/ 21 September 2023

Libya’s disaster more than an act of God

Storm Daniel
People try to open a blocked water drain in the middle of flooded road due to the Storm Daniel, which affected the city of Derna in Libya, in Deir Al Balah, Gaza on September 13, 2023. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Until 2011, Derna, a port city in eastern Libya with 90 000 inhabitants, was one of the wealthiest areas on the Barbary coast. Libya had all kinds of problems but with a more equitable distribution of oil income than in many other oil-producing countries, from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia, there was a viable state.

That changed in the aftermath of the 2011 attacks on Libya by Nato. The US led the attacks, which were aimed at “regime change” spun as a “humanitarian intervention” by Hillary Clinton. The result was, as in Iraq, the destruction of the state and any sense of a coherent society. The country collapsed into turf wars between armed militias, al-Qaeda more or less took over Benghazi and there was a grim turn to extreme anti-black racism.

In South Africa we know the social and economic costs of a lack of investment in maintaining infrastructure all too well. But here, we only have our own toxic mixture of corruption and austerity to blame. In failed states like Libya and Iraq, after the US led “regime change”, maintenance of infrastructure is impossible given the absence of a viable central state. 

The apocalyptic havoc unleashed on the residents of Derna by flood waters on 11 September 2023 after two dams collapsed took thousands of lives and left utter devastation in its wake. Calling this a natural disaster or an act of God, would be like describing the Marshall Town fire or the Bree Street explosion in this way.

The destruction of Derna was a result of the intersection of a massive storm and a failed state. This point was well made by Patrick Wintour in the Guardian who described the disaster as a result of both the climate crisis and the consequences of a failed state. 

However, Wintour did not appoint the blame where it truly lies — at the doorstep of the US government and its allies in Nato, most significantly the UK government. He also failed to note that the US has been the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in cumulative terms. Between 1751 and 2010, emissions from the US energy and industrial sectors accounted for 27.9% of the global total. 

The US led the destruction of Iraq and Libya; its coups in Haiti and across Latin America and its relentless wars must be reckoned with as part of a larger imperial project, initially located in Europe. The crimes against humanity perpetrated by Euro-America are not all in the distant past. In many instances, they have been presented and remembered as natural disasters when they are a direct result of political actions.

The 1943 famine in Bengal is a well-known example of this. Rainfall was low in Bengal in 1943 and had been low for some time. But the famine, which cost up to three million lives, was not an act of God. As the economist Amartya Sen argued in 1981 there were enough supplies to feed the drought-ridden region. However, the high death rates came about due to wartime hoarding by the British colonial state. Not only did the British state hoard food depriving Bengalis of food, Churchill’s government actively stopped food from being delivered to Bengal. Churchill himself blamed Indians for the famine, stating that Indians were “breeding like rabbits.” He also asked, cynically, “how, if the shortages were so bad, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive?”

What happened in Bengal in 1943 was not an isolated case. As the late great Mike Davis argued in his brilliant book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, the project of deprivation was built into the very system of colonialism that left the imperialist metropoles enriched at the cost of the destruction of the colonial peripheries. Davis stressed that capitalism “developed as a world system, with a group of wealthy countries at the centre and a larger group of countries — either ‘deindustrialised’ or hindered in their development — in the periphery.” 

The great wealth in London was made by the impoverishment in places like the rural Eastern Cape, enslavement in the Caribbean, and so on. The great power of the US on the global stage continues to be made by the destruction and exploitation of other countries around the world.

This is seldom acknowledged in the “white” media in South Africa where there is often an enthusiastic and uncritical identification with the West. But even the neo-conservative Atlantic Council, observed that: “Libyans are poorer, in greater peril, and experience as much or more political repression in parts of the country compared to Gaddafi’s rule”. 

One can only imagine how differently our media would respond if Libya had been a white country destroyed by, say, an Arab nation. It is a simple fact that the lives of people in countries like Libya, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Haiti and the DRC are accorded very little value.

Of course, there are many repressive governments across the formerly colonised world, and many governments that are solely concerned with elite accumulation, whether via corruption or collaboration with global capital, or both. But a sole focus on the often-serious failings of the governments in the formerly colonised world is a classic magician’s sleight-of-hand masking the devastation caused by the US and its European allies, devastation that goes back to the global ascendency of Euro-America in 1492. 

Inevitably people noting the historical and contemporary destruction resulting from Western imperialism are misrepresented as being aligned to repressive governments outside of the West. Sometimes incredibly emotive language is used, and critics of the West are accused of being stupid, immoral, corrupt, unconcerned for human rights, paid patsies for foreign governments and more. 

This is crude intellectual bullying. After all, just as condemning the destruction of Iraq hardly means that one is supportive of Saddam Hussein’s regime, so taking a position against the long reach of Euro-American imperialism hardly means that one embraces every government in the countries at the receiving end of that imperialism. 

But while there have been, and are, all kinds of repressive and exploitative governments across the global south, none has ever had the global power to inflict the scale of damage on humanity perpetrated by the US and its European allies. No amount of moral blackmail and whataboutery should distract us from this fact. 

We cannot accept the often-strident demand that we become uncritical ideological and political appendages to the West. 

Just as the Marshall Town fire must wake us up to the failures of our own government, the disaster in Derna must wake us up to the terrible human costs of the ways in which the US and its allies have laid waste to countries like Iraq and Libya. It cannot be business as usual. The devastation in Libya is one too many and we need to ask ourselves when are the chickens coming home to roost for the US and its allies?

Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a historian and labour activist.