Muammar Gaddafi: Madman or shrewd politician?

12th October 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is also known as ‘King of Kings', ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution', the ‘mad dog of the Middle East', and as an ‘African Che Guevara'? A former president of Sudan, Gaafer Nimeiri, went so far as dismiss him as someone suffering from "a split personality - both evil". In Gaddafi's 41 years in power, his illustrious reputation as both an international pariah and an eccentric revolutionary have been cemented through his assumption of various roles. Gaddafi is well-known for promoting his vision of a United States of Africa, which he pursued strongly in his role as founder of the African Union (AU), and later in his 2009 term as head of the AU. Gaddafi is also notorious for the establishment of his Islamic socialist republic in Libya, his adventurist foreign policy, his involvement in terrorist activities, his hostility to the West, his contribution to the Lockerbie bombing, and his controversial relationship with the United Nations (UN), among others. He is also known for his flamboyant personal style, which includes the requisite sunglasses, animal skins and gun-toting, virgin female bodyguards.(2)


This discussion paper examines the discourse, strategy and behaviour of Muammar Gaddafi in order to better understand the man who is so often in the international spotlight due to his words and actions. Secondly, due to the varying conceptions of Gaddafi, this paper aims to reach a consensus on whether he is more madman or shrewd politician.


Gaddafi and Libya


In 1969, at the age of 27, Muammar Gaddafi launched a successful coup against the Libyan monarchy. Since then he has dominated Libya's politics by sheer personality and an opportunistic style of leadership. On assuming power, he quickly embarked on a cultural revolution, whereby all the traces of former Italian colonialism and foreign influence were removed from Libya.(3) In 1975 he released his infamous Green Book in an imitation of Mao Zedong's Red Book. The Green Book contains three parts - The Solution of the Problem of Democracy: ‘The Authority of the People'; The Solution of the Economic Problem: ‘Socialism'; and The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory.(4) Gaddafi's political colours shone through even at this early stage in his career as he chartered his own political course by offering a home-grown alternative to both capitalism and socialism, combined with features of Islam in his Green Book.


In 1977, he invented a system that he called Jamahiriya or state of the masses whereby the nation is supposedly governed by the people through a system of people's committees.(5) Within this system, Gaddafi technically holds no formal office, though he is officially known in Libya by the title Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution and is still considered to be the de facto leader of the nation. The Jamahiriya has met with international derision, including being dismissed as a military dictatorship.(6) Indeed, central characteristics of Gaddafi's Libya include stringent Government control and repression of civil society, instant imprisonment of individuals critical of Gaddafi or his system of governance and harsh restrictions on free assembly and expression. Moreover, hundreds of individuals have been "disappeared" on the basis of their political beliefs.(7)

Gaddafi's 40-year hold on power was celebrated in 2009 with great fanfare and lavish attention to detail. Hundreds of millions were spent on rebuilding parts of Tripoli in preparation for the celebration. Gaddafi's sense of occasion and his lofty ambitions have not been limited to Libya alone. In fact, the way in which he has conducted his internal affairs as the leader of Libya parallels his broader involvement regionally and internationally.


Gadaffi at a regional and international level


Gaddafi's adventurist foreign policy was firstly exemplified by his extreme Arab nationalism in the early decades of his leadership. Gaddafi was an ardent promoter of Arab unity and went so far as to suggest a federation between Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Chad, Morocco and Algeria, all of which failed.(8) Gaddafi's initial ambitious intention was the creating of a Saharan Islamic state encompassing 100 million Muslims and extending to the southern borders of Sudan.(9) A related concern of his was the opposition of Israel and his insistence on a violent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.(10) Gaddafi's interest in the affairs of other states also extended further afield. In this regard, his "radical revolutionary activism"(11) has not been limited to the promotion of Arab and Islamic unity only.


