So the Teacher-Leader, inspirer of the Green Revolution — revered by his followers but feared and hated by many others — has gone.
Muammar al-Gaddafi was judged by a fellow Arab leader to have “a split personality, both evil”. He may indeed have been crazy, but it was the craziness of a desert fox.
Years back I encountered the Teacher-Leader when reporting on a conference of African leaders in Libya (records David Baird). The media scene was reminiscent of that in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and some of the leaders present could have qualified for bit parts in The Godfather.
Not the sort of people you would want to meet in a dark alley nor for that matter on a well-illuminated highway. And they were running countries!
But they had been feted in London and other capitals. Politicians had warmly shaken their bloodstained hands, eager to share in their mineral wealth or to conclude profitable trade deals.
One of the most sinister of these tyrants was Mengistu, the Ethiopian dictator dubbed “the black Stalin”. As he swaggered about surrounded by armed guards, I swear that evil emanated from this poison dwarf. Easy to believe the rumour that he had personally executed Emperor Hailie Selassie.
Initially Mengistu headed a 97-member revolutionary council. But not for long. Half of them were soon in the cemetery — and Mengistu allegedly pulled the trigger himself. When he finally fled into exile, he was welcomed in Zimbabwe by that other humanitarian, Mugabe.
Gaddafi swept around Tripoli in a large Chevrolet limousine, attended by a cohort of young female guards, all nubile, all poker-faced, and all wielding Kalashnikovs.
Getting an interview could be easy or impossible. A British TV crew had flown out specifically to talk to the Leader. After nothing happened for a week, they prepared to leave, but then came a message to go immediately to Gaddafi’s hq. There, as they started setting up their gear, in walked the man himself. He smiled and nodded, then left the room. And that was the last they saw of him.
When I mentioned to the British ambassador that I was planning to visit Benghazi and the interior, he went pale and virtually begged me to forget such an enterprise. Months later I learned why: the embassy was engaged in delicate negotiations to save a British businessman facing the death penalty for alleged spying.
Meanwhile, convoys of gleaming limousines bearing African presidents swept about Tripoli, attended by armed motor-cycle escorts. The press, housed in a cruise ship in the port, waited and speculated and waited.
The big conference never happened. Most African leaders, unable to stomach Gaddafi, boycotted it. So everybody went home.