More Tales of Little Big Men

If only I could just laugh.  Write the incident off as toothless rabble rousing from one of the world’s louder dictators.

Yesterday, in what was described as a “rambling address” (dictators have never been known for being succinct), Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi called for jihad against Switzerland.  “The masses of Muslims must go to all airports in the Islamic world and prevent any Swiss plane landing,” he said. “To all harbours and prevent any Swiss ships docking, inspect all shops and markets to stop any Swiss goods being sold.”   Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

Colonel Gaddafi claims that his outrage has been spurred by a Swiss vote earlier this year banning minarets.  But the truth is even more troubling.   You see, Gaddafi bears a grudge against Switzerland because two years ago Swiss police arrested and detained his son Hannibal on suspicion of beating two domestic servants.   The charges were dropped, but Gaddafi was so enraged that he shut local subsidiaries of Swiss companies in Libya, had two Swiss businessmen arrested, cancelled most flights between the two countries and withdrew about $5bn (£3.2bn) from his Swiss bank accounts.  Earlier this week, Gaddafi banned most Europeans from travelling to Libya. 

But wait, it gets even better – no, make that worse.  Last year, Gaddafi submitted a proposal to the UN to abolish Switzerland and divide it up between Germany, France and Italy.

It’s risible, isn’t it:  the delusional ranting of a despot who actually believes that the world – including its geographic boundaries — can and will comply with his decree.  The knee-slapping irony of Gaddafi’s calls for jihad to defend a sleazy playboy son, dogged by charges of domestic violence and drunken driving, who used his father’s (read country’s) millions to hire Beyonce to perform on New Years’ Eve in St. Barts.  Gaddafi is even looking more like the comic book dictator, with the suspiciously inky black hair and distracting facial hair.  Why do these men always come to appear as grotesque as their regimes?

I know, I know, I should just point at the moustache and giggle.  But I can’t.  Because I know that the developing world (and, yes, Libya could be considered part of that) is infested with men like this.  Some infamous, some just invidious :  Gaddafi, Mugabe, al Bashir, Bongo (President of Gabon for 42 years before he passed away.  Good news is that the Gabonese people are now in the capable hands of his son.) And that’s just to name a few.  Just a few of the men who use the Presidential office as their personal bully pulpit; who treat oil profits as offshore retirement funds.  Who regard leadership as a right rather than a responsibility. Who amend constitutions.  Who appropriate land and expropriate businesses in order to put extended families and legions of good friends in charge.  Who cynically manipulate “democratic” process in order to appease their foreign bankers.   Who override their country’s legal system to settle grudges.

Yes, these men are pathetic and predictable.  But their utter lack of accountability and disdain for good governance are also major drivers of poverty, conflict, disease and environmental degradation. 

Some say that the numbers of “Big Men” are actually dwindling, while others argue they’re just being replaced by less colourful but equally pernicious bureaucrats with a similar hunger to “serve” their people.   For me, the continued existence of such leaders exposes the naivete of any notion that we, the world’s people, can “end poverty”, can “make AIDS history”, can “save Darfur”.   How can we?  When the avarice and megalomania of so many of the developing world’s leaders impoverishes and imperils their own people.  And who is willing to take these leaders on?  Not Western diplomats who often view them as necessary evils.  And not Bono or Geldof or any other celebrity development worker, who consistently fail to point fingers , choosing instead continue to heap guilt on the west for our failure to act equitably.  Absolutely, “we” must continue to support development and address structural barriers to it.  But surely governments must take the most direct responsibility for their people’s welfare? 

I know, I know, Gaddafi is just looking for a little air time.  The whole incident will just go away. Problem is, Gaddafi won’t.  And my fear is that when the elder Gaddafi’s hair finally starts to show its grey, the world will then be forced to endure Hannibal Gaddafi as Libya’s leader.

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