Gadaffi also plunged Libya into violent conflict with five of his six neighbours and provided clandestine support to numerous rebel insurgencies, and liberation or opposition groups throughout Africa. Moreover, in an apparent effort to undermine Western and Israeli influence in Africa, Gaddafi provided support to numerous African dictators, including Amin in Uganda, Bokassa in the Central African Republic and Mobuto in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), amongst numerous others.(12) Cementing his reputation as a schizophrenic leader, Gaddafi has "discarded alliances and friends without hesitation when they no longer served a useful purpose and switched sides with relative ease".(13)


Far from being only a meddler in African states' affairs, Gaddafi has also played the role of a humanitarian, spending millions of petro-dollars on aid in Africa.(14) Libya's attempts to become a more responsible member of the international community in the 1990s and 2000's have seen Gaddafi intensify his efforts to bring peace to Africa. The promotion of peace and security in Africa by Gaddafi accompanied his shift in foreign policy, from an Arab focus to an African focus, and toward the promotion of regional cooperation and mediation.(15) Nevertheless, it should be noted that Gaddafi's efforts over the last decade to become a peacemaker in Africa and in the world remain largely unconvincing due to his alleged involvement in toppling President Patasse of the Central African Republic from power, as well as an attempt to assassinate a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family, both of which took place in 2003.(16)

Having been shunned by a number of Arab states on the basis of his militant views on how to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others, Gaddafi found focus in redefining his foreign policy efforts in Africa through embracing pan-Africanism over Pan-Arabism in the 1990s.(17) Gaddafi's vision is now for a United States of Africa - a united Africa with a single army, currency and powerful leadership. Fuelling his ambitions for Africa was his assumption in 2009 of the rotating chairmanship of the AU. However, Gaddafi has not managed to drum up any major support for his United States of Africa from his African compatriots, most of whom feel that such a move will infringe on their sovereignty.


Gaddafi's adventurism has led him farther afield than Africa and the Arab world and much of his infamy is based on his relationship with the West. In this regard, Gaddafi's association with terrorism has earned him the enmity of the West. He is reported to have supported approximately 50 terror organisations and subversion groups, as well as some 40 radical Governments in Africa, Asia, Europe and America.(18) His broad spectrum sponsorship of such groups has not revealed any real ideological cause as such, but rather suggests that he considers terrorism a tool to be used against his perceived foes - Israel and the West.(19) A first incident that caused Gaddafi's relations with the West to plummet was Libya's alleged involvement in the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub in which two US servicemen were killed. This incident prompted American air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 35 Libyans, including Gaddafi's daughter.(20)


Gaddafi's involvement in the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in Scotland is possibly the most well known and controversial international incident in which he has been involved. After many years of denying his involvement, resulting in Libya's status as a pariah state and the presence of UN sanctions, Gaddafi finally took responsibility for the bombing in 2003. This paved the way for his gradual transition from international outcast to an accepted, though unconventional and unpredictable member of the international community. However, Gaddafi and the Pan Am incident have recently come back into the spotlight with the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, by the Scottish Government. His release has caused international furore due to the hero's welcome Megrahi received from Gaddafi on his return to Libya, and due to the allegations that Megrahi's release was only ascertained due to lucrative oil deals between Libya and Britain.(21)

Gaddafi's sanctioning of terrorist groups throughout his reign has not endeared him to the West and Gaddafi has few friends and allies outside of Libya's borders. His revolutionary zeal has, however, been tempered somewhat in the last 10 years. Evidence of this was his abandonment of efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, which contributed greatly to Libya's re-entry into the international community. The normalisation of relations with the West has allowed the Libyan economy to grow and the oil industry in particular has benefited from this, as Western states and international oil companies, hungry for oil, have embraced Libya's oil reserves. Accompanying the thawing relations with the West has been Gaddafi and Libya's revitalised role in the UN, which has recently been the subject of much controversy.


The date 23 September 2009 marked Gaddafi's first visit to the United States (US) and his first appearance at the UN General Assembly where he addressed world leaders at the annual gathering in New York. Gaddafi lived up to his reputation as an eccentric and unpredictable leader in his speech, which was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but ended up being an hour and 40 minutes long. During his address, he "tore up a copy of the UN charter in front of startled delegates, accused the security council of being an al-Qaida like terrorist body, called for George Bush and Tony Blair to be put on trial for the Iraq war, demanded US$ 7.7 trillion in compensation for the ravages of colonialism on Africa, and wondered whether swine flu was a biological weapon created in a military laboratory. At one point he even demanded to know who was behind the killing of JFK".(22) Gaddafi's bizarre tirade served to undo much of Gaddafi's and Libya's recently acquired legitimacy at an international level, as he alienated and abused most delegates at the meeting.

