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Vanishing Presidents and the Perpetuation of Violence in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire

Joseph Hellweg
By Joseph Hellweg

Joseph Hellweg is a cultural anthropologist teaching in the Department of Religion at Florida State University in Florida's capital, Tallahassee. He is author of Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d'Ivoire (2011, University of Chicago Press) and Anthropologie, les premiers pas: Introduction à la modélisation et aux méthodes de recherche qualitative en sciences sociales (2011, L'Harmattan, Paris). He has conducted research sponsored by the Fulbright Foundation in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali. In 2008-2009, he taught as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Kankan, where he learned to savor ndapa with lakudu sauce at Mme. Kourouma's restaurant in the Marché Diaka.

Posted on Wednesday, 26 October 2011 11:39

I, like so many, have watched the videos of the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the last living moments of his son, Mutassim.

I have wondered since about what I saw: symptoms of the infection of violence transferred from a ruling family to their subjects, a desire to silence the vanquished identical to that which the Gaddafis once exercised. The Gaddafis bred the violence that ended their reign and some of their lives. Their murder―in reflexive acts of brutality that one can certainly understand if not condone―is a sign that their viciousness has ensnared their captors who at have overlooked the usefulness of mercy, imprisonment, and deliberative justice.

Far more disturbing, though, than the spectacle of Muammar Gaddafi’s death to me was footage of his son, Mutassim, prior to his execution. He smokes a cigarette, reclines on a floor-level, flower-cushioned settee. He touches a wound on his throat from which the blood that stains his t-shirt leaked. He sports briefly an indecipherable smile. Then he gently grazes his forehead with his right hand, looking briefly at the camera. He seems tired, as if he knows, and may be glad, that the nightmarish ordeal for Libya that was his adult life will soon be over. I cannot help but feel empathy for this monster and his father―the trite, clichéd awareness that if the Gaddafis were wrong to inflict violence on Libyans, then it was wrong for Libyans to murder them in turn. My thoughts matter little, of course. Muammar and Mutassim Gaddafi are dead, beyond any potential to unsettle with their revelations the rulers, politicians, business people, and entertainers who once flattered, appeased, and collaborated with them.

I think, too, of a different scene in Côte d’Ivoire some six months ago of the capture of former president Laurent Gbagbo and first lady Simone Gbagbo in Abidjan. Their arrest was similar to and different from the Gaddafis’. French intervention delivered both the Gbagbos and Gaddafis into their enemies’ hands, and Libyans and Ivoirians took hold of them; but that is where the similarities end. Ivoirians pried the Gbagbos, their family members, and their retinue from the basement of the Ivoirian presidential compound, alive. Soldiers manhandled Simone Gbagbo. Hair was missing from her head when she arrived at the Golf Hôtel, the former headquarters of the Ouattara regime. A son of the president by a previous marriage, Michel, was alive but bloodied by a beating. The fates of others, such as Philippe-Henri Dacoury-Tabley, the former governor of the West African Central Bank, which financed Gbagbo’s regime, or Désiré Tagro, former minister of the interior, were less merciful. Videos showed Dacoury-Tabley’s limp body being carried away in pieta form by Ouattara’s soldiers; he seemed barely alive. And the final footage of Tagro shows the detached skin beneath his mouth hanging like a shroud under his chin.

Such horrific images are traces of the spectres of Gaddafi and Gbagbo that wander their countries even as their physical bodies are either interred or imprisoned. Their ghostly presence is a sign that elements among the new powers-that-be in each country care more for power than transparency and that the international community, which is largely overlooking these exactions, are less interested in due process than in duly processing the petroleum, diamonds, cocoa, and coffee that their countries hold out to those best poised to secure them.

How can one exorcise such excesses? There are models for doing so: the Nuremberg trials, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Gacaca courts. But each new killing field requires its own cleansing. Each horror is particular, leaving inimitable scars and traumas. Côte d’Ivoire has a chance, it seems, to engage the Gbagbos in its reconciliation process by a trial; they are alive. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi is dead, but family members remain in exile in Algeria and Niger, and Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, as of this writing, is unaccounted for, apparently in flight through the desert to join them.

Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of Libya’s National Transition Council, has called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Muammar Gaddafi’s death. But Gaddafi’s body, along with those of Mutassim Gaddafi and Libya’s former defence minister, have reportedly been buried in an undisclosed desert location, making an investigation difficult. The news has upset Gaddafi’s supporters who wanted him buried in Sirte. And Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch has expressed concern following video footage reportedly showing one of Gaddafi’s captors attempting to sodomize him with a knife before his death. Abrahams fears that if such behavior were to go unpunished, it could establish a precedent for settling scores with Gaddafi’s supporters, particularly by members of still active militias.

Finally, in Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent and Simone Gbagbo remain under arrest in the northern cities of Korhogo and Odienné, respectively, awaiting trial, while Amnesty International calls attention to evidence implicating both Ouattara’s and Gbagbo’s forces in civilian massacres committed in March and April in the western part of the country.

Whether the dictators of Libya and Côte d’Ivoire are dead or imprisoned, the evil that they did lives after them. Consequently, the way that Libyans and Ivoirians treat their former rulers and their former rulers’ families and partisans will be a measure of the new regimes’ integrity, a test of whether or not these regimes can free themselves―to quote Yambo Ouologuem―from the “duty of violence” in which they were trained by the despots they have deposed.

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