Posted by: Jack | August 17, 2011

5 things you might not have known about the war in Libya

If you’re reading this I’m assuming your world weary enough to know that our government hasn’t been part of the war on Libya for coming on six months out of the goodness of its heart.

The powers of the Atlantic world, both European and North American launched yet another assault against a state that was not sufficiently under their control back in March. The official reason for the war, accepted with little voice of opposition in the attacking countries, is that its necessary to protect Libyans from a crazy government bent on wiping them out. Of course, the fantasy that the governments of the Euro-American powers as humanitarian crusaders is hard to believe when you take a look at the real ways these wars are carried out.

So why, at a time when the financial and social collapse of European countries is painfully obvious, are their governments spending millions of dollars every day to try and kick Col. Gadaffi out of power? As is usually the case, there isn’t a single overriding cause for the war. For example, despite the truth of saying that Iraq was a war for oil, in many ways it was as much about what money would be used to trade Iraq’s oil.

The natural reaction of many may have been that maybe Libya is about oil as well. Libya produces only 2% of the world’s oil. That’s not unimportant, especially considering that oil supplies anywhere are only going to get more difficult to find and expensive in the next few decades, and the world’s powers are already jostling for who controls the supply to the others. But it’s not as decisive a factor as it would be in a country like Iraq, where there’s much more vast reserves to be exploited. Below are five factors you might not have considered about why we’re at war in Libya:

5) Satellites and telecommunications. Until relatively recently, the African continent was dependent on its former rulers in Europe for access to satellite communications. Western companies like Intelsat used their monopoly position in space technology to fleece Africa for basic communications, collecting $500 million a year by making the most expensive place on Earth to make a phone call.

From 1992 onwards, African governments decided to actively try and extract themselves from such a blatant scam by putting up their own communications satellite. But western banks and the IMF failed to provide loans to make it possible. The project needed $400 million as a one off payment to save African countries more than that every year, meaning they would easily be able to pay it back. But with international lenders protecting the profits of European satellite companies, the project was stuck.

The logo of Regional African Satellite Communication

That is until Gadaffi stepped in with the cash, putting $300 million up to launch Africa’s first ever communications satellite in 2007. Although it was built and delivered by a European company, it’s not under their control. What’s more is that it has opened the door to African use of space, with established space powers such as Russia and China sharing technology and providing launch facilities for African countries. Algeria is now aiming to have the first satellite built and launched from African soil by 2020.

African countries have historically been divided from each other by state borders, infrastructure systems and communications networks that had been designed with the needs of colonial powers to extract resources in mind, rather than the needs of Africans themselves. Access to cheaper telecommunications is helping for the first time to connect people all over the continent by phone, broadcasting and internet. Even in rural areas people have access to distance learning, and practical information on sustainable technology and agriculture. The growth of African communications can have a transformative aspect that’s unimaginable for someone living in a post-industrial advanced capitalist country.

The west probably would have funded the project in the end, but only through extortionate loans that would have stuck African countries for interest for decades afterwards, effectively wiping out the savings they were making and continuing dependence on former colonial powers. So by putting up the cost, Gadaffi was not only depriving European satellite companies of $500 million per year, but also in the long term meant western banks missed out on potentially billions in debt repayments that would have kept coming for a long time.

4) Immigration and racism. For years Libya and the European powers were engaged in a pretty sick and inhuman diplomatic game with human lives as the chess pieces. Huge numbers of people from throughout Africa head north every year to try and escape the effects of centuries of European exploitation by getting into Europe itself. Many of them travel across the sea from Libya. The Libyan government controlled the flow of people making it across, and made deals with Italy to accept migrants they expelled (as you can imagine, they don’t have the greatest conditions when they get to Libya). In return, they used this leverage to get economic concessions out of the European powers. Just last year, Gadaffi notoriously traveled to Italy to declare Europe should give him 5 billion Euros to prevent Africans from reaching Europe.

The reason why this is important is racism plain and simple, the anti-immigrant politics that is powerful throughout the EU that fears being “swamped” by Africans. Gadaffi exploited these fears expertly, claiming that if Libya didn’t intervene

“Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in . . . We don’t know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans. We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.”

Gadaffi with the equally awful Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi last year

Gadaffi with the equally awful Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi last year

His attitude has never been anything but cynical, seeing African people willing to risk their lives to escape poverty as a bargaining chip with the European powers. In seeking a more compliant and easily controlled Libyan government, one of the objectives is to get a regime in place that will regard rounding up poor Africans and keeping them out of Europe as the duty of a responsible western ally, and not something they are willing to trade for concessions.

