Memoir By Nazar Abbas
Nazar Abbas witnessed firsthand the whismy, wealth and paranoia of oil-rich Libya in the 1970s
Libyans did not seem to be missing King Idris when on September 1, 1969, twenty-seven year old Muammar el Gaddafi overthrew him in a coup d’etat and took over the reins of government in Libya. During most of the 18-year rule of King Idris, Libya was a poor country. Significant oil reserves were discovered in 1959; oil production was started in late 1961, after which the economic standard as well as the cost of living rose appreciably. Yet it was not until after the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, four years after the exit of the King, that the crude oil prices were increased manifold, thus making Libya really rich. Before it became the ‘black gold’, oil used to be ridiculously cheap at a price of US dollars 1 to 3 per barrel. Gaddafi’s Libya played an important role in clamping an oil embargo on the US and Europe and consequently demanding higher price for the crude oil sold to the West. The oil wealth that his sparsely populated country, its terrain double the size of Pakistan, now possessed was used by Gaddafi to build roads, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings for the people living in traditional tents in the desert. In the green areas beyond Benghazi agricultural farms were developed in the hundreds. Each farm included a furnished dwelling for the farmer’s family, the fields tilled and crops grown, and a tractor with other implements parked in the garage. Gaddafi would personally hand over such developed farms to the poor farmers of the area at minimal cost to be paid by the allottees in easy, long-term installments.
Colonel Muammar el Gaddafi was a dictator par excellence. He was a benign ruler in the beginning because it took him some time to entrench himself in authority and to learn the tricks of the trade. Born to illiterate parents of a Bedouin family in a place near Sirte, half-way between the two major cities Tripoli and Ben Ghazi, Gaddafi was a simple soul, young, inexperienced and a novice in international affairs. As he gained experience and grew in confidence his needs, tastes and methods became varied, expensive and sophisticated. One thing that he did not need to learn was how to keep his people, all and sundry, under his iron thumb. This was in his guts. He could have easily taught a few lessons to Machiavelli’s Prince about how to keep oneself in power and authority. In the early years of his rule Gaddafi’s Spartan lifestyle, his simplicity and his concerns for public welfare endeared him to the Libyans and Libya’s friends abroad. Burgeoning oil wealth and a small population of three million ensured that no Libyan had to struggle for his livelihood. Gaddafi declared that every Libyan national would be provided the basic needs which comprised not only ‘bread, clothes and shelter’, to borrow the populist slogan of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, but also a car. It was a common site to see one or two Peugeot cars or station wagons parked outside a Bedouin tent in the Libyan desert. Education was free. University students were paid stipends in addition to free tuition and books. Healthcare and medicines were free.
There was a network of well-stocked and well-staffed hospitals and dispensaries in cities, towns and villages. Qualified doctors, nurses and
paramedical staff from all over the world were employed. At one stage Gaddafi decided to allocate different hospitals to doctors and staff of different nationalities to encourage competition for better services. For instance, some hospitals were staffed by Pakistanis only, some others by Egyptians only and so on. Modern apartment buildings sprang up on the outskirts of big cities like Tripoli where tent dwellers of the desert were given free occupation of flats. One would think that with all the basic need provided free of cost and no difficulty in seeking a livelihood, Libyans would be the happiest creatures on earth. But there were other aspects which impacted on the lives of the citizen. Students receiving free education, with future jobs ensured, had no incentive to work hard and achieve excellence in studies. The free medicines led to huge wastages. It was reported that the total weight of aspirin imported in 1977 was more than the total weight of all the Libyans at the time! Levying of even a nominal price could have stopped the wastage. The agricultural farms and the residential apartments distributed free were abandoned soon after the allottees used up the assets and accessories of the premises.
There was no dearth of jobs for Libyans willing to work. But as Gaddafi himself once stated: “Petroleum societies are lazy everywhere.” This was much in evidence in daily life. Libyans became lazy too. At times this attitude would result in amusing, even ridiculous situations. Our Embassy Translator Mr Itani, a young Lebanese graduate from Beirut (who had left his country because of the civil war there) used to commute by public bus. He would occasionally narrate to me his observations and daily experiences. One day coming to office he was sitting in the bus with a dozen or so other passengers. On the way the bus had to stop abruptly because a bicycle had been left in the middle of the road. The driver, a Libyan, asked the conductor to remove the bicycle so that the bus could pass. The conductor, also a Libyan, replied that his job was only to issue the tickets and not to remove bicycles on the road. He told the driver to do it himself. The driver retorted that his job was to drive and not to get out and remove things from the road. The passengers, on their part, declared that they had paid for the bus ride and would do no labour work. Mr Itani, a foreigner, dared not go against the collective decision. So the bus stood there for another 15-20 minutes till some policeman appeared and made a pedestrian remove the bike. One popular definition of ‘mudeer’, the manager or boss, was ‘one who would never be found in his office chair’, and of ‘ghafeer’, the gatekeeper or ‘naib qasid’, was ‘one who would never get up from his chair.’
