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Mahmood Mamdani on Libya, an African Union in “Crisis” & the Outlook for South Sudan

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As the African Union meets today, Columbia University professor and Africa scholar Mahmood Mamdani joins us to give his take on the regional and global implications of NATO’s intervention in Libya, which he says threatens to increase the militarization of the African continent. Mamdani is the author of several books, including “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror” and “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror.” We’re also joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat, who has just returned from 10 days in Libya following the rebels’ victory in Tripoli. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Anjali Kamat is in Cairo, our Democracy Now! correspondent. She is just back from 10 days in Libya. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yes, thank you. Anjali, I just want to read part of a report from yesterday’s Washington Post. This is a quote. “As Libya’s leader, Moammar Gaddafi regarded Islamists as the greatest threat to his authority, and he ordered thousands of them detained, tortured and, in some cases, killed. The lucky ones fled the country in droves. But with Gaddafi now in hiding, Islamists are vying to have a say in a new Libya, one they say should be based on Islamic law.” Can you comment on that?

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, I think two things. On the one hand, it’s true, Islamists were heavily repressed under Muammar Gaddafi. And in the most infamous incident, in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996, at least 1,200 prisoners, most of them thought to be Islamists, were massacred in a period of a few hours. Having said that, today, a lot of Islamists, people who identify as—variously identify as Islamist, are coming out and are free to speak. And what’s interesting is both Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the NTC, made it very clear in his first public speech in Tripoli a couple nights ago that he wants Libya to be a civil state based on Islamic law, but that this would be a civil democratic state. And many progressive, secular human rights activists that I spoke to in Libya were not at all concerned about the power of Islamists, and they feel very strongly that Islamists should be included in the new political system, and they want Libya to be a democracy. The more you exclude people and push people underground, the more problems you create.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined here in New York by Mahmood Mamdani, who’s just back from Uganda after several months. He has written extensively on the global implications of NATO’s intervention in Libya. Professor Mamdani teaches both at Makerere University in Uganda and at Columbia University here in New York, author of a number of books, including Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror.

Can you talk about—can you respond to what Nermeen just read and Anjali’s description of what she saw in Libya and the implications of what’s happening in Libya for the continent of Africa?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I’ve never been to Libya, OK? So, what struck me about Anjali’s description is the backdrop is missing. The backdrop is the manner of change in Libya, the heavy involvement of external forces in expediting, rapid fashion, change in Libya, and that manner of involvement being basically bombardment. In East Africa, which is where I’ve been for the last eight months, this has been the cause of huge concern, huge concern because Libya is not atypical. Egypt and Tunisia might be slightly atypical when it comes to the African continent. Libya is far more characteristic of countries which are divided, which have leaders who have been in power for several decades, which have strong military forces and sort of formally democratic regimes, but otherwise really autocratic regimes, and where the opposition is salivating at the prospect of any kind of external involvement which will bring about a regime change inside these countries. So there is a real sense of danger around the corner. What is going to happen to the African continent? That’s one thing.

Second thing is, the contention over Africa has become intense over the last decade. There has almost been a complete reversal of positions that existed during the Cold War, because, if you remember, in the Cold War we used to think of the Soviet Union as typifying a military approach and the U.S.A. standing up for some kind of development. Now it’s the opposite. Now it’s the Western Alliance—the U.S., NATO, etc.—which typify a military approach, and China is building roads all over Africa, and India is investing in industries all over Africa. So, the prospect of increased militarization of the continent is another great fear. The sort of autocratic leaders in Africa have responded to this by trying to enter into a strategic military engagement with the West, so that they don’t fall afoul of them, as Gaddafi did, in a way, and at the same time maintaining some kind of engagement, a strong engagement, on the ground with China, India, Malaysia, places like that. But it’s this wider picture, this picture of stalling internal reform combined with a rapidly shifting backdrop internationally and sort of previously dominant powers who are unable to think of any other strategy except greater military involvement to hold onto their influence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to catch Anjali just before she leaves the studio in Cairo. What Professor Mahmood Mamdani is saying, this deep concern about the significance of the NATO intervention in the rest of Africa, as you traveled, was that expressed by progressive forces in Libya and also back in Egypt, where you now live?

