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Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi holds a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels April 27, 2004.Yves Herman/Reuters

It was one of the world's oddest relationships: Moammar Gadhafi and Nelson Mandela, best friends forever. Yet it typified the Libyan dictator's uncanny ability to use his personal charisma - and his vast oil wealth - to acquire allies and survive for 42 years on the world stage.

Colonel Gadhafi had supported the African National Congress in exile during the years of apartheid, and Mr. Mandela never forgot it. The liberation hero remained staunchly loyal to Col. Gadhafi for the rest of his life, calling him "my brother leader" and praising him as "one of the revolutionary icons of our times." He even presented the dictator with South Africa's highest award, the Order of Good Hope.

But just like Col. Gadhafi's cynical friendships in the rest of the world, much of his influence in South Africa was bought blatantly with money. He helped pay for Winnie Mandela's legal defence in her kidnapping trial. He gave lavishly to the ANC's election campaigns. And he reportedly gave $2-million to Jacob Zuma, today the South African President, to help pay the legal bills for his 2006 rape trial.

It was this combination of shrewdness and ruthlessness that allowed Col. Gadhafi to keep his grip on Libya for four decades, exploiting his oil wealth and his brutal security apparatus to win friends and crush enemies, until he finally became Africa's longest-serving leader. He was never far from violent tactics. He rose to power through a military coup in 1969, unleashed his troops against rival governments from Chad to Uganda, and never hesitated to use bloodshed to quell dissent and to advance his eccentric ambitions across Africa and the Middle East.

Equally important has been his shape-shifting personality, bending to the needs of the moment. Though linked to political assassinations and terrorism, he later gave up his nuclear program and rebuilt relations with the United States and Britain. He could also diverted attention with bizarre outbursts and strange whims that led many observers to underestimate him. In every incarnation and every personality, he has managed to survive - until, perhaps, now.


Col. Gadhafi, born in a tent in the Libyan desert in 1942, the son of an illiterate Bedouin camel herder, used the military as his vehicle to political power. As the leader of a group of young army officers, he led a coup against the monarchy in 1969 to seize command in Libya.

In the 1970s, he declared himself a socialist revolutionary, supporting dozens of radical groups and terrorist organizations, including the Irish Republican Army, the Black Panthers, the Shining Path, and various Palestinian extremist groups. He propped up the murderous Idi Amin in Uganda, and sent his army into neighbouring Chad. He was involved in a series of coup attempts and political assassinations across Africa.

He continued to dabble in offshore violence in the 1980s. His agents were linked to the bombing of a West Berlin disco, the shooting of a British police officer in London, and the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, in which 270 people died in an explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland. He was also secretly developing weapons of mass destruction. In 1986, American warplanes bombed Tripoli on the orders of president Ronald Reagan, who called Col. Gadhafi a "mad dog."


Col. Gadhafi became as notorious for his bizarre eccentricities as he was for his sponsorship of terrorism. He preferred to receive visitors in a tent in the desert, with camels nearby. He insisted on pitching a Bedouin tent in foreign capitals to serve as his sleeping quarters wherever he travelled. He published a Mao-style Green Book of political philosophy, calling it the "Third Universal Theory," which combined aspects of socialism and Islam.

His personal style was equally bizarre. He wore flamboyant army uniforms, sunglasses, and an endless wardrobe of tunics and robes, often with African symbols printed on them. He surrounded himself with gun-toting female bodyguards. He is said to travel everywhere with a Ukrainian nurse, described as a "voluptuous blonde."

On his visits to Italy, he recruited hundreds of showgirls and models for meetings with him, paying them substantial sums of money to listen to his lectures on the superiority of Islam. He then invited them on all-expenses-paid trips to Libya.

One of his strangest moments was a rambling 95-minute speech to the United Nations in 2009, during which he insulted the delegates, attacked the UN charter and floated wild conspiracy theories, including the allegation that swine flu was a virus that escaped from a military laboratory.


After decades of bitter conflict with Western nations, Col. Gadhafi astonished everyone by forging a rapprochement with the United States and Britain. In 2003, his regime took responsibility for the Pan Am bombing and promised compensation to the families of the victims, setting the stage for the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya. He pledged to stop sponsoring any wars or acts of terrorism. He also agreed to dismantle Libya's entire inventory of weapons of mass destruction.

It was a shrewd move. It ended his isolation, eased the foreign pressure against him, and allowed him to extend his rule for many more years. The West normalized its relations with Libya, and the triumphant dictator was able to hold meetings with British leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, along with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and others. Not coincidentally, Western business executives were soon descending on Libya in hopes of making money from the oil-rich state.

More recently, he gave a hero's welcome to the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, when he was freed from a British jail. The welcome party infuriated the British government, yet Col. Gadhafi was able to maintain the diplomatic relations that he craved.


Throughout the four decades of his flamboyant career on the world stage, throughout all of the twists and turns of his foreign adventures, one thing remained constant: his brutal control of the Libyan people.

Even when the West was embracing him after his political rehabilitation, he wielded an unyielding iron hand at home. He maintained an absolutist police state, with no opposition brooked. The media were tightly controlled, and dissenters were eliminated. By law, no ideology except his own was permitted.

Hundreds of Libyans were imprisoned for daring to question his rule, and many were executed, human-rights groups said. Torture and disappearances were also common.

These were the brutal tactics that brought him to power and kept him in power. Today, these are the blood-soaked tactics that he is wielding again, in a desperate attempt to survive. The question is whether those ruthless methods will be enough to defeat the mounting revolt against him.