Posted 14th May 2011 Pub.February 21, 2009


From The Sunday Times

February 21, 2009

Gaddafi offers oil and power to people

Philip Pank in Tripoli

Forty years into the revolution he unleashed on Libya Muammar Gaddafi has announced plans to dismantle the Government, hand the riches from Africa's biggest oil reserves to the people and nationalise foreign oil operations that have recently been allowed back into the country.

“The administration has failed and the state economy has failed. Enough is enough. The solution is, we Libyans take directly the oil money and decide what to do with the money,” he says.

To end the corruption that has sapped the vast oil wealth, bundles of cash should be delivered to the poor, three quarters of the ministries should cease to exist and the workers should run hospitals and schools.

The announcement has left diplomats and the 40 overseas oil companies operating in the country on edge.

Colonel Gaddafi, once derided as a “Mad Dog”, is basking in a new-found friendship with the West but anything is possible in a land that reflects the quixotic nature of its leader.

Across the country, from the smallest desert oasis to campuses and state companies, thousands of people are taking up his proposals at official public gatherings. Never before have the annual Libya's Basic People Congresses - in effect the country's top executive and legislative bodies - been invited to consider such reform.

“Libyans, this is your historic opportunity to take your oil wealth, power and full freedom,” Colonel Gaddafi said on the eve of the five-day round of meetings.

Many feel that they have not had their equal share even if outward signs of poverty in the deeply religious society are scarce. Satellite dishes adorn the low concrete apartment blocks; bread is cheap; petrol is 17 cents a litre, and imported cars carry families along the fertile coastal strip. Disaffection rarely spills into violence.

But the call to reform has been eagerly embraced by many. At the African University for Higher Studies, Abdul Hamid Amer told a meeting: “We must abolish the Cabinet. The ministries of health, education and transport should be abolished. The people should be left to run the ministries on their own.”

An outline of the plans is that $33 billion (£23 billion) from oil revenues, less $21 billion paid to foreign contractors to build roads, houses, hospitals and schools, leaves $12 billion for the people. That, plus $6 billion left over from last year's budget and $8 billion from taxes and tourism, leaves five million Libyans in line for a bonanza. Flow charts set out eight alternative plans for redistributing the wealth, for consideration at congress.

Not everyone has bought into the plan, Proposal for Distribution of the Wealth. Dr Bashir Zimbl said the draft was “a wrong title because the wealth has been distributed in the past and they are now playing with it”.

A young father confided: “We are not against giving the people the money but not in this way. We think they should have higher wages and fight corruption.”

Once the public deliberations end tomorrow they will be handed up to the 600-strong General People's Congress for consideration on March 2.

In theory, Colonel Gaddafi bows to their judgment and the people will then learn what is to become of their money. The Western oil companies that have been operating in Libya since 2003 - when Colonel Gaddafi abandoned his weapons of mass destruction and Libya took responsibility for bombing Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie - may also have a keener grasp of their future. Another motion is to nationalise foreign-run oil projects.

Among those to have arrived since international sanctions were lifted are the British groups BG, BP and Shell. “Obviously we do not know how it will go,” said one petrochemicals group. “At the moment we are not investing in plants and kit. We are investing in surveys, so there is nothing to lose.”

Diplomats, too, are waiting to see which way the whimsical leader will blow as he strikes his last policies before the 40th anniversary of his revolution in September.

“It has been a rollercoaster ride for Libyans and countries that need to relate to Libya,” one Western diplomat said.

“Today, at the international level, Libya is pretty much centre stage at the UN and AU and is negotiating a stronger relationship with the EU. I see more for Libya to gain by keeping in that direction so I expect it will, but the international normalisation is moving faster than domestic reform.”

Yet even seasoned observers have learnt not to second guess Colonel Gaddafi.

From 'Mad Dog' to 'King of Kings'

1942 Muammar Gaddafi born to Beduin family in the desert near Sirte, Libya

1969 Topples King Idris in a bloodless coup, aged 27, after army training in Britain

1976 Unveils his Third Universal Theory and its accompanying manifesto, The Green Book, espousing a form of Islamic socialism. Democracy outlawed, parties and army units replaced with popular committees

1977 Every Libyan family is asked to raise a chicken at home

1986 President Reagan brands him a “Mad Dog” after alleged Libyan involvement in European terror attacks; US bombs Gaddafi’s mansion

1988 270 people killed in bombing of Pan Am jet over Lockerbie

1992 UN imposes sanctions

1999 Lockerbie suspects handed over; UN sanctions suspended

2003 Libya takes responsibility for Lockerbie, renounces weapons of mass destruction

2008 Libya and US sign compensation deal for bombings. Gaddafi is crowned “King of Kings” by 200 African rulers

2009 Elected chairman of the African Union

Source: Times database