NAIROBI, Kenya — Despite reports that Moammar Gadhafi is fleeing toward Niger or nearby Burkina Faso, few experts on African politics believe it is likely he would be granted refuge in either country.
"Wherever he is going to be, he will be a center of destabilization, that is absolutely inevitable," said Jeremy Keenan, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and author of the book "The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa." "So in a region that is already destabilized, he would merely be a powder keg."
The arrival earlier this week in Niger of a convoy reportedly carrying senior Gadhafi regime officials as well as jewels and gold fueled speculation that the fugitive former leader might also be headed that way. But U.S. officials as well as the rebel National Transitional Council in Benghazi say they now have no idea where Gadhafi might be.
"We know where he was two days ago," said transition council spokesman Abdul Hafiz Ghoga. That, he said, was Bani Walid, a bastion of pro-Gadhafi tribesmen south of Tripoli.
But where he is now, Ghoga couldn't say, though the other two unconquered Gadhafi strongholds, Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, and Sabha, deep in the Libyan desert, are possibilities. Both cities, as well as Bani Walid, are facing a Friday midnight deadline from the rebels to surrender peacefully.
Gadhafi might want to consider the risks before seeking asylum in a neighboring country, as well, the experts said.
When ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor flew in exile to Nigeria in 2003, it was part of a negotiated peace deal. But three years later, Nigeria arrested him and returned him to Liberia under intense international pressure. Taylor is now on trial at The Hague for his role in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war.
"I would think that he (Gadhafi) would still be in Libya, because it would be risky for him to go to any of the countries," said Isakka Souare, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
"Apart from countries in hostile relations with the West, it will be very, very difficult for others to take him because of the pressure that will mount," he said.
Gadhafi's situation is further complicated by the international rules binding Libya's neighbors. The United Nations Security Council has placed a travel ban on Gadhafi, members of his family and top officials.
Additionally, the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Gadhafi and his most prominent son, Saif al Islam. Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Chad and Senegal — five countries considered close to Gadhafi where he might ask for asylum — are signatories to the treaty that founded the court and are therefore legally obliged to arrest him in their territory.
The African Union has rejected the ICC's indictment, but Gadhafi would face an uncertain future in any country that is a member to the international court, especially in a region where governments often change hands unpredictably. The Niger government, for instance, took power in a February 2010 military coup.
And while Gadhafi has a deep history with his regional neighbors, his relations with them are a mixed bag.
He has pumped many countries in the region with generous aid, funding anything from grandiose hotels to infrastructure projects to officials' bank accounts.
His largesse might have won him influence on the street, but not close friends among his peers.
"A lot of people in these countries are supportive of him," said Keenan. "Having said that, I don't think there's a lot of respect for him."
His regional relations are further complicated by his close ties to the rugged Tuareg nomadic group, which roams across the borders of the Sahara Desert. The marginalized Saharan nomads often find themselves at odds with their host governments and have launched several rebellions in the region since the 1990s.
Gadhafi at times supported the Tuareg rebels and tried to mediate the conflicts. He even called for a new Tuareg state to be drawn up in the Sahara, infuriating surrounding countries whose leaders accused him of fueling the strife and excessively meddling in their affairs.
The Libyan leader used his Tuareg ties to recruit many of them from outside Libya into his own security units. Following the fall of their Libyan benefactor, many of those Tuareg, heavily armed, are now returning to their home countries, where they once led rebellions. Gadhafi's presence might further inflame these local tensions, especially if the flamboyantly eccentric leader refuses to settle down quietly.
Any government that accepted him would also face the wrath of the Libya's likely next government and its oil wealth. Both Niger and Burkina Faso showed they are eager to get on the right footing with their near neighbors when they recognized the National Transitional Council despite the African Union's decision not to.
Keenan and Souare agree that Gadhafi most likely remains in Libya's southern deserts, where he has several bases he could use as hideouts.
The once mighty African strongman is probably left with few other options.
"The door does appear to be getting closed more and more in his face," said Keenan.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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