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Eighty years after Umar al-Mukhtar’s execution, western Europe’s rulers announce the Libyan plunder

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Umar al-Mukhtär (b. c. 1862), a leader of Sanüsi resistance to Italian colonisation until his execution in 1931. Photo: General History of Africa, Vol VII, UNESCO 1985

We do not know if the president of France and the prime minister of Britain were aware of the historic signifiance of the timing of their joint visit to Libya last week. Either David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy had been informed of what had happened there, exactly 80 years before, and chose the date as a symbol of the military might that occupying colonial powers have had in North Africa; or they did not, their presence at the time being coincidence. Whichever the explanation, the Libyans who watched the two western European political leaders in their country could not have failed to have observed the anniversary of the execution of Umar al-Mukhtär, Libya’s legenary freedom fighter and the ‘Lion of the Desert’. It had taken place exactly 80 years ago, on 16 September 1931.

The Cameron-Sarkozy visit recalled all the sordid and bloody traditions of imperialism: untrammelled hypocrisy, rank economic plunder and the ruthless use of force to secure such plunder. They were feted by the leaders of NATO’s local client, the National Transitional Council (TNC), under heavy security in Tripoli. Delivering the ghastly charade, Cameron hailed “free Libya” to the cheers of the assembled crowds. “France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people,” his counterpart Sarkozy declared.

A comment in The Guardian has explained that in Libya the long decades of oppression could not be forgotten so easily. The Italians had devastated the old pastoral economy, and depopulated much of the land: the very term Siziliani (many of the settlers had come from Sicily) remained a term of loathing. Memories of anti-colonial resistance helped to legitimise Libya’s new British-backed king, Idris, who as head of the Sanusi order had been a figurehead for the struggle against the Italians. But such memories also helped bolster the 27-year-old Colonel Gaddafi when he accused the king of selling out to latter-day imperialism, toppled him in a coup and set up the republic.

Poster for the file, 'Lion of the Desert' (1981)

This year that republic became the pretext for NATO’s neo-colonial adventure — to protect Libyan lives from the regime of Muammar Gaddafi — one that has almost completely been dispensed with. Based on a blatant illegality [‘Is the resolution on Libya legal under international law?‘], NATO warplanes continue to pound targets around the remaining pro-Gaddafi towns of Sirte and Bani Walid with scant regard for civilian lives as the TNC and its NATO backers push to bring the entire country under their control. The World Socialist Web Site has explained that all the hypocritical claims that the war for “regime change” in Libya was all about saving human lives notwithstanding, the aims of British and French imperialism in Libya, North Africa and the Middle East are no more humanitarian today that they have been for the past 200 years.

Earlier that week, the CEO of Italy’s energy giant ENI, Paolo Scaroni, was in Tripoli to discuss the resumption of Libyan gas exports. ENI was Libya’s largest energy producer before this economic war was illegally launced the energy company wants to defend its dominant position. Libya has the largest proven energy reserves in Africa: 46.4 billion barrels of oil and 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Libyan officials reported to the “Friends of Libya” gathering in Paris on September 2 that five major foreign energy corporations were back in the country.

To compare better the bloody and tragic history of ‘regime change’ carried out under colonial domination then and now, here is an extract that describes the events leading up to 16 September 1931.

“To worsen the situation even further, on 21 December 1922, Emir Idrïs al-Sanusï, the Union’s spiritual leader and supreme commander, went into voluntary exile to Egypt. His unexplained and sudden departure, which is still being debated among historians, completely demoralized the people and caused many of the warriors either to leave the country or surrender to the Italians. However, before leaving, al-Sanusï appointed his brother Al-Ridä as his deputy, and Umar al-Mukhtär as commander of the National Forces in the Green Mountains, and it was under his leadership and because of the efficient guerrilla warfare that he developed that the resistance continued until 1931. He divided his forces into three major mobile companies (adwär) and camped in the mountainous area south of al-Mardj at Jardas. The series of attacks launched against him in the summer of 1923 were all repelled. Another army sent against his camp in March was routed.”