ANJALI KAMAT: I mean, I agree with Professor Mamdani that it’s very dangerous, it sets a very dangerous precedent for the rest of the continent, and frankly, the rest of the world, if internal reform doesn’t go anywhere and then you bring in, you invite in, foreign intervention. Absolutely, it’s a terrible precedent. On the other hand, I was quite surprised by how few people in Libya seemed overly concerned by this. They took a very pragmatic approach, and they explained to me that it’s precisely because efforts at internal reform were continuously and brutally stymied by the Gaddafi regime that they were left with no other choice than to invite the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution for a no-fly zone, and moving on forward from that, which, again, as Professor Mamdani mentioned, resulted in a major bombing campaign.

Interestingly, traveling across the country, there aren’t that many—that much evidence of bombed-out sites within Libya, bombs by NATO. I saw a few areas where no civilians were living, no people were living. These are just infrastructure outside on the outskirts of Misurata. And within Gaddafi’s compound, certainly, there were some areas that were bombed out. And there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians who were killed in these attacks until now. We don’t have an accurate death toll from any side, which—you know, which, again, is something that we should—we should hopefully get more of and learn more about in the coming period.

In terms of the future, again, people are, I think, very—some people are wary that NATO will try and win greater concessions or it will try and exert—somehow wield greater influence in Libya. That said, many of the NATO countries already wield—were already very much involved in Libya, deeply embedded in the Libyan economy under the Gaddafi regime. And NATO countries continue to wield influence in Egypt and Tunisia, as well. And where this is very different from Iraq, I think is important to stress. And people said this to me over and over again in Libya, when I asked if they were worried that Libya is going to become Iraq or Afghanistan. They said this was a popular uprising, it was a mass revolt; it was not a foreign invasion to overthrow a leader. Furthermore, you don’t have NATO countries sort of functioning as the executive authority of Libya. You have Libyans in charge. You don’t have a coalition provisional authority or a figure like Paul Bremer dealing with the day-to-day activities, day-to-day governance of Libya. And this sort of future scenario is something that people in Libya would be very much against. In terms of expanding the sphere of influence, sure, that’s something that people are concerned about and will try and limit to the extent that’s possible. But this is also a reality in—you know, across North Africa, certainly in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco.

AMY GOODMAN: Anjali, we want to thank you so much for being with us, and we look forward to playing your reports next week, as you crossed Libya to bring the voices of Libyans to a global audience. Thanks so much. Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat, just back from Libya, speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mahmood, you talked about some of the anxieties in Africa regarding this intervention. And today there’s a meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, of the African Union. Can you say a little bit about why the African Union hasn’t recognized the interim authority of the National Transitional Council, even though individual members have, and whether this meeting might lead to such recognition?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, the African Union is in deep crisis itself. Without the vote of two of its leading members, South Africa and Nigeria, there would have been no U.N. intervention, no NATO intervention. And they know it. Having voted in favor of that intervention, now they are crying foul and saying that our efforts to mediate were ignored. So they appeared like a—just a useless body, a gathering where people can air their grievances, but nothing more than that. So they have to salvage themselves. The reluctance to recognize the transitional government in Libya is an admission that they don’t see an easy way out of this dilemma. So, they will probably—they will have to recognize it, if not today, then tomorrow.

Their problem is—you know, they have sat through a series of crises over the last few years. You had Ivory Coast, equally divided society. They thrust the Mbeki initiative on Ivory Coast. It was basically about getting the two sides to talk to one another, maybe even a kind of solution that was found in Kenya. Because, think of it. Kenya, after the election, was very similar to Ivory Coast. The government in power had lost the election. The opposition was crying foul, similar to Ivory Coast. And yet, the U.N. and the U.S. solution was not to throw that government out, but actually to force the opposition to enter into an alliance whereby the government kept on being the government, and the opposition was simply ensured that the next time around there would be a free election. So, why not in Ivory Coast? You know, the rules are changing from country to country depending on the interests involved. So, the African Union is sort of irrelevant.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of countries, I wanted to talk about the newest nation in the world: South Sudan. July 11th of this year, tens of thousands celebrated South Sudan as the country became the world’s newest independent state. South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in a January referendum, the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of fighting with the north. While North Sudan was the first nation to recognize the new state, many issues remain unresolved between the two nations, including disputes over borders and oil payments. I want to play a comment from South Sudan’s first president, Salva Kiir. He’s the former military commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

PRESIDENT SALVA KIIR MAYARDIT: A happy day like this should not dwell on the bad memories, but it is important to recognize that for many generations this land has seen untold suffering and death. We have been bombed, maimed, enslaved, and treated worse than a refugee in our own country. But we have to forgive, although we will not forget.

