Africa 2011: Talk Atcha – lessons from Libya

On July 23 2011, Butch Lewis described in life as a shrewd, tenacious, generous and flamboyant boxing and music promoter and manager died and on his burial on August 1 2011, a number of family, friends and high-profile guests gathered at the Chase Centre on the Riverfront in Delaware, to celebrate his life.

I was privileged to be part of the celebration of Butch’s life. Funerals provide an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of life.

As I read the official text of Butch’s obituary, I was struck by the twelve sayings at the back described as “Butchism”, the words that he often used in life. Many, including myself, who knew him remember the sayings vividly and in so doing his memory will live forever.

So for the last 10 weeks, I have tried to add the African voice and context to these sayings.

When we all die we hope that we can be remembered not only for our choice of words, but positive deeds.

Butch used to say: “Talk atcha” meaning “talk at you” and as I reflect on the life and death of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, I thought it would be of benefit to add my voice and context to the 11th Butchism.

For 42 years, Gaddafi was larger than life and yet the way his life ended, illustrated the universally accepted notion that we are all human after all.

His last minutes of life exposed the fact that he really had no friends who were prepared to die before he received the fatal bullet and yet in his mind he thought that the majority of Libyans were on his side and he would never need to carry a heavy machine gun.

I have no doubt that he could not believe the kind of atmosphere that surrounded him and the language used by his captors who wanted nothing but to permanently neutralise him and in so doing making him harmless and equal to them.

The world has seen people queuing to view his remains. Some have observed that this represented an un-Islamic way to treat Gaddafi and yet the architects of this enterprise hold the view, rightly or wrongly, that Gaddafi in life was not a Moslem deserving the kind of treatment in death that he could not afford others.

It is significant that Gaddafi had a golden pistol like a general and yet we could find no multitude of soldiers or captured believers in support of the fallen leader.

By retreating to Sirte, Gaddafi must have known the consequences of that choice. There is no place to retreat to other than the sea and anyone therefore guarding him was exposed to senseless death and destruction.

Why would Gaddafi make such a suicidal choice if he was a real general? He must have known that he was the weapon of mass destruction that Nato was looking for.

He also must have known that anyone around him was a target, but like all people who have stayed long in power, it is difficult to know when the hour to exit has arrived.
Gaddafi was not prepared for death otherwise he would not have been found hiding in a tunnel.

Only yesterday, someone called me to find out what I thought of the demise of Gaddafi. I said that the only lesson that I draw from the Gaddafi experience is to never trust anyone with power.

Some will say that Gaddafi was a good leader and he did manage to uplift the standards of the average Libyan forgetting that as a leader and a family man he was in power for no other person’s interests but his golden circle.

No leader is put in a position of power so that he can create wealth or provide solutions to other human beings because the construction of the state is premised on ordinary people earning income that can then be treated as tax to be used to advance collective interests.

Accordingly, only the naïve look up to state actors to provide solutions.

The wealth that provided a first-class lifestyle to Gaddafi and his chosen few was created by Libyans and yet Gaddafi was credited for its skewed distribution.

By staying in power for 42 years, he effectively denied a whole generation the ability to democratise the faces of the custodians of state power.

In the African narrative, Gaddafi is not alone. Many who have visited the voiceless and motionless Gaddafi lying in state in a refrigerated butchery have done so just to confirm that he will not resurrect like Jesus after three days.

Some have done so just to be close to him as in life he was above them and untouchable.

When Butch said talk at you he understood that it is often difficult for human beings to think and reflect on what they say and do.

It is often easy to talk to others than at ourselves.
With 24 hours in a day, each time one encroaches into the space of others in casual and meaningless conversations then one must know that they are undermining the civilisation of the victims.

As a leader, Gaddafi must have been a real victim of lies and agenda-driven conversations to the extent that he was transformed into a caricature of the people who benefited from his manipulated choices.

In death, the so-called friends that he accumulated in life were missing in action.

In fact, it would be rare to find anyone who can boast that they were a real friend of Gaddafi’s.

The missing internal conversations pose a real threat to democracy. I have no doubt that Gaddafi saw himself through the eyes, voices and ears of the few that had access to him and rarely had time to reflect on the impact of his actions and choices.

If he had done this introspection, he would have found like Butch did, that life is too short and it is important to appreciate that the voices of others are as important as the voice of the powerful.

If power is derived from the silence or fear of the majority then such power is synthetic and, therefore, artificial. It can only be real if it allows human beings to be free.

Clearly, Libyans were not free to decide their destinies. No single individual can capture the imagination and the spirit of a nation.

The Arab Spring and its implications on the human spirit may take longer to understand and appreciate.

Some will no doubt conclude that the transfer of power in Libya was part of a Western regime change agenda missing the point that the people of Libya were in truth and fact crowded out by the Gaddafi regime.

The whole nation had been frozen into a state of fear to the extent that Gaddafi was going to remain in office until death and one of his children would have been his successor.

A new conversation is required in Africa as we reflect on the lessons of the Gaddafi experience and its implications on the growth and development of Africa.

We must proclaim that never again shall we trust any individual with power for too long a period.

The power is vested in the people and leaders need to be reminded not just with words, but actions.

With 54 countries, each state has its own story and citizens can only derive the right lessons.

Gaddafi without state power was just an ordinary human being, but the process of stripping him of state power required external forces and this is no different in many African states where citizens are trapped in a humanly created closet in which their choices do not count.

In Egypt and Tunisia, it was easy for random public opinion to replace institutionalised state-driven opinion, but in Libya the situation was different.

In many African states, the random public opinion about state actors is no different from the view held in the Arab states, but many Africans cannot challenge people in state power because the state has been transformed into an instrument of oppression.

Mutumwa Mawere is a businessman based in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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