3) Water. Part of the multi-faceted crisis facing global capitalist society is due to the collapse in supply of many vital natural resources. Pretty much the most fundamental of all is fresh water. Human beings everywhere cannot survive without freshwater, but we are increasingly depleting its availability throughout the world through pollution of the supply, growing urbanisation and irrigation intensive capitalist agriculture. Just like they want to get their hands on oil fields and pipelines, any world power that doesn’t want to be dominated by others in the 21st century is gearing up to grab water sources as well. This is the reason Israel has no intention of giving Syria back any of the territory it grabbed in the 60s in the Golan Heights; and why nothing short of a global nuclear war is ever going to convince China to give up Tibet.

The UN Environmental programme warns that within the next 50 years around 3 billion people are going to be chronically short of water. This is particularly a problem in the Middle East, which has 5% of the world’s population but just 1% of its water supply. If you ever doubted that global society has pushed itself to the brink of collapse through ecological stupidity, consider that we already live in a world where wars are taking place for control of water sources; and Libya is one of them.

Epic scale: pipes being laid in the Sahara

Col. Gadaffi is the type of leader who sees himself as one of history’s greats, a “look on my works ye mighty and despair” type guy. He wants there to be a legacy of his rule that will be remembered for centuries. And in the Great Man Made River project, he may just have found one.

Underneath the Libyan desert is the world’s largest aquifer of fossil water – that is, water that built up underground and has been sealed there since the last ice age. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System was discovered in the 50s during oil exploration. When Gadaffi came to power he started preparing for a mega-project to exploit this resource, which began construction in 1984. The Great Man Made River Project is the largest network of underground pipes and aqueducts in the world, with 1,300 wells that are mostly more than 500 metres deep. It delivers six and a half million cubic metres of water to thirsty Libyan cities every day, and there’s enough water there to keep doing so for the next 1000 years. But it wouldn’t have been accessible without the massive infrastructure investment of the Libyan government.

The ultimate aim of the project is to allow Libya to become agriculturally self-sufficient (currently 20% of its imports are food) by mass irrigation and reclaiming areas from the desert. Such a huge supply of water is important not just for Libya, but even more so for neighbouring countries, and many of their leaders attended its opening ceremonies. Libya has a population of just 4 million, whereas Egypt has 55 million crowded into a narrow strip around the Nile, which is becoming increasingly taxed by its overuse for water and agriculture. Gadaffi has previously talked of allowing Egyptians to migrate to Libya and being opening up areas of the desert to farming with water from the project.

The powers attacking Libya today are extremely worried about the outcome of the revolutions taking place througout the Arab world. There is no guarantee that countries such as Egypt and Tunisia will end up with governments that are easily controlled enough for the liking of Europe and the US. But if millions of Egyptians were dependent on a water infrastructure that the west could control following the conquest of Libya, then there’s a serious limit to the amount of opposition a future Egyptian government could mount to western control.

Of course, any mega-project of engineering is prone to unforeseen consequences, and the fossil water under Libya is a non-renewable resource that won’t last forever. Extracting the world’s largest aquifer of its kind could have serious geological consequences. But it’s impossible to ignore that the Great Man Made River is one of the greatest feats of engineering humans have ever completed, and cost more than the Three Gorges Dam or the large Hadron Collider (a cost that was met entirely by the Libyan state, see below). Control of it may be something the European powers think worth fighting for.

2) Banks. Finance and international aid has been the means by which the former colonial powers in Europe and the new one in the US have controlled African countries since they became independent. Western banks loan them money which must be paid back at insane interest, and which comes with conditions attached – that governments must give up control over their own economies, privatising and outsourcing the running of their economies, which in practice means handing them over to foreign companies.

Libya is an African country that has managed to maintain a higher level of independence from the west because it has kept its Central Bank under state control, and retains the power to issue its own money. This stands in stark contrast to, for example, the many former French colonies that use a currency that was created during colonial times and continue to be guaranteed by the French Treasury.

Irrigated land in the Libyan desert, visible from space

Coupled with the profits of the oil industry, this has allowed Libya to economically independent, guarantee a fairly high standard of living for its citizens, with people guaranteed basic subsistence, subsidised food, free education and free healthcare, leading to the highest lifespan in Africa. The Libyan state has substantial cash reserves, as opposed to the massively indebted governments that are attacking it. The level of economic independence that Libya enjoys from international finance is not something the global capitalist order was likely to tolerate for long.

