Gadhafi finds that money can't buy friends in Africa

McClatchy NewspapersApril 4, 2011 

Inside a sprawling, multimillion-dollar conference center in Sirte, Gadhafi paid omage to Africa.

SHASHANK BENGALI / MCT

CAIRO — For decades, Col. Moammar Gadhafi splashed his oil wealth around sub-Saharan Africa with pompous abandon, building cellphone networks and luxury hotels, cozying up to kings and guerrillas, hosting peace summits and loudly proclaiming his dream to lead a "United States of Africa."

Now, just when Gadhafi could use a few friends, his African beneficiaries haven't exactly rushed to his side.

The three African members of the U.N. Security Council — South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon — voted with the United States and Britain last month to authorize "all necessary measures" to stop Gadhafi from harming Libyan civilians. The African Union, the league of nations that Gadhafi championed more consistently than anyone, has been divided over the U.S.-led military campaign against him and uttered just a whisper of disapproval.

South Africa, some of whose anti-apartheid fighters trained in Libya starting in the 1970s, slighted Gadhafi again when one of its former senior judges, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, recommended that Libya be suspended from the organization's human rights council.

Uganda — where Libyan state money funds phone and pharmaceutical companies and built the country's biggest mosque — hastily backtracked last week from a reported offer of asylum to Gadhafi should he resign.

"It was a hoax. It is not true," an irritated Tamale Mirundi, a spokesman for the Ugandan president, said by phone from Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

Gadhafi's eager, eccentric but ultimately ineffective pursuit of an African sphere of influence encapsulates his dealings with the rest of the world over his 40-plus years in power. He was long on shtick — sweeping rhetoric, elaborate ceremonies, outlandish outfits topped by an oversize gold brooch in the shape of Africa — but experts say that his actions betrayed a man interested mainly in himself. His impulsive and often disastrous meddling in far-flung countries and conflicts alienated African leaders much as it did the West.

"If all this mythology had been true, you'd be expecting the African Union to be jumping up and down saying, 'My gosh, our brother is being bombed to smithereens by the Western imperialists,' " said Steven Friedman, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

"The mythology has been broken by his actions. If he does have any remaining friends in Africa, they're not terribly influential."

In the current crisis, unconfirmed reports said that African fighters for hire, perhaps Tuareg tribesmen from neighboring countries such as Chad, have backed Gadhafi's forces in western Libya. If true, it would hardly be the first time that he's courted armed men from Africa's ungoverned spaces.

Over nearly 42 years in power he offered shelter, financial support and military training to a hodgepodge of leaders and movements, from Idi Amin, who slaughtered tens of thousands during his terrifying reign in Uganda, to the African National Congress, which led the fight against white apartheid rule in South Africa.

The ANC's Nelson Mandela had particularly warm relations with Gadhafi, whom he called "brother leader." Mandela helped persuade Gadhafi to hand over the two Libyans accused in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

"There are a number of cases where Gadhafi earned himself justifiably a large measure of good will with his support of African liberation movements," said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington research center.

"On the other hand, there were many cases where the rebels he supported were warlords."

Among them were Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, who trained in Libya together during the 1980s and whose rebel armies went on to kill, rape and mutilate countless civilians during the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Taylor is facing trial before a special court in the Netherlands, "and many West Africans would hold that Gadhafi should be a co-defendant," said Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential, a journal.

Gadhafi's effort to win friends also took more benevolent forms. For the past several years, Libya has paid the annual membership dues to the African Union for several cash-strapped countries, contributing sometimes more than a fifth of the body's total budget. A state-of-the-art conference center in his hometown of Sirte is a monument to the organization, lined with wall-length posters of a beaming Gadhafi next to the slogan "Long live the African Union."

Through a variety of investment arms, Libya has poured billions of dollars into the continent, helping to build infrastructure such as a key Kenya-Uganda oil pipeline and holding controlling interests in the main telecommunications companies in Uganda and Zambia.

Libya runs more than 2,000 gas stations, owns hotels in Gabon and Rwanda and provides commercial air service to some of Africa's underserved capitals through Afriqiyah Airways, whose website boasts that it realizes "the dream of linking the African countries directly with one another."

The Libyan government doesn't publicly release details of its financial dealings. But a confidential 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks reported that investments by the Libyan Foreign Bank, one of Libya's main vehicles for international trade, were "focused in sub-Saharan Africa, including every country in the Maghreb (western North Africa) except Morocco."

"Libya is not my country. But Gadhafi has done a lot for Africans," said Abdullahi Harouna, an employee at the Tripoli embassy of the West African nation of Niger who fled the fighting last week.

With Gadhafi targeted for financial sanctions, the future of these investments is uncertain, particularly the oil pipeline, envisioned as a vital link to the rich crude deposits of Southern Sudan, which will become the continent's newest nation in July. But in recent years China, India and other new powerhouses have dramatically scaled up their investment in Africa, and experts say they're likely to step in if Libyan money vanishes.

For all his largesse, however, Gadhafi ultimately was tone deaf on African politics. He stubbornly pushed for a United States of Africa, which Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, recently labeled "illogical," perhaps because it would dilute the powers of heads of state.

When those leaders proved less pliable than he liked, Gadhafi curried favor with tribal elders and traditional chieftains, infuriating leaders such as Museveni, who'd worked for years to clip their influence.

"He did hand out goodies to some people, but it's not exactly as if he won too many arguments," Friedman said.

Two years ago at an African Union meeting in Sirte, Gadhafi proposed the idea of a centralized military force for the continent. The idea was "absolutely thrown out of the conference by the assembled leaders, even those who wanted to be polite," Smith said. "And given the way his own armed forces have behaved (in the current crisis) ... it does strike a lot of people as delusional to talk about that as a viable prospect."

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