Howard W. French: How Qaddafi Reshaped Africa





[Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times.]

Whenever most of us think of oil-rich, Arab-speaking countries, our imagination performs a trick with our sense of geography, placing us by default in the Middle East.

Of the three North African countries at the heart of the popular uprisings that have riveted the world over the last several weeks, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has always done the most to assert his country's African identity, staking its prestige, its riches and his own personal influence above all on its place in the continent.

As a deep-pocketed and sparsely populated state ever in need of labor, it has always made sense for Qaddafi to look south. Libya is far too small and peripheral for it to ever aspire to real influence in the Arab world. By comparison, the almost equally small but far poorer countries of nearby West Africa, wracked as they are with chronic misrule and instability, loom temptingly on the horizon as fruit ripe for picking.

Whatever our loose or flawed sense of geography tells us, things have always been thus. For at least 1,000 years, Morocco's kingdoms have periodically thrust southward, establishing shape-shifting realms from present-day Niger all the way to Senegal.

Qaddafi's big idea was to meld a modern, anti-Western, anti-imperial discourse with an impassioned pan-Africanism, an ideal that still resonates deeply across the continent....


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