The Libyan government’s wealth has not only benefited Libyans, and on top of the already mentioned support for the satellite project there’s the hugely economically important support for financial integration of African countries. They were providing significant funds towards the establishment of an African Monetary Fund and an African Central Bank, leading towards an African single currency.

These organisations are planned to replace the role of the international financial institutions controlled by the US and Europe, and have barred non-African countries from becoming members. By doing so, Africa would perhaps begin to finally get some measure of independence from the foreign powers that have dominated and exploited their economies for centuries. That would be intolerable for the western financial system and European powers.

Indeed, as an article in Asia Times notes, one of the first things the Libyan rebel forces did back in March was to create a central bank, not usually something that is top of the list of things you need to get done in a revolution. Robert Wenzel wrote in the Economic Policy Journal:

I have never before heard of a central bank being created in just a matter of weeks out of a popular uprising. This suggests we have a bit more than a rag tag bunch of rebels running around and that there are some pretty sophisticated influences.

And CNBC senior editor John Carney, asked,

“Is this the first time a revolutionary group has created a central bank while it is still in the midst of fighting the entrenched political power? It certainly seems to indicate how extraordinarily powerful central bankers have become in our era.” (Both quotes from Asia Times).

The rebels declared that their central bank was the only one with legitimacy over monetary affairs in Libya, and they are clearing preparing the way for surrendering Libya’s financial independence to the conquering Euro-American forces and their banks if they manage to take power.

1) Geopolitics. What these different strands add up to is that the west is unhappy with the degree of independence Libya under Gadaffi has been able to exercise from their control. Without his government being indebted to him they can’t use economic levers to control his politics. That financial independence has allowed Libya to become something of a power in Africa, driving forward processes of integration that could start removing the continent from colonial control. The model to emulate is the integration of Latin America pioneered by Venezuela, meaning that many countries there are escaping from foreign dominance. The structures of a united African continent that Libya backs are opposed to many smaller regional groupings such as ECOWAS in the west or the SADC in the south that are funded and controlled by the European Union. He’s also forged economic alliance with the emerging economic world powers of BRICS, particularly China.

One of the reasons that the US has left most of the actual war fighting in Libya to Britain and France (apart from the obvious ones that they’re skint and already busy in a bunch of other places) is that North Africa is somewhere that is accorded greater geo-strategic importance in Europe than the US. France in particular, has never ceased seeking to dominate its former colonies through undermining governments and economic dependency. Both Britain and France have a long history of interest in the region that Libya is in, a fact that that became vividly clear to me when I realised that British forces are now fighting over places where my Grandfather fought in the Second World War.

The European powers regard North Africa, and the African continent generally, as their legitimate sphere of influence, and their continued domination of the continent was threatened by the projects underwritten by the Libyan government may fatally undermine that. Their model for this war, as they explicitly say themselves, is Kosovo. A war for “humanitarian reasons” in fact is an all-out assault on a non-compliant government, aimed at replacing it with one that will give over control of the economy to western banks and allowing its territory to become a massive western military base. Such an easily controlled regime would be particularly useful given the uncertainty over what will happen in neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

None of this is meant to imply that I think the Libyan government is fantastic or that I’m cheering for the continued rule of Col. Gadaffi. His crazy pronouncements make him one of the most hilarious leaders of a state (easy to say when I don’t live there I know) in the world, with his bizarre sci fi visions of the future, his development of the world’s safest car, and his declaring himself “the king of kings of Africa.” The point about Gadaffi is that he’s the type of leader that the world’s global Euro-American powers don’t tolerate any more if they can possibly avoid it – a strong man great leader who retains a state apparatus with independence from the global market and able to allow Pharaohnic feats that demonstrates its power, such as the Great Man Made River.

Any war takes place for a complex web of reasons, and while this list might not be exhaustive, if we want to have any understanding of this latest military adventure by our bankrupt governments, it’s time to look at what Libya has actually done to attract the wrong kind of attention.



  1. Great post, good to see you back blogging. I had been wondering what the motivations of the UK and French intervention was. The man made river thing is pretty damn cool, its a shame here in the UK, for all our imperial might and our blue water navy we don’t undertake engineering projects on a similar scale

  2. good blogging!

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