Partie de Tunis et de Tripoli. Afrique no. 3. (Dresse par Ph. Vandermaelen, lithographie par H. Ode. Troisieme partie. - Afrique. Bruxelles. 1827). Cartographer: Vandermaelen, Philippe, 1795-1869. Date: 1827. Collection: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

“It was Tripolitania that fell first. By June 1924, all arable land was occupied. But aware of their weakness as long as they did not control the desert, the Italians began a long campaign to control the desert and finally Fazzän. This was not marked by success despite the use of aerial bombing and poison gas. Several Italian advances were stopped. As late as 1928 the Libyans blocked the main Italian force at Faqhrift south of Surt. But by the end of 1929 and the beginning of 1930, Fazzän was finally occupied and the Libyan resistance in the west and south collapsed.”

“Meanwhile, the resistance in Cyrenaica continued and succeeded in inflicting heavy defeats on the Italians. When the Fascists failed to suppress the revolution of Umar al-Mukhtär in Cyrenaica through direct military attack, they resorted to some measures unprecedented in the history of colonial wars in Africa. They first erected a 300 km-long wire fence along the Tripoli-Egyptian border to prevent any aid coming from Egypt. Secondly, continually enforced, they occupied the oases of Djalo, Djaghabüb and Kufra to encircle and isolate the warriors in Cyrenaica. Finally, they evacuated all the rural population of Cyrenaica to the desert of Sirt where they kept them in fenced concentration camps. This measure was meant to deprive al-Mukhtär’s forces of any local assistance. Other mass prisons and concentration camps were established at al-Makrfln, Sulük, al-Aghayla and al-Barayka. Conditions in these camps were so bad that it is believed that more than a hundred thousand people died of starvation and diseases, not to mention their animals which were confiscated. In al-Barayka prison camp alone, there were 80,000 persons of whom 30,000 are said to have died between 1930 and 1932, according to the Italians’ own statistics.”

“Despite these wicked measures, the revolt continued and hit-and-run tactics were resorted to. The Italians again offered to negotiate with al-Mukhtâr. A series of meetings were held between the two sides. Among them was the one held near al-Mardj on 19 July 1929, attended by Governor Badoglio. At this meeting, the Italians offered to bribe al-Mukhtlr who turned down the offer and insisted on liberating his country.”

One for you, two for me. French President Nicolas Sarkozy (right) greets British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday at the Elysee Palace. Photo: Der Spiegel/DPA

“Later, when al-Mukhtär discovered that the Italians were trying to apply the policy of ‘divide and rule’ among his followers, he broke the talks with the Italians and resumed his tactics of guerrilla warfare which included skirmishes, raids, ambushes, surprise attacks and incursions spread all over the country. In the last twenty-one months before his capture, he fought 277 battles with the Italians as Graziani himself admits. In September 1931, however, al-Mukhtär was captured and taken to Benghazi. He was then court-martialed and executed before thousands of Libyans at the town of Sulük on 16 September 1931.”

[Extract from the chapter, ‘African initiatives and resistance in North Africa and the Sahara’, by A. Laroui, in Volume VII of ‘General History of Africa – Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935’, UNESCO-Heinemann, 1985]

From the very start of the Gaddafi regime, the Guardian comment observes, present and past merged as the anti-colonialist Gaddafi ordered British and American air bases to close and kicked out the 20,000 Italians still living in the country, nationalising their property. As his regime became more and more unpopular, so it found new uses in Libya’s history of oppression. Even as it razed the monuments of the Sanusi leadership, now seen by regime propagandists as feudal usurpers of a popular nationalist movement, so it sent researchers into the countryside as part of a vast oral history project to collect memories of the guerrilla war and Italian atrocities.

Such moves not only wrapped the regime in the heroic mantle of the anti-Italian jihad, they served geopolitical purposes too. Two years after forcing the Italians to leave, the socialist Gaddafi was inviting Italian corporations back in, turning the former colonial oppressor into Libya’s chief European business partner. And when in 2004 he sought new respectability in Europe, Italy became a crucial ally and history was part of the deal: Berlusconi apologized publicly for Italy’s past crimes, and in return, Gaddafi promised to keep Italy’s unwanted illegal migrants locked up in camps inside Libya.