Once when I visited the Ministry of Labour in 1977, the Director General told me that expatriates from 120 countries, in varying numbers, were employed in Libya. Foreign workers from the advanced West were treated with consideration and respect but workers from poor Asian and African countries were looked down upon. The Libyans, conscious of the fact that their country was rich, would describe the workers from poor countries as ‘miskeen’, ‘poor people’ obliged to serve them for livelihood. ‘Brother Al Aqeed’ believed that the Libyan people would forever remain grateful to him for such lavish largesse and the easy life. In return he demanded of the people complete subservience to him. Nobody would dare raise a finger to challenge his actions or authority. Those who would, and did, were ruthlessly obliterated. Gaddafi devised methods to make that absolutely sure. He ruled by decree. The country was run as a police state. Intelligence agents and informers were everywhere. Despite the usual hierarchy in public and private offices no one knew who was closer to the authorities that mattered.
Work ethics and office discipline were not in evidence. Even lowly officials would act and take decisions on whims. One day I had taken an appointment with the Chief of Protocol Mr Nuri el Miswari and was sitting in the Foreign Office waiting to meet him. The Naib Qasid (‘ghafeer’) of his office told me that the chief would see me soon and I should wait. A few minutes later a First Secretary of the Italian Embassy joined me as he also wanted to meet the Chief of Protocol (CP).The naib qasid told him that CP was not in his office and he should come some other time, and himself disappeared. But the Italian kept sitting with me. Another half an hour or so passed; the naib qasid returned and now Mr Miswari also came out of his office. Before I and the Italian diplomat could greet the CP the naib qasid confronted him angrily, asking why he had appeared or come out in view when he had told the Italian that he (CP) was not in. Mr Miswari seemed embarrassed but was unable to tell his ‘ghafeer’ off.
According to Libyan practice a person’s name had to have three parts: the given name, consisting of two words; and the father or husband’s name. Our Ambassador (Lt Gen) Rakhman Gul used to be amused to see his name, in official letters and invitations, variously written as ‘Mohammad Rakhman Gul’, ‘Rakhman Gul Khan’ or ‘Rakhman Gul Ahmed’-just to complete the three words.
Students receiving free education, with future jobs ensured, had no incentive to work hard and achieve excellence in studies
A Pakistani nurse named Anees arrived in Tripoli to join her job in the hospital. Accompanied by a senior Pakistani colleague who spoke Arabic, she went to the bank to open an account. The bank official at the counter gave her the form to fill out and was looking when, assisted by the colleague, she started filling the form. When she wrote her name ‘Anees’ the counter official told her ‘talata isam lazam’-the three (worded) name was essential. Her colleague suggested she may add her father’s name. Confused, she started writing ‘Anees daughter of’-the official stopped her saying that was good enough. So the lady had her bank account in the name ‘Anees daughter of’!
“Al Aqeed” did not require or let anybody demand a written constitution. His word was law. Lest anyone compare his rule with that of any other country he declared all the existing systems, monarchies as well as democratic systems, as defective and flawed . He propounded new theories designed to offer solutions to the political and economic problems of the world. His ‘Third International Theory’, printed in three volumes of the Green Book, provided ‘final solutions of the political and economic problems in the world’. Pocket editions of the Green Book on the pattern of the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung’s Red Book were printed in the millions and distributed free on all occasions to locals and foreigners. Quotations from the Green Book were displayed on posters and banners on major road intersections.
