The late strongman of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was a man given to outlandish displays and some really bizarre behaviours. From claiming he built the world’s safest car, using a white glove on his left hand to deliver jabbing insults to fellow Arab leaders to moving around with a battalion of armed virgins, Gaddafi was a master of drama. He unleashed some of his most dramatic instincts on his really unusual visits to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Before I proceed any further, let me state that Gaddafi expressed total disrespect to his Nigerian hosts, embarrassed the Nigerian Head of State but by the time he left Nigeria, the same head of state gave Gaddafi the country’s highest honours – Gaddafi is one of the very few non-Nigerians to be garlanded with the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR (others of Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia and Akihito, Emperor of Japan). So what happened when Muammar Gaddafi came to Nigeria and why was Nigeria in soup over his visit? Read on.
MEGA EMBARRASSMENT: Gaddafi’s overzealous bodyguards prevented Abacha from getting too close to him.
THE GADDAFI-ABACHA TACKLE & DEBACLE
In May 1997, the Nigerian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York was putting up spirited attempts to save Nigeria from being slammed by an array of multilateral sanctions from some of the most powerful nations on earth. These countries were mad at Nigeria for violating a crucial UN resolution that prohibited Libyan flights to and from the UN member nations. Gaddafi had visited Nigeria in that month and his visit stained Nigeria in the international community. We will get back to the sanctions issue later. For now, we go straight to his visit to the country and how it happened.
From the 8th to 10th of May, 1997, Muammar Gaddafi was on a visit to Nigeria and Niger Republic (he was awarded the GCFR on the night of Friday, 11th of May in Abuja by the Abacha government at a state banquet in Abuja, Abacha also honoured President Ibrahim Bare Mainnassara of Niger Republic, who had accompanied Gaddafi on his trip to Nigeria). He flew into the two countries with all the splendor of a king. As soon as Gaddafi landed in Nigeria, there was a massive torrent of criticisms from the press (there was nothing like social media back then so only the newspapers slaughtered the Libyan leaders in their acidic editorials), religious leaders and members of the diplomatic corps slammed the Abacha government for allowing Gaddafi to enter the Nigerian airspace. Gaddafi came to Nigeria at a time when things were really tensed under the Abacha regime. Terrorists set off bombs in Ibadan and Onitsha killing five people and destroyed a mosque close to the Onitsha Bridge, the bombs went off when Muslims were having their jumat prayers, three died instantly. Many people were mad at Abacha for his madness already perpetuated in the country but were doubly maddened that he allowed a rogue leader like Gaddafi enter Nigeria. There was so much noise all over the place about the visit but the funny thing was that the visit was not even an official one. Gaddafi was not in the country to see the Nigerian government or greet the head of state.
He was in Nigeria for a religious purpose – to open the Kofar Mata Mosque in Kano State. Although the Nigerian government would later deny its role in the whole visit (Niger Republic also denied knowing anything about Gaddafi’s coming saying they did not have a radar system to detect an aircraft in its airspace or its country of origin), the fact was that the entire thing was meticulously planned with the full involvement of the Abacha regime which was advised against the trip and almost cancelled it. Abacha gave his approval, said Nigeria should be allowed to choose its friends, damned the consequences and warnings of the international community and they awaited the arrival of the Libyan colonel. His landing would be an unbelievable carnival with extravagant fanfare probably never before seen in the history of heads of state visiting the nation.
Gaddafi’s grand arrival was at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano. Troops were deployed to the airport and security measures were thoroughly beefed up. In a madness-filled manner characteristic of many Nigerian governments, all domestic and international flights were suspended 24 hours to the arrival of Gaddafi. The ‘bloody’ civilians who were unlucky enough to have shops within the vicinity of the airport were ordered to vacate the premises. Airport taxi services were banned and heavily-armed soldiers took over the airport (the madness don tey). By the time Gaddafi, the ‘emperor of the heavens’ landed, it was gbabestic to say the least. The guy Ronald Reagan referred to as the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East’ landed with almost 1,000 people in his entourage. They were made up of journalists, security operatives and others, all Libyan. And Gaddafi did not come with one aircraft. He arrived with SIX. He brought his own Mercedes-Benz limousine and full stock of Libyan food, there was no eating any food provided by Nigerian hosts, he came with his own food. But the worst was yet to come and if not for some luck and fate, some people would have been killed. What happened?
It was Gaddafi’s overzealous security operatives and bodyguards. They disregarded every law in the book relating to the reception of a foreign head of state or dignitary. Normally, Nigeria was supposed to be responsible for providing security to a visiting head of state but Gaddafi’s security people would have none of that. They shoved their Nigerian counterparts aside and took over all the strategic points at the stops at the airport in Kano and at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport. Gaddafi’s visit was beginning to look like an invasion of a sovereign nation as Nigerian forces helplessly looked on as Gaddafi’s army took over the posts at the Kano State Government House and even the Kofar Mata Mosque that Gaddafi had come to commission. But Gaddafi was not even done yet.
He refused to drive in the car provided by his host, which was against the traditions of diplomacy. The greatest shocker came when Gaddafi started addressing his audience in Kano. He told the adulating crowd of frenzied Nigerians in a tone that was a call to arms, saying:
‘From this year, we are going to mobilize our Muslim brothers all over the world to counter the malicious Western propaganda and insult. ‘
He did not stop there. He also blasted his enemies saying:
‘The UN is controlled by the greatest enemy of the human race which is the United States, while the Zionists are now approaching and are about to take over the holy city of Mecca.’
The crowd went mad with deafening roars. Gaddafi went on and on punching the air with his clenched fist. Some Nigerians felt like they were in the presence of God. He mesmerized his fans who saw him as a kind of messiah. The high point of the whole event, which really pissed off many Nigerians, was the insult landed on General Sani Abacha, the Nigerian head of state and host. Gaddafi’s bodyguards were so overprotective of their strongman that they actually stopped Abacha from getting close to Gaddafi (see picture). It was a complete PR disaster for the Abacha regime as many Nigerians laughed like crazy in the corners of their bedrooms without electricity while others were simply shocked that their head of state could be treated with so much disdain in his own country by a foreigner. Although Abacha himself looked every inch irritated with the whole thing and his Chief Security Officer (CSO), Major Hamza al-Mustapha got involved in a scuffle with the Libyan bodyguards over the matter, that did not stop the Abacha government from awarding Gaddafi with the highest national honour of Nigeria, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR. I wonder what he must have been thinking of Nigerians on his way back to Tripoli. But Gaddafi would return to Nigeria to unleash an even greater controversy. Before we talk about his second visit, how did Nigerians take to his visit in 1997?
THE REACTIONS AND THE AFTERMATH
The explosive outbursts that followed Gaddafi’s visit to Nigeria in 1997 were firmly condemning and they came from different sources. Even before Gaddafi was barely out of Nigerian airspace, the criticisms were very vocal and clear. The Christian clerics were some of those with the most vociferous condemnations of the visit of the troublesome leader from Libya. CAN demanded audience with the head of state to register their displeasure. Archbishop Olubunmi Okogie, serving as the Catholic archbishop of Lagos said the irresponsible call of Gaddafi to Nigerian Muslims to reject all things that were not of Islam was capable of causing a full-blown religious crisis in the country. Sunday Mbang, the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria queried the government saying:
‘Why did they invite him (Gaddafi) to come and cause trouble in Nigeria? Why did they allow him to come? We should not add problem to problem. Anybody who thinks he can fight the Western world is living in a fool’s paradise.’
Mbang also said the careless words of Colonel Gaddafi were capable of throwing the country into a major religious crisis. The Northern Christian Elders Forum, NORCEF, demanded an apology from Gaddafi on behalf of the Nigerian Christian populace for his very provocative speech. NORCEF made the demand in a communique issued after a meeting in Kaduna and signed by its chairman, Chris Abashiya and secretary, James Andy. NORCEF insisted Gaddafi exploited his visit to rubbish and humiliate Christians and Christianity. The communique read:
‘To blatantly and arrogantly deny that Jesus Christ is the son of God is to strike at the very heart of Christianity, which could have been motivated only by the evil desire to provoke, in order to disturb the peace and the transition programme. We have witnessed extensive bloodletting and destruction for much less. We too are human and our patience is not inexhaustible. Clearly, Colonel Gaddafi’s objective is suspect (and is designed) to cause violence, death and destruction in our land.’
But it was not only the Christian clerics raining criticism on Gaddafi. The media was even more articulate and thorough in its lambasting. On 19th of May, ThisDay wrote:
‘Gaddafi is an international outlaw whose activities are viewed in civil circles as an anathema. For another, Libya is not a model in matters of democracy, human rights or good governance. Nigeria’s romance with Gaddafi then leaves much to be desired….Rather than be a diplomatic mileage, the Gaddafi visit is a huge disaster which the Nigerian authorities may not be able to get over very easily.’
The paper also questioned why Gaddafi should be given the GCFR, the same honour given to the country’s founding fathers like Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo. However, New Nigerian, a newspaper that was owned by the federal government praised and defended the visit saying it strengthened African unity and that Nigeria and Libya shared a lot in common. The paper said:
‘Gaddafi’s visit, for us, was much more than a diplomatic episode but an event that serves to signal the powerful unifying instincts of the Africans, even in the face of the barriers put up by the enemies of the continent. The tone of his discourse was, of course, informed by the Islamic interpretation of global realities but nevertheless the global import of the message can hardly be lost upon all of us living in the so-called developing world and particularly Africa, regardless of religious and political leanings. Whereas these issues of development cooperation could have been the plank in evaluating the Gaddafi visit, it is regrettable that otherwise responsible religious leaders seized the opportunity to generate unnecessary controversy and whip up sentiments. It smacks of indiscretion and empire hangover for the western powers to seek to interpret a brotherly visit by two sovereign African nations’ leaders to another in terms of its foreign policy. If the United States and its allies have a quarrel with Gaddafi, they should not be allowed to suggest to us that we should have nothing to do with him.’
Although the Abacha government pretended to overlook Gaddafi’s actions, it was actually greatly embarrassed by the whole incident. The Abacha government had to issue a directive to NTA headquarters to downplay the uncomfortable religious sermon that Gaddafi delivered. NTA headquarters then quickly issued the same orders to its stations across the country. But the directive was useless because unknown to the Nigerian government, Gaddafi came with journalists from South Africa with open broadcast vans with which they beamed the whole event to Libya and all of Europe in a further demonstration of his defiance of Nigeria and whoever ruled it. Abacha and his officials were also embarrassed by his snubbing and total disregard for the security arrangements they had put in place for him. In Gaddafi’s view, Nigerian security agents were not up to standard.
The US was livid with rage over the visit and although Nigeria tried to defend itself at the UN, citing the religious nature of the visit, which was the only exception allowed in the UN embargo, the 15-member UN sanctions committee ruled that Gaddafi’s visit to Nigeria and Niger Republic by air was a violation of the UN’s five-year-old embargo on Libya. Abacha’s government drafted former head of state Ernest Shonekan to lead a delegation to Britain and use his vast British connections to help placate Britain. Nigeria was already under devastating sanctions over poor human rights records. But discussions collapsed when the British government banned all registered aircraft in Nigeria from operating flights to Britain. Although it cited safety reasons, Nigeria would have none of it and also retaliated by banning British Airways from operating flights to Nigeria. That was the fallout from Gaddafi’s first visit.
THE SECOND COMING OF GADDAFI
By the time Gaddafi arrived Nigeria for his second coming in November 2006, his ally, Sani Abacha was long dead and Olusegun Obasanjo was the president. Gaddafi was in Nigeria to attend the first-ever African-Latin American Summit. But as usual, Gaddafi’s entry to Nigeria was not without drama. He landed with about 200 of his all-female Amazonian Guards, all heavily-armed. The number in his entourage was not the issue but the sheer number and size of the weapons alarmed his Nigerian hosts. The Nigerians insisted there was no way Gaddafi was going to be allowed to leave the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and attend the summit with those weapons. Then the arguments started. At a point, Gaddafi got mad and stormed out of the airport lounge to walk all the way to the city center, 40 kilometers away. It was not until the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo intervened that Gaddafi’s security guards agreed to keep the weapons in the official Libyan jet and Gaddafi was persuaded to return to the airport lounge. The incident attracted the attention of the local and international media. The summit came and went. But Gaddafi was not done yet. In March 2010, he said Nigeria should be divided into two, one for the Muslims and another for the Christians, leading the Senate President David Mark to call Gaddafi a mad individual. Although Gaddafi is gone now, killed by his enemies, his relationship with Nigeria is best described as stormy. Even if not many will regard him as a friend of the country, he lies today in his grave in the Libyan desert as a Grand Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.