Meeting Gaddafi in Libya, North Africa; history and the might-have-beens

Published November 28, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Former House Speaker Jose C. De Venecia Jr.


Former Speaker of the House Jose C. De Venecia Jr.

News footage some two weeks ago showing the son of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam, bearded and wearing the Libyan traditional brown robe and turban, caught our attention.

The 49 year old Saif al-Islam was filing his candidacy for president of Libya at an election commission office in the south western city of Sebha.

Recent reports, however, said that Libya’s election body disqualified the young Gaddafi from running in the forthcoming Dec. 24 elections, citing his conviction on war crimes in 2015 for his part during the Libyan uprising that overthrew and killed his father in 2011.

This columnist had met a few times this bright and articulate London-educated Gaddafi son, who, in the past, was considered by the international community as the Western-friendly face of Libya and his father’s heir apparent. The world viewed him differently during the Libyan mass upheaval of October 2011.

Saif al-Islam called on us when we were speaker of the House of Representatives during his visit in Manila during the early 2000s. He and his father, Muammar Gaddafi, supported us in our peace talks then with the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and, earlier, with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), for which we are grateful and which helped lead to the relatively stable peace today in Mindanao.

We last saw Saif al-Islam in London in late 2010, less than a year before the mass revolt in his country which ousted and killed his father, the legendary Muammar Gaddafi.

We still vividly remember the Libyan leader’s tragic death in his hometown of Sirte, located between the capital Tripoli and Benghazi.

This columnist is no stranger in Libya as we would fly to this African country in the late 1970s until the early 1980s to oversee our projects there, when we were a pioneering businessman in the Middle East and North Africa.

At the time, we were pioneer as prime contractor operating the Saudi Arabia Port of Jeddah on the Red Sea and the Port of Jubail on the Persian Gulf, building mass housing in Kuwait and in the United Arab Emirates, and highways in Iraq, and later modest agriculture projects in Libya.

It was during our glorious and halcyon years as entrepreneur when we first met the young Muammar Gaddafi, who exuded an aura of power and radiated strong personal magnetism. He was soft-spoken, gracious and charming.

Gaddafi seized control of the Libyan government and deposed the monarchy of King Idris I in 1969 through a bloodless military coup.

We met him again in 1990, when we were acting chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives, before, with God’s grace, we became five-time speaker of the house, indeed unprecedented in the Philippines and Asian community.

Then in 1992, we flew to the Libyan city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, with then presidential candidate Fidel V. Ramos to initiate the beginnings of peace negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by then Chairman Nur Misuari, who was into self-exile in Libya.

As we later explained, although presidential candidate Ramos and we considered our then “secret” meeting with Gaddafi as a mission for peace, which later became one of the defining goals of the Ramos presidency, we also did it to build momentum for his presidential campaign and win over the undecided segment of the Philippine electorate.

Fast forward in 2011, as the political crisis in Libya was brewing, we wrote Gaddafi a letter, expressing our grave concern and prayerful hope that the Libyan government resolved the crisis in a way that would end the bloodshed, restore Libya’s stability, and award the Libyan people a full measure of civil liberties and individual rights.

We thought that by doing so, Gaddafi would be able to preserve his legacy and his role in Libyan history.

For in a real sense Gaddafi led in modernizing Libya’s economy and building its infrastructure. He also gave up voluntarily his program of building nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

On our humble suggestion, Gaddafi’s government also pioneered in hiring Filipino and Asian oil and construction technicians and health workers, which in some ways contributed to a practice that had spread throughout the Middle East until today.

In our letter to him, we also suggested that he create an “interim, transition government of national salvation,” which might still offer the Tripoli leadership, its urban opposition, Libyan civil society, and Libya’s tribal groupings a political framework for sitting down and reasoning together.

We added that perhaps his government should urgently invite a United Nations Mediation Team to mediate the crisis in Libya before it metes out more suffering and bloodshed among the Libyan people and prevent the dreaded final confrontation between citizen-protesters, private militia, and the Armed forces.

Following the Libyan mass uprising of October 2011, our thoughts kept returning to the “might-have-beens.” History, however, as we all know is not shaped by the “might have beens.”