One of the most important figures in global politics in the second half of the 20th century, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi ruled as de facto leader of Libya for more than 40 years.
Ostensibly a socialist, Gaddafi came to power through revolution. Alternately revered and reviled by Western governments for decades, Gaddafi’s control of the Libyan oil industry ensured him a prominent position in global politics even as he slid into despotism and dictatorship.
In his decades-long reign over Libya, Gaddafi created some of the highest living standards in Africa and significantly improved the country’s infrastructure, but also committed human rights abuses, engineered mass public executions and brutally quashed dissent.
Here are 10 facts about one of Africa’s longest-serving dictators.
1. He was born into a Bedouin tribe
Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi was born into poverty in the Libyan desert, around 1942. His family were Bedouins, nomadic, desert-dwelling Arabs: his father made his living as a goat and camel herder.
Unlike his illiterate family, Gaddafi was educated. He was first taught by a local Islamic teacher, and later in the elementary school in the Libyan town of Sirte. His family scraped together the tuition fees and Gaddafi used to walk to and from Sirte every weekend (a distance of 20 miles), sleeping in the mosque in the week.
Despite teasing at school, he remained proud of his Bedouin heritage throughout his life and said he felt at home in the desert.
2. He became politically active at a young age
Italy had occupied Libya during World War Two, and in the 1940s and 1950s, Idris, the King of the United Kingdom of Libya, was something of a puppet ruler, in thrall to Western powers.
During his secondary school education, Gaddafi encountered Egyptian teachers and pan-Arab newspapers and radio for the first time. He read about the ideas of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and began to increasingly support pro-Arab nationalism.
It was also around this time that Gaddafi witnessed major events that shook the Arab world, including the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the 1956 Suez Crisis.
3. He dropped out of university to join the military
Inspired by Nasser, Gaddafi became increasingly convinced that to instigate a successful revolution or a coup he needed the backing of the military.
In 1963, Gaddafi enrolled at the Royal Military Academy in Benghazi: at this time, the Libyan military was funded and trained by the British, a reality that Gaddafi loathed, believing it was imperialist and overbearing.
However, despite refusing to learn English and not obeying orders, Gaddafi excelled. During his studies, he established a revolutionary group within the Libyan military and collected intelligence from across Libya through a network of informants.
He completed his military training in England, at Bovington Camp in Dorset, where he finally learnt English and completed various military signalling courses.
4. He led a coup d’état against King Idris in 1969
In 1959, oil reserves were discovered in Libya, transforming the country forever. No longer viewed as simply a barren desert, Western powers were suddenly fighting for control of Libyan land. Having a sympathetic king, Idris, looking to them for favours and good relationships was extremely useful.
However, Idris let the oil companies bleed Libya dry: instead of raking in huge profits, Libya simply created more business for companies like BP and Shell. Idris’ government became increasingly corrupt and unpopular, and many Libyans felt like things had got worse, rather than better, following the discovery of oil.
With Arab nationalism on the rise across North Africa and the Middle East in the 1960s, Gaddafi’s revolutionary Free Officers Movement seized its chance.
In mid-1969, King Idris travelled to Turkey, where he spent his summers. On 1 September of that year, Gaddafi’s forces took control of key locations in Tripoli and Benghazi and announced the foundation of the Libyan Arab Republic. Almost no blood was shed in the process, earning the event the name ‘the White Revolution’.
5. During the 1970s, life for Libyans improved under Gaddafi
Once in power, Gaddafi set about consolidating his position and government and radically transforming aspects of Libya’s economy. He transformed Libya’s relationship with Western powers, increasing the price of oil and improving existing agreements, bringing Libya an estimated extra $1 billion per year.
In the early years, this bonus oil revenue helped fund social welfare projects such as housing, healthcare and education. The expansion of the public sector also helped create thousands of jobs. Pan-Libyan identity (as opposed to tribalism) was promoted. Per capita income was above that of Italy and the UK, and women enjoyed greater rights than ever before.
However, Gaddafi’s radical socialism quickly soured. The introduction of sharia law, the banning of political parties and trade unions, the nationalization of industry and wealth and widespread censorship all took their toll.
6. He funded foreign nationalist and terrorist groups
Gaddafi’s regime used huge amounts of its newfound wealth to fund anti-imperialist, nationalist groups across the globe. One of his key aims was to create Arab unity and eliminate foreign influence and interference in Africa and the Middle East.
Libya supplied arms to the IRA, sent Libyan troops to help Idi Amin in the Uganda-Tanzania War, and gave financial aid to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Black Panther Party, Sierra Leon’s Revolutionary United Front and the African National Congress, amongst other groups.
He later admitted to the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which remains the deadliest terror incident in the UK.
7. He successfully caused a rise in the price of oil across the world
Oil was Libya’s most precious commodity and its biggest bargaining chip. In 1973, Gaddafi convinced the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) to place an oil embargo on America and other countries who supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
This marked a turning point in the balance of power between oil-producing and oil-consuming nations for some years: without oil from OAPEC, other oil-producing nations found their supplies in greater demand, which allowed them to raise their prices. The 1970s saw oil prices rise by over 400% – growth which would ultimately be unsustainable.
8. His regime quickly turned authoritarian
Whilst Gaddafi conducted a campaign of terror outside Libya, he abused human rights within the country too. Potential opponents to his regime were dealt with brutally: anyone who the authorities vaguely suspected of harbouring anti-Gaddafi sentiments could be imprisoned without charge for years.
There were no elections, purges and public executions happened with alarming regularity and living conditions for most Libyans had sunk right back down to arguably worse than the pre-Gaddafi years. As time marched on, Gaddafi’s regime faced several attempted coups as ordinary Libyans became more frustrated at the corruption, violence and stagnation of their country.
9. He repaired relations with the West in his later years
Despite being staunchly anti-West in his rhetoric, Gaddafi continued to court attention from Western powers who were keen to maintain cordial relations in order to benefit from lucrative Libyan oil contracts.
Gaddafi quickly publicly condemned the 9/11 attacks, renounced its weapons of mass destruction and admitted to the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation. Eventually, Gaddafi’s regime cooperated with the EU sufficiently for it to remove sanctions on Libya in the early 2000s, and for America to remove it from the list of states thought to be sponsoring terrorism.
10. Gaddafi’s regime was brought down during the Arab Spring
In 2011, what is now known as the Arab Spring began, as protests began across North Africa and the Middle East against corrupt, ineffective governments. Gaddafi tried to implement measures which he thought would placate people, including reduction of food prices, purging the army and releasing certain prisoners.
However, widespread protests began as years of dissatisfaction with the corrupt government, nepotism and high levels of unemployment bubbled over into anger and frustration. Rebels began to take control of key cities and towns across Libya as government officials resigned.
Civil war erupted across the country, and Gaddafi, along with his loyalists, went on the run.
He was captured and killed in October 2011 and buried in an unmarked spot in the desert.