AMY GOODMAN: The president of the new nation of South Sudan. Professor Mahmood Mamdani, your response? You’ve written extensively about this. Were you there on July 11th?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: No, I wasn’t there. Look, I’m not very optimistic about what is likely to follow over the next few years. And the main reason is this. The SPLA was very successful on the ground. And the reason it was successful is because it shed the program of an independent South Sudan and called for a new Sudan. So, by adopting an all Sudan strategy, it was able to win over allies in the north, and the allies it won were precisely the border states, which are now in trouble. When the SPLM went for an independent South Sudan strategy, these border states in the north opposed it. They felt that they were being betrayed. They had joined the struggle with the SPLM, and now they were being left to the wolves, the wolves being the military in the north.

Independence has come. South Sudan is independent. It’s a sovereign country with borders. But the South Sudanese military, the SPLA, is integrated with the militias and different forces inside border states in the north. OK, now, what are they going to do? These forces on the ground feel a sense of loyalty to the cause of the people in the Nuba Mountains, the people in South Kordofan, the people in Blue Nile. So you have basically a conflict, no longer simmering. You have an active conflict in these border states, which has two dimensions to it. One dimension is an internal revolt, a popular revolt. And the other dimension is the involvement of what are now foreign forces. OK, this is the question that North Sudan has brought to the Security Council, right? But this is a worse situation than Ethiopia and Eritrea, because at least in the Ethiopian and Eritrean case, you had forces on two sides of the border. You had Eritreans inside Ethiopia, but they were all civilians. It began with an expulsion of all the Eritreans and then a confrontation of armed forces. You have—nobody knows the figures, but at least a million South Sudanese in the north today. So, shall we expect an expulsion in the coming months, and then shall we expect a military confrontation? Difficult to say, but I’m not very optimistic.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mahmood, I want to turn now to the decade since 9/11. You wrote Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, about the relationship between the Cold War and what happened subsequent to it, including the 9/11 attacks and now the war on terror. So I just want to play a comment from this weekend’s 9/11 commemoration ceremony at the Pentagon. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the United States will never stop fighting those who were responsible.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: To this day, by these memorials to each victim, we pledge to never forget the enemy that made this happen, why we fight them, and why we will never stop fighting them, to make sure that what happened here and in New York City and in that field in Pennsylvania never happens again.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mahmood, your comments?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, the problem is defining who they intend to fight, because those who carried out the attacks on 9/11 were not a state. They were not an army, navy or air force. There have been two wars since then, wars of choice, against existing states. Nobody believes and nobody claims anymore that these were involved in the fighting. So this has just become a blank check for what looks more and more like a rogue state to go around fighting whoever it wants to fight.

But I think the more serious question is its impact on American society itself. There is a huge problem at home. I mean, you know, one out of every six Americans is poor. Popular programs, welfare programs are being cut. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union reformed, in some ways. The losing side has to reform, right? It’s the winning side which doesn’t reform. And it hasn’t reformed. And this is a program for not reforming. This is a program for continuing the militarization of the U.S.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So you see the poverty as a direct consequence of these wars that have been waged since 9/11?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, I see the poverty not as a direct consequence, but it changes the map, the choices, what’s at stake, in a sense. You know, Americans are led to believe by their public intellectuals and by their leadership that this enemy is not just these handful of people, but it’s a large section of the globe, something called Islam, something called Muslims, in a sense, and that it’s external. It’s external. I mean, there’s a complete reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which Islam is internal to the U.S., a complete reluctance to acknowledge that Islam in the U.S. is not simply the guys who came off the plane from South Asia and West Africa and Middle East over the last 10 years, but actually has been as old as the American republic. Around eight, nine percent of the slaves were Muslims. Half the Muslims in the U.S. are African Americans. Who knows that? Right? They all look at Park Slope and this, and they think that the Muslims are the people who came 10 years ago, five years ago, they are the rich sheikhs. But they are part of American society. They are Malcolm X. They are Muhammad Ali. You know, these are the Muslims of the U.S. And so, this inability to acknowledge that they are dealing with a group which is as internal, it’s not just external. It’s—I think these questions are not being confronted.

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