may be seen by some as a sort of justice, but it is not a preferred kind of justice in a civilised society. If we get too used to ending dictatorships in this way, it will become a precedent to brand leaders dictators to justify extra-judicial killing.

It is not just matters of legality and morality that one wants to raise over this, but also political implications. Already, Gaddafi's clan has requested to bury his body according to its customs. It feels that it owes its son a dignified burial to atone for the brutal death he met. Gaddafi loyalists and many in the Libyan middle class who have benefited from his rule will want either to avenge him or they will harbour a grudge against the mainly Benghazi-based NTC.

Libya needs time to heal, reconcile its various people, build strong institutions and construct a viable society going forward. Certainly, the last thing Libya needs is disgruntled people who feel that the whole revolution was a partisan project of a section of the fractured society backed by Western powers to mete out jungle justice on another. With many weapons in the hands of whoever was willing to join the fight, for whatever reason, the last thing the country needs is a coalition of the discontented.

Some Berber people and Islamists who were also suppressed under Gaddafi do not consider the execution of Gaddafi to be the end of the revolution. The Berber people have been looking for autonomy for a long time, while the Islamists have been suppressed for demanding an Islamic state in Libya. They may find willing partners in a destabilising campaign inside Libya among those feeling marginalised and targeted by the NTC forces

For this reason, the NTC should be encouraged to act quickly to remove arms from civilian hands, reach out to the Gaddafi side, grant his clan its wishes on burial rites, and work with the African Union and others to move fast in implementing the road to recovery. So, it's back to the African Union position after all.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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