There is more on Libya here: The bloody cost of ‘democratic transition’ in Libya ; A time before the pillage – what North Africa should mean to us ; Mussolini and Ethiopia, Italy and Libya, the mill of history ; Libya, the economic reasons for invasion ; Nato’s fascist war and the Black Code of the West ; So, why did the powers now attacking Libya easily tolerate Gaddafi for the last 10 years? ; The West’s Libya campaign has begun

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Mussolini and Ethiopia, Italy and Libya, the mill of history

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Un tunisino appena salvato dalla Guardia costiera ringrazia dio per la sua buona sorte. Photo: Immigrazione a Lampedusa/ Jean-Marc Caimi/ Redux Pictures

This week in 1936 the Mussolini regime’s declaration of an Italian empire in East Africa, upon its formal annexation of Ethiopia, increased tensions among the Great Powers, pushing the world closer toward a global conflagration.

The annexation was an open repudiation, said the World Socialist Web Site, of the norms of international law and the most devastating rebuke yet suffered by the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, which had failed miserably to check Rome’s aggression. Likewise implicated were Britain, which had allowed the Italian war machine to pass through the Suez canal, and France, which was seeking to maintain Italian support for the Locarno Pact against Germany aggression.

A cartoon deriding the League of Nations

In response, Britain sent a diplomatic mission to Hitler seeking Germany’s non-recognition of Mussolini’s conquest, while France remained oriented toward maintaining Italy’s support against Germany. With all of Africa now divided by the Europeans—the exception being small Liberia in the west—no further gains could be made on the continent without war among the European powers.

Today, Italy’s participation in the war stems from the fear that it could lose its influence in Libya to France, Britain and the United States. The Financial Times noted: “The Franco-Italian spat over immigration follows sharp differences over Libya, where Rome has been dragged into a war it would rather avoid, fearing a Paris-Benghazi nexus will freeze out its substantial interests in Libyan oil and gas”.

The Libyan oil and gas reserves are a powerful motive for the Italian bourgeoisie to participate actively in the inter-imperialist struggle over their North African neighbour. Italy draws a quarter of its oil imports and ten percent of its natural gas from Libya. The energy group ENI has invested billions of euros in assets in Libya. Until the outbreak of open hostilities, Italy was the largest foreign trade partner of Libya, the largest buyer of its crude oil, and one of Gaddafi’s largest arms suppliers.

The Great Game all over again?

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Ethnic Uzbeks gathered near the Kyrgz-Uzbek border in southern Kyrgyzstan in June, trying to seek refuge in Uzbekistan following violence in the city of Osh. According to official estimates, 370 people died there after the Kyrgz went on a rampage against the Uzbeks, and vice versa. The true figure is likely more than 2,000. Some 75,000 people fled to Uzbekistan. Photo: Der Spiegel

 

The Deutsch news magazine Der Spiegel certainly thinks so. It has begun a special series which will explore Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In these countries, once the center of the ‘Great Game’, a bitter struggle over natural resources and strategic bases between the British and Russian colonial powers, history is being repeated, says Der Spiegel.

“The Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tian Shan mountain ranges and the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers border a region in which two world religions, Islam and Christianity, collided, astronomy blossomed and eminent doctors taught. Central Asia is one of the eternal hot spots in world history, a place where Darius I and Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane left their marks. The British and Russian colonial powers followed suit when they embarked on the “Great Game,” a bitter struggle over natural resources and strategic bases.”

The news magazine says that today the major powers’ interests in the region range from military bases for waging the war against the Taliban to oil and gas pipelines and drug prevention. One of the most important heroin smuggling routes passes through a part of Central Asia controlled by Islamists.

“For these reasons, the world is now witnessing a new version of the Great Game, this time involving both the former players, Russia and Great Britain, and new players, the United States, China and Iran. None of the countries within their field of vision is stable, eccentric dictators are in control almost everywhere, corruption is rampant and many nations are at odds with their neighbours.”