As I write this, Muammar Gaddafi is still at large, probably somewhere in Libya, and certainly causing trouble. If, back in March or April, when the people of Libya first revolted, he had taken a plane to Venezuela or Zimbabwe, much of the infrastructure of Libya would have been saved, not to mention many lives preserved. But no: the outcome will be the same (for it is hard to see Gaddafi returning to power at this stage) even though the fight will be needlessly, pointlessly drawn out. And why? All because of the selfish self-obsession of the man.
Dictators are rarely humble people, and politicians find it notoriously hard to retire from the scene. General Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico with an iron hand for over 35 years (not quite as long as Gadaffi’s near record-breaking 42), did eventually throw up his hand and retire to France. He was at that time over 80 years old, and his retirement was only brought about by the threat of revolution, so it was hardly a gracious retreat – but it was at least a recognition of the facts on the ground.
General Primo de Rivera, who ruled Spain from 1923 for seven years, was not forced out, but withdrew from power voluntarily, realising he had lost the support of both the King and the military. He too went to Paris, which seems to be the traditional refuge of fallen dictators. Certainly France is where Jean-Bedel Bokassa (someone who shared Gaddafi’s love of flamboyant costume) and Baby Doc Duvalier took refuge, though the French seem to have become more fussy of late about whom they let in. It must be rather humiliating for Gaddafi and his hangers-on to know that they could face the rest of their lives in Harare, along with General Mengistu, the famous mass murderer. Moreover, Harare may not be a safe refuge for very long, given the advanced age of Comrade Mugabe.
For dictators and for the rest of us, there seems to be a simple rule: never overstay your welcome. When Gaddafi first overthrew the Libyan monarchy back in 1969, he was perhaps genuinely popular. What support he once had has long been expended. One should quit when one is ahead: but sadly, egomaniacs, who need to learn this lesson more than most, find it the hardest lesson of all to learn.
I have been to Libya, as a tiny child, and growing up in Malta was educated with many Libyans and knew many Maltese who worked in Libya. Poor Libya, it has suffered enough. We must all hope and pray that the final agony is not prolonged.