Does Gaddafi truly understand that Africa is full of Africans?

Monday June 15 2009

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Brother Muammar Gaddafi has been visiting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

When it comes to mis-speaking, Berlusconi and Gaddafi are way up there with the best politicians in the world.

Berlusconi, in fact, has in the past been quite racist in his remarks.

So it tells you a lot about how far Gaddafi went when, as the Guardian reported, the Libyan strongman said things that unsettled the politically incorrect Berlusconi.

Speaking about the issue of African migrants (the tragic “boat people”) to Italy and other European countries, Gaddafi said at a joint press conference after his talks with Berlusconi, “The Africans do not have problems of political asylum.

People who live in the bush, and often in the desert, don’t have political problems. They don’t have oppositions or majorities or elections.”

People who live in the bush and often in the desert? Okay, you might let that pass. But then Gaddafi, currently the chairman of the African Union, pressed on: “These are things that only people who live in cities know.

[Other Africans] don’t even have an identity.

And I don’t mean a political identity; they don’t even have a personal identity.

They come out of the bush and they say: ‘In the north, there’s money, there’s wealth’ — and so they go to Libya, and from there to Europe.”

The context of Gaddafi’s comments must be taken into account.

There is a widely held view that many of the migrants who come from other countries and cross from Libya are asylum seekers fleeing wars and disorder back home.

Gaddafi doesn’t buy that, so he said; “Please, don’t take seriously this business about political asylum. The idea they are all asylum seekers makes you laugh sometimes.”

Against that background, it seems Gaddafi’s point wasn’t to paint Africans as primitive people who live in trees.

That said, there is an unfortunate streak of Arab condescension towards the so-called sub-Saharan Africa that one often encounters in North Africa.

While Gaddafi claims to be present-day Pan Africanist No. 1, who berates his fellow African leaders for not warming up to his push to have a United States of Africa, he heads a government that routinely rounds up, beats and expels other Africans.

IF GADDAFI CANNOT PUT UP WITH A few thousand African citizens from sub-Saharan Africa, how does he expect to live with another 840 million of them?

But his fellow African leaders never confront Gaddafi with these questions.

There was a time when he would use his petrodollars to pay up the African Union subscriptions of several African countries that had fallen behind and were threatened with expulsion from the organisation.

Gaddafi has also been able to hold many AU meetings, and he was indulged because he would pay attending African officials a per diem.

Some time ago, I was at a private event where the African leader present told us that occasionally some presidents also sent their aides to collect their “envelopes” for them from Gaddafi’s per diem clerk!

The combination of these factors has emboldened Gaddafi to treat other Africans shabbily. It’s a crying shame.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is executive editor for the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Division