My house, an apartment on the first floor of a two-storey building, was a five-minute walk from the Chancery. Across the street, right in front of my apartment, was a two-storey house with a lawn and separate entrances for the upper and lower portions. This house was unoccupied for quite some time; only occasionally someone would come for a day or two into the upper portion. Then one day we saw the ground portion and its lawn being cleaned and readied for occupation. We could see all this from our front balcony. A few days later the furniture and other household goods were unloaded and the residents arrived. One day I was washing my car, with a water hose, on the street, in front of my house, (everybody parked the cars on the street, no parking space being provided inside). A long, dust-covered Chevrolet limousine arrived and was parked behind my car. Out came a young Libyan, about my age, walked across, greeted me and said. “This is a good idea. Can you lend me your hose? I should also wash my dirty car.” I warmly greeted my new neighbour and gladly lent him the water hose. Noting my car’s diplomatic plate number he asked me which country I was from. When he learned of my nationality he gave me a big smile and a hug. Now I asked him who he was and what was his occupation. He said he had recently returned from the US after doing his doctorate and was now working in the Ministry of Oil. I asked what exactly was his position. He said he was the Secretary (the top boss). Conscious of the protocol, I tried to be formal. But he would have none of it. Being an unassuming and pleasant person, Dr Shukri Ghanem would treat me as an equal, neighbour and friend. From that day to the time I left Tripoli we would visit each other with our families and would discus everyday affairs. He was quite frank in expressing his views. Once I asked him about the status of the independent house above his, which always remained shuttered down, and I mentioned the rumour that it was reserved for Carlos ‘The Jackal’ (one Ilich Ramirez Sanchez who is now serving a life sentence in France). Dr Shukri laughed and just said, “It could be true!”
When Bhutto was overthrown, imprisoned and awarded the death sentence, Gaddafi pleaded for sparing his life and offered to receive him in Libya in exile. The coup leader General Zia-ul-Haq visited Libya soon after taking over as Chief Martial Law Administrator. He had announced that general elections would be held in 90 days and had even announced the date for polling, which was declared a public holiday. During his visit to Libya, General Zia called on Gaddafi at his Azizia barracks Headquarters and residence. The CMLA also addressed, in the Pakistan Embassy premises, a representative gathering of some 50 Pakistani expatriates, doctors, professors, engineers, nurses, bankers, as well as Air Force and Naval officers serving there on deputation. During the question-and-answer session one officer asked the General if he really was serious about holding the elections at all. Without batting his eyelids, the CMLA forcefully re-confirmed his intention saying, “Don’t you know, I have already announced the date for the elections,” and added, “Bring a lie detector and apply it on me if you have any doubts.” All those present felt happy and reassured. A couple of days later I proudly narrated this to Dr Shukri. He remarked with dead seriousness, “Mr Nazar Abbas, have you ever heard of any military dictator, anywhere in the world, ever having relinquished power of his own free will? General Zia will never hold elections and will never relinquish power.”
Thereafter, whenever he would come and park his car in front of our buildings, and would see me standing on my balcony, Dr Shukri would wave to me and shout, “How is your zalaam-ul-batal?” (‘Darkness of Evil’.) The gentleman was to prove so right. And it came true now in case of his own country too. Later, when General Zial-ul-Haq put Bhutto in jail, my good neighbour said to me, “Give us Bhutto, and in exchange take away Gaddafi. We will even pay you some money…” I asked him if Gaddafi personally liked Bhutto. He said Gaddafi admired and liked Bhutto, but was at the same time envious, even jealous of Bhutto, because of the latter’s intelligence and guts. Dr Shukri gave me a signed copy of his book ‘The Pricing of Libyan Crude Oil’, on my departure from Libya in February 1979.
Dr Shukri later resigned from the Oil Ministry and headed a private oil company. Years later, when I was posted as Pakistan’s Consul in Bradford/Leeds in the UK, I was able to re-establish contact with him and learned that he was on the teaching faculty of London University. I visited him in his house in London in 1986. He was subdued and very worried. He told me that his contract with the University was due to expire soon. The University was willing to renew the contract but Gaddafi had refused him permission and had called him back to Libya. Dr Shukri said he was not sure whether he would be able to return to Libya alive. I lost contact with him thereafter. I came to know, however, that he was well and back in Tripoli. I sent him a letter through the Libyan Embassy in Islamabad when he was head of the state oil company. One day in 2003 I happened to watch CNN and there was Dr Shukri Ghanem, Prime Minister of Libya, giving an interview! After serving as Gaddafi’s Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006, he was appointed the Minister for Oil and represented his country in OPEC for several years. I hope my dear neighbour, the able accomplished and deeply patriotic Dr Shukri, is well, hail and hearty with all his family.
Source: The Friday Time