Gaddafi's inopportune speech came on the heels of Libya's ascendance to the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly. After many years of being treated as an international pariah by the West, including stringent sanctions on the country by the UN, Libya was granted a rotating seat on the UN Security Council in 2008. Libya's previous attempts to win a seat on the Security Council in 1995 and 2000 were foiled by the US and its recent two-year stint on the Security Council was marred by the uproar surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber.(23) In addition, Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's representative on the Security Council "exchanged accusations of state terrorism with Israeli officials and blocked compromises on a number of resolutions or statements". The election of Libyan Ali Abdessalam Treki to the role of president of the General Assembly in 2009 for a one-year term also highlighted the growing acceptance of Libya on the international stage.


However, the Gaddafi Government's controversial election to the UN Human Rights Council in 2010 has really placed Gaddafi in the spotlight. Gaddafi's Government's notorious willingness to brutally crack down on the country's independent media, political parties and free speech, among others, has earned the country the reputation as one of the world's most repressive societies.(24) Libya's election to the Human Rights Council has served to critically undermine the Human Rights Commission's credibility and highlight Gaddafi's dictatorial style of leadership. As President of Libya, Gaddafi has steered his country's re-entrance into the UN in his usual erratic and unpredictable way and it seems that it has been one step forward and two steps back for Gaddafi at the UN.

Concluding remarks


Madman or shrewd politician? After highlighting the main aspects of Gaddafi's long reign in power, including his behaviour, strategy and actions on a local, regional and international stage, it can be concluded that he is an eclectic mixture of both. Gaddafi has repeatedly modified his ideology to protect his position and in doing so, he has seemed mad, shrewd, and everything in between over the last 40 years. He is indeed a madman and a shrewd politician, but he is also a revolutionary, a humanitarian, a dictator, and an international statesman, amongst the many descriptions that can be attributed to him.

Written by: Catherine Pringle (1)


(1) Contact Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) Aidan Lewis, ‘Profile: Muammar Gaddafi', BBC News, 28 August 2010,
(3) Alyssa Fetini, ‘Muammar Gaddafi', Time, 03 February 2009,
(4) ‘Libya: al-Qaddafi's Green Book', Council on Foreign Relations,
(5) Aidan Lewis, ‘Profile: Muammar Gaddafi', BBC News, 28 August 2010,
(6) Alyssa Fetini, ‘Muammar Gaddafi', Time, 03 February 2009,
(7) ‘Libya: Events of 2009', Human Rights Watch,
(8) Tamura, S., 2008. Rethinking Pam-Africanism Under African Union (AU) Led Continental Integration: Revival of Afro-Arab Solidarity or Clash of Civilization?, Journal of Global Change and Governance, 1(4), pp. 17.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Black, C. R., 2000. Deterring Libya: The Strategic Culture of Muammar Qaddafi. USAF Counterproliferation Papers, Future Warfare Series, No. 8, pp. 14.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Tamura, S., 2008. Rethinking Pam-Africanism Under African Union (AU) Led Continental Integration: Revival of Afro-Arab Solidarity or Clash of Civilization?, Journal of Global Change and Governance, 1(4), pp. 18.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Salah Sarrar, ‘We can build a United States of Africa, Gaddafi says', Reuters, 27 July 2010,
(15) Tamura, S., 2008. Rethinking Pam-Africanism Under African Union (AU) Led Continental Integration: Revival of Afro-Arab Solidarity or Clash of Civilization?, Journal of Global Change and Governance, 1(4), pp. 17.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Aidan Lewis, ‘Profile: Muammar Gaddafi', BBC News, 28 August 2010,
(18) Black, C. R., 2000. Deterring Libya: The Strategic Culture of Muammar Qaddafi. USAF Counterproliferation Papers, Future Warfare Series, No. 8, pp. 14.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Black, C. R., 2000. Deterring Libya: The Strategic Culture of Muammar Qaddafi. USAF Counterproliferation Papers, Future Warfare Series, No. 8, pp. 15.
(21) James Chapman and Ian Drury, ‘Gaddafi embraces Lockerbie bomber and thanks his "courageous friend" Gordon Brown for releasing him', Mail Online, 22 August 2009,
(22) Ed Pilkington, ‘UN general assembly: 100 minutes in the life of Muammar Gaddafi', The Guardian, 23 September 2009,
(23) ‘Obama to Preside at the UN Security Council', Voice of America News, 02 September 2009,
(24) Antoine Blua, ‘Rights Groups Dismayed Over Libya's Election To UN Human Rights Council', Radio Free Europe, 14 May 2010,