The Libyan revolution of 2011 undoubtedly presented South Africa with one of its most perplexing and controversial foreign policy challenges. Precisely what happened, and why, still remains a mystery four years later.
Most memorably, South Africa, as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, voted for Resolution 1973 which authorised military intervention in Libya. This gave the go-ahead for a NATO-led coalition to conduct fierce airstrikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
It was unprecedented for South Africa to approve Western military action against a fellow African country, and it caused huge repercussions even within some quarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Senior South African officials explained that they could not sit idly by when Gaddafi was threatening to eliminate his rebel enemies in Benghazi. Then South Africa appeared to reverse its position by condemning the military coalition bombing Libya – for allegedly distorting the mandate of Resolution 1973 by trying to topple Gaddafi instead of remaining neutral and just protecting civilians.
His position had changed radically since our previous meeting. Gaddafi had put pressure on him.
President Jacob Zuma and his government also accused NATO of deliberately thwarting the African Union’s (AU’s) peace initiative in Libya by refusing to lift the no-fly zone enough to allow Zuma and other AU mediators to properly engage the Libyans in their peace effort. That accusation has always prompted the question though – did the AU peace initiative ever stand a real chance anyway? New light is now being cast on that question.
Last week, it was revealed in emails of then United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that Mahmoud Jibril, the 2011 head of Libya’s National Transitional Council – or interim Prime Minister of the rebels opposing Gaddafi – had clashed with Zuma back then. He had told Clinton’s aides that he had recently accused Zuma of making Nelson Mandela feel ashamed.
The email does not disclose the context for Jibril’s remark, but he explained this in a telephone interview with the ISS this week. Jibril is now the leader of the National Forces Alliance, the largest political party in the internationally recognised Libyan government which sits in Tobruk, 1 000 kilometres east of the country’s historic capital Tripoli.
The recognised government was forced to flee Tripoli last year by Libya Dawn, a coalition of militias and Islamists, which then set up a rival government. Jibril’s account of his encounters with Zuma in 2011 throws a different light on Pretoria’s explanation of what went wrong with the AU’s peace efforts and indeed the Libyan revolution.
It is public knowledge that Zuma visited Tripoli twice that year, once on 9 April, as head of a five-president dedicated AU committee appointed to tackle the Libyan crisis, and then again on 31 May. After meeting Gaddafi in Tripoli on the first trip in April, the rest of the AU presidential committee visited Benghazi to talk to the rebels, but Zuma did not. That was the first black mark against his name, Jibril later revealed in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV.
A transitional government could have prevented the current chaos
However, it has not been reported in South Africa (or not widely so) that Zuma also met Jibril three times during that period, in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
Jibril cannot recall the precise dates, but said at one of his earlier meetings with Zuma, he found him sympathetic and accommodating. Zuma agreed that Gaddafi would have to give up power if outright war was to be avoided. Jibril asked him if he and the AU presidential committee had made it clear to Gaddafi that he must stand down. The answer was that this was ‘implicit’ in the AU peace plan. But Jibril insisted that it should be made explicit to Gaddafi.
Zuma said he was busy with arrangements for the upcoming municipal elections but would travel to Libya later. He did so on 31 May.
Jibril recounts how he was later visiting China on official business and received a call from Mathews Phosa, the then ANC’s Secretary-General and a close aide of Zuma’s (before they later fell out), asking him to fly to Durban urgently to meet Zuma. Jibril cut his visit short, and made the 22-hour flight to Durban where he was taken to meet Zuma in a private apartment.
‘I was surprised to hear from him that he wanted us to hand over our weapons and work with the current regime … to form a new government. Gaddafi would stay in power,’ Jibril said.
‘I was very angry. I said, OK your visit (to Gaddafi) yielded no results. Could you not have told me that on the telephone, instead of making me fly 22 hours to get here? I expected a breakthrough.’
‘We discovered a completely different Zuma in Durban. His position had changed radically since our previous meeting. Gaddafi had put pressure on him’.
Zuma’s government could ‘make it up’ to the Libyan people by returning the billions of dollars Gaddafi stashed there
It was at the Durban meeting that he then told Zuma or Phosa, that Mandela would have been ashamed of Zuma for what he was doing. ‘I said we were counting on you because you and Mandela had gone through the same experience in South Africa’.
Jibril left the meeting and flew immediately to Rome. When Zuma’s aide called him there to suggest that he should speak to Zuma to patch up the quarrel, he refused, saying he would never visit South Africa again as long as Zuma was in power. That put an abrupt end to the AU’s mediation initiative.
Phosa this week declined to comment on Jibril’s account, saying the meetings between him and Zuma had been confidential, and he could not breach that confidentiality without the permission of both parties.
There are obviously at least two sides to every story, and the Zuma camp would probably dispute aspects of Jibril’s account. Particularly the question of whether Zuma really insisted that Gaddafi himself should be part of a transitional government or just elements of his government, which is what the AU plan apparently proposed.
But there can be little contention that Zuma and Jibril met three times. And we know Zuma met Gaddafi at least twice. This means that some form of shuttle mediation was taking place between the Libyan rivals. So the NATO military campaign did not completely frustrate the AU peace efforts, as Zuma and others have suggested.
The Zuma administration is now inclined to say to NATO ‘I told you so’, suggesting that a transitional government between the Gaddafi regime and the National Transitional Council of Libya would have prevented the current chaos.
Yet Jibril’s meetings with Zuma make it abundantly clear that Gaddafi’s opponents were adamantly and vehemently opposed to that proposal, so it didn’t stand a chance. And if Jibril is right that Zuma insisted in Durban that Gaddafi himself should be part of the transitional government, it would indicate that Zuma threw a large spanner in the works.
Jibril, not surprisingly, disagrees that forming a power-sharing government with the Gaddafi regime would have prevented the current chaos. He blames it instead on foreign powers – which he won’t name – that he says are arming the Libya Dawn militias and Islamists. And he also blames the international community as a whole for failing to condemn the toppling of the duly elected government that he was part of last year.
Jibril says Zuma’s government could now ‘make it up’ to the Libyan people by returning to them the billions of dollars of money and gold bullion, which he says Gaddafi stashed away in South Africa.
Whether that hidden treasure really exists or not is just another of the many mysteries surrounding Libya’s tormented and seemingly interminable transition.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant