Vampires, Ghosts and the Curse of Oil: Libya’s horror story of (neo)colonialism.
August 27, 2011 Leave a comment
It has only been a few days since Libya has been liberated from Gaddafi, after forty years of authoritarian rule, a staunch police state created to indulge the ego of an erratic leader. Long gone are the days when developing countries needed the helping hand of the West; the Arab Spring has proved that direct action and a nationwide thirst for freedom can also pave the way to democracy and individual liberties. Most western countries have watched in silent shock and admiration the steadfast rise to freedom in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Many lessons have to be drawn from this seemingly unstoppable quest to free one country from the shackles of dictatorship: one, that the era of western-led colonialism is over, and that we must stand on a pedestal of equality. Two, that our foreign policies need to stop feeding blood thirsty tyrants in our quest for domination over national resources. A piece by Antonio Fernandez on heroes, monsters and men.
“Clearly, the narrative tells more about the corrupt nature of international politics than about Gaddafi himself”
Recent events in Libya point in the direction of the fall of 40 years of Gaddafi’s rule in that country. Witnessing the cascade of articles and editorials written on the subject not only these days but since the uprising began, it is difficult to say something original or add some new illuminating perspective on the conflict, how it began, how it might end and what to expect for the people of Libya who, after all, have been trapped in a mostly western-led geopolitical turmoil. What we have seen in most media as regards the escalating violence in Libya is yet another narrative of monsters and horror. In a peculiar turn of events, the one-time considered authoritarian despot by the West, Muammar el Gaddafi, became its ally in a so-called “war against terror”, to finally be turned overnight into a grotesque monster that bombs its own people. Clearly, the narrative tells more about the corrupt nature of international politics than about Gaddafi himself and the people of Libya; their democratic demands did not raise much interest in the West until Gaddafi the friend got out of control like a maddened Frankenstein. From this perspective, the Libyan uprising contains all the ingredients of a horror story, which is the very same story of colonialism, as Frantz Fanon described so well in his analysis of the psychological effects of colonial rule on Algerian people (1). It has monsters and grotesque creatures (Gaddafi), vampires (colonial bloodsuckers) and ghosts (the people of Libya represented through the decorporealising lens of the media). Creating monsters has always been a useful strategy for colonial powers in order to legitimise the control and appropriation of natural resources out of their territory.
“The myth of Frankenstein is also a rich source of metaphors in the horror story of Western domination over foreign countries”
In the 19th century, the Palestinian population of what is now Israel and the West Bank was described by explorers and travellers with terms that made them resemble grotesque human creatures rather actual human beings; Mrs Mary Rowlandson, a colonial American woman, described the Indians that captured her for eleven weeks as children of the devil so, alas, we have another element in the horror story of colonialism. (2) I do not want to suggest that Rowlandson herself is responsible for the denigration of the culturally different other, but her views were certainly part of the zeitgeist as many pamphlets and caricatures of the indigenous found on those years do show. The British Empire did not fall short of creativity in their representation of Asians as dark, passion ridden creatures as Edward Said so cleverly describes (3). If we want more recent examples of horror stories, we just have to turn our eyes to the Nazi propaganda of the Russians during the Second World War or the North American propaganda of its own Gulf War, where Iraqis were said to take children out of incubators and let them to die in hospitals during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Years later the story was shown to be a bluff, like so many others, but as I said before, the end justifies the means and the US gathered massive support to their military adventure in Iraq. A horror story was instrumental.
The myth of Frankenstein is also a rich source of metaphors in the horror story of Western domination over foreign countries. There we find Augusto Pinochet, who was responsible for creating, literally, rivers of blood in Chile. His description certainly fits that of a monster in his lack of humanity and excess of cruelty towards a large part of the Chilean population he governed. He showed as much insensitivity and lack of empathy towards the suffering of Chileans just like a psychopath for its victims: none. Pinochet, like Frankenstein, can be seen as the monstrous creation of a lunatic who crosses all ethical thresholds in his pursue of power and glory. The CIA brought Pinochet (and many other tyrants in South America) to life in the laboratories of the School of the Americas. It was there that Pinochet and his army were trained to commit monstrous deeds against a part of the population whose dangerous demands for a better society caused them to be rendered by the military juntas as communist monsters that deserved to be killed. And let’s not forget Saddam Hussein, a monster “fed” and cared by the United States, who, in a quintessential Frankensteinian turn, rebels against his creators. Paradoxically, the only act of rebellion -invading Kuwait- makes his creators realise he actually is a monster; massacring an entire Kurd village with chemical weapons did not suit the creators’ definition of monstrosity while he was under control.
“Gaddafi came to power claiming the right to exorcise the colonial demons from Libya. The revolutionary rhetoric gave way progressively to 40 years of authoritarian rule”
The Arab world is replete with Frankenstein-like creatures who have been supported and trained by power-thirsty western (and other non-western) elites in order to help them extend and perpetuate their domination of oil and gas resources. Among them, Gaddafi excels in theatrical extravaganza. (4) He is a good example of the dangerous games played by Western elites in their constant fabrication or transformations of simple despots into monstrous creatures with the help, of course, of the media. Like Frankenstein, Gaddafi came to power rebelling against those whom he saw as colonial oppressors only to become a close friend and ally of those very same oppressors when he realised that large sums of money could be drawn by allowing them to vampirise the country’s resources. Perhaps, after all, monsters have a deeper and close affinity with each other that humans can’t understand. The Libya Gaddafi came to save from colonial domination back in the late 60’s had already experienced the vampirisation of its natural resources by Italy. It was in 1911, when Italy claimed that the Turks were arming Libya to justify the launching of a war and the occupation of the country. Needless to say, commercial interests and colonial envy (France took the neighbouring Tunisia, perceived by Italians as closer to their sphere of influence) underpinned Italy’s actions and, of course, the myth of liberating Libyans from the Turks rang high in the Italian war propaganda. A few years later Benito Mussolini considered Libya part of his new Roman Empire (again, like Viktor Frankenstein, infatuated by his own megalomaniac dreams of power) to extract resources and promote settlements for unemployed Italian workers and farmers. Libyan resistance was fierce, which prompted Mussolini’s reaction of creating a number of concentration camps where around 100.000 people were imprisoned; it is also known that Italy’s use of mustard gas against the Libyan population, deportation and displacement were strategies for subduing the population. (5) Monstrosity and horror is probably well embedded in the collective psyche of the Libyans. Gaddafi came to power claiming the right to exorcise the colonial demons from Libya. The revolutionary rhetoric gave way progressively to 40 years of authoritarian rule that showed its more amiable face to western powers as he took a series of steps seeking international acceptance. Little by little, Gaddafi’s well-earned reputation as a terrorist sponsoring ruler (the Lockerbie bombings are a good example) did not seem to matter that much as Gaddafi offered his collaboration in the war on terror in exchange of softening economic sanctions. Now, the friend of the West is portrayed by the same Western media as a grotesque, megalomaniac monster who massacres his own population, but the monster has been fed by the West when it served their geopolitical interests, in what could be called the opposite of vampirisation, namely, the flow of poison (namely european-made weapons) that keep the monster alive.
Another important ingredient in any horror story is the ghost and Libya is no exception in this case either. Seen through the Cartesian distance of the media, the few images of Libyan rebels or Gaddafi supporters that have reached the media appear like shadows, like decorporealised entities, with no trace of human density, like undifferentiated masses of bodies, just like high technology weapons of the NATO provide a surgical distance with the enemy, be it rebel or Gaddafi supporter. It is this surgical distance that dehumanises the inherent humanity of the fighters on both sides as they appear through fragmented pieces of news TV networks covering the conflict. At this point, it is difficult to know how many thousands of Libyans have lost their life in this conflict; human beings with families, personal narratives, hopes, dreams…they are the ghosts that haunt the emergence of a post-Gaddafi Libya; these ghosts were human beings to whom political elites in Great Britain, Italy, France or Saudi Arabia (who has provided weapons to rebels on demand of the United States) have shown no concern or human empathy in their geopolitical calculations for the region: it is far more crucial for them a “stable” government that gently grants access to Libya’s natural resources, in another vampiresque turn. According to Alessandra Migliaccio, “Eni [the Italian oil company] rose 0.5% to close at 13.46 today in Milan. The shares have gained 7.9% this week after rebel fighters reached the capital, signaling a possible end to the six-month conflict”. (6) Migliaccio’s words point to the irrationality behind the West’s apparently “rational” discourse of humanitarianism and exposes the corruption of European (and some Arab) political elites. Like Viktor Frankenstein, megalomaniac political elites play God with the megalomaniac monsters they sometimes create, finance and destroy when they cease to be useful for their interests, as is the case with Gaddafi.
“in the context of the horror of colonial and neo-colonial history, the not-so-new song of humanitarian intervention used as a pretext for military operations in Libya sounds perhaps more cynical than ever before”
It is time politicians (or politishams as South African poet Seitlhamo Motsapi describes them) (7) stop behaving like zombies (alienated and unaware of the world that surrounds them and of the damage, pain and suffering their decisions create) or, like Viktor Frankenstein, stop playing God with dictators that ultimately pretend to grant political elites absolute control over entire countries. The consequences, as we have seen in Iraq and in countless many other examples, can be catastrophic. Nobody know where Libya is heading now; whether the rebel factions that have been supported by the NATO will split in the absence of a clear and identifiable enemy or how Gaddafi supporters (in the event of a likely and imminent defeat) will fit in the new political scenario. Also, rumours and fears of Al Qaeda cells infiltrating the country begin to spread, casting a shadow of unpredictable violence. In the context of the horror of colonial and neo-colonial history, the not-so-new song of humanitarian intervention used as a pretext for military operations in Libya sounds perhaps more cynical than ever before, as if western leaders did not even have to make the effort anymore of masquerading the real geopolitical motivations behind the military intervention. To finish with one more horror note, oil in Libya is a curse more than a blessing and it needs to be added to the three traumas suffered by the Arab world, according to Marc Ferro (8), the creation of the state of Israel and the partition of Pakistan. As I write this, Al Jazeera is reporting evidence of mass execution by Gaddafi troops. Again, the price to pay to keep Libya’s veins open to foreign vampirisation is too high and unacceptable form an ethical perspective, but for how long will horror be manipulating the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples? For the Arab spring to grow, the former colonial elites and allied Arab regimes must stop interfering in the internal affairs of these countries and respect the right of these countries to manage their natural resources with the freedom they deserve. Continuing the narrative of horror (destabilising the countries with dictators or supporting the most convenient side for geostrategic interests) will not be conducive to democracy and stability as western powers claim, but will only perpetuate the cycle of horror and monstrosity we have witnessed for decades. .
(1) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin, 2006.
(2) Mary Rowlandson, Narrative of the Captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Nu Vision Publications, 2007.
(3) Edward Said, Orientalism, Penguin, 2003.
(4) Ronald Bruce St john, Libya: from Colony to Independence, Oneworld Publications, 2008.
(5) Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller (ed.) Italian Colonialism, ed., Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005
(6) Alessandra Migliaccio, “Eni Lobbies to keep oil dominance in Libya after Qaddafi”
(7) Seitlhamo Motsapi, “soffly soffly nesta skank”
(8) Marc Ferro, El Conflicto del Islam, Catedra, 2004.
Michael A G Bunter, The Geopolitics of Libya, Maris BV.
Simon Rogers, “EU arms exports to Libya: who armed Gaddafi?”