Tiny Burkina Faso confronts Gadhafi's enormous legacy

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 15, 2011 

WORLD NEWS BURKINAFASO 4 MCT

Mohammed Congo, a 21-year old aspiring artist in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, says that many of his countrymen are sad to see former Libyan leader Moammer Gadhafi lose power. Many Burkinabe view Gadhafi as a benefactor to the nation.

ALAN BOSWELL — Alan Boswell/MCT

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Even though his portrait no longer graces the lobby of this city's premier hotel, fallen Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's presence in this West African nation won't fade quickly.

The five-star Laico Ouaga 2000 hotel (Laico stands for Libyan African Investment Co.) is just one of Gadhafi's many investments here, a legacy that has many of the local residents still happy to call him "the Guide."

Gadhafi also financed the Ouaga 2000 residential neighborhood, with its rambling two-story homes and its electricity poles, bounded on one side by the city's main throughway — Moammar Gadhafi Boulevard — which ends in a wide roundabout circling the city's Memorial to the Martyrs, a Gadhafi-funded monument resembling a mini Eiffel Tower.

The Burkinabe, as Burkina Faso's residents are known, credit Gadhafi with starting banks, hospitals, university buildings, roads, mosques and women's education centers.

If Ouagadougou were a modern city, this sort of investment might be less conspicuous. But here, Gadhafi's pet projects stand in stark contrast to the city's otherwise rundown, dust-colored blocks and streets that are filled with far more scooters than cars.

What to do now, with their major benefactor on the run and a new government coming to power in Tripoli after 42 years, is a major concern.

"It was a mistake to have that photo up," conceded Maher Ghidaoui, a Tunisian and the hotel's manager. While it hung in the lobby during the violence in Libya, business fell steadily and he lost the U.S. Embassy as a client.

Despite a recent cooling of ties between their president, Blaise Compaore, and Gadhafi, the Burkinabe speak fondly of the former Libyan leader. While people in the West may see him as a mad nemesis, here he was a source of hope in a country whose own authoritarian government does little for its people.

"He helped build roads. He built centers for poor and orphans," said Mohammed Congo, a 21-year-old aspiring artist. "A lot of Burkinabe don't like what is happening."

There's no solid estimate of how much Gadhafi's regime spent here, partly because the projects were a mixed bag of public gifts, off-the-books grants, and the work of a dizzying array of shadow companies.

Next door to the hotel, inside a half-vacant Western-style shopping mall also built by the Libyan African Investment Co., there are signs the transition could be messy and complicated.

There, in the sixth-floor headquarters of Laico's Ouagadougou headquarters, Adnan Ahmed Ashour, a fit middle-aged Libyan with an iPhone and slicked-back hair, struggled to cope with the recