Saturday 30 August 2008, in the garden of what had been the palace of the Italian governor of Benghazi during the colonial period, Berlusconi, still the relatively youthful 72-year-old head of the Italian government, warmly embraced Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan head of state.
The two men exchanged smiles and pleasantries for the cameras. It was a “historic” moment, or at least that is what they were both trying to demonstrate. Berlusconi and Gaddafi had just signed a treaty of “friendship, partnership and cooperation” designed to “close a chapter from the past, once and for all”.
“After the tragic moments of the Italian occupation, and on behalf of the Italian people, I feel duty-bound to apologise and express our sorrow for what happened so many years ago,” said the man who was then head of the Italian government. His Libyan counterpart added, “This is a historic moment in which courageous men testify to the defeat of colonialism.”
A $5bn ‘deal’
For the occasion, Berlusconi symbolically brought back with him the Venus of Cyrene, a splendid Roman statue dating from the 2nd century AD, “discovered” before being taken to Rome at the start of Italy’s colonisation of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Back in 2002, Berlusconi, then culture minister, had signed the restitution decree. But an appeal lodged by Italia Nostra, an association for the “defence of Italian heritage”, had delayed the process.
Had the Italian (and later European) media magnate, known for his taste for glitz and vulgarity, suddenly become a lover of the delicate arts of antiquity? While the statements by both heads of state emphasised symbolism, the agreement they had just signed was in fact the fruit of a “deal” sealed after long and bitter negotiations.
Italy had agreed to pay Libya $5bn over the next 25 years for the damage suffered by the Libyan people under the yoke of the Italian military. This sum was slated to build a coastal motorway through Libya, linking Tunisia to Egypt.
In return, Italy hoped to secure access to enormous oil resources. ENI, its national oil company, had obtained an agreement to renew its concessions for 25 years.
Berlusconi also left Benghazi with what he thought was a victory, as Italian researcher Giuseppe Terranova explained in the magazine Outre-Terre (2009) – an agreement he had reached on Libya’s participation in the fight against the flow of illegal migrants.
Tripoli had agreed to let the Italians take part in joint patrols in Libyan territorial waters, something that Gaddafi had previously refused to do. Italy also obtained the right to install radar along the Libyan coastline. The following years would prove how Gaddafi was able – in defiance of these agreements – to use this migratory lever to put pressure on Europe, with little regard for the fate of would-be migrants.
A year later, it was Gaddafi’s turn to visit Rome, where he was received with great pomp by Berlusconi. He returned a year later to celebrate the second anniversary of the agreement, this time accompanied by a Berber troupe of 30 thoroughbred horses and their riders. Once again, Berlusconi pulled out all the stops.
Europe’s last ally
Relations were at an all-time high. Italy had become Libya’s third-largest export market. Libyans were investing massively in Italian companies. A few hours before Colonel Gaddafi’s arrival in Rome, ENI CEO Paolo Scaroni described Libya as the “apple of the eye” of his national oil group.
In February 2011, when the battle of Benghazi broke out, Act I in the fall of Gaddafi, Berlusconi was the only European leader who maintained direct contact with the Libyan head of state.
To those who criticised him for doing so, he pointed out the “risk of fundamentalism in Libya”.
“We have many interests in the area and we are also geographically very close to Libya,” he said. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini then provided the subtext: “If the system collapses”, Italy would be faced with a “tsunami of 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants”.
Pushed to the limit, it was once again Berlusconi whom Gaddafi urged to influence his European counterparts – first and foremost the Frenchman Nicolas Sarkozy, with whom Il Cavaliere (The Knight) had a tempestuous relationship.
In a letter he sent to Berlusconi in August 2011, the contents of which were revealed by Paris Match, Gaddafi wrote that he was “surprised by the attitude of a friend with whom [he had] sealed a friendship treaty favourable to our two peoples”. The two men were on familiar terms.
“I would have hoped that you would at least take an interest in the facts and try to mediate before giving your support to this war. I don’t blame you for what you are not responsible for, because I know full well that you were not in favour of this harmful action which does no honour to you or to the Italian people. But I believe that you still have the opportunity to turn back and ensure the interests of our peoples prevail,” wrote the Libyan head of state.
When Gaddafi’s death was announced on 20 October 2011, Berlusconi was particularly discreet. He reserved his reaction for members of Il Popolo della Libertà, his party, as reported by Ansa, the Italian press agency.
“The war is over”, he said, before declaring in Latin “Sic transit gloria mundi” (“So passes worldly glory”, a ritual phrase from papal coronation ceremonies).
A few years later, Berlusconi would recount the Libyan origins of the expression “bunga bunga”. These were the infamous parties the former Italian head of state had organised, to which underage prostitutes were “invited”. Although these events caused a scandal, they had no legal consequences for Berlusconi.
According to what he told his biographer in a 2015 book, the term “bunga bunga” came from a dirty joke Il Cavaliere and Gaddafi had shared. The latter was the same man who had inflicted the worst on his “amazons”, sex slaves, some of whom recounted their ordeal to Annick Cojean, a senior reporter at Le Monde and author of Les proies (Prey), published in French by Grasset in 2012.
There's more to this story
Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.
Already a a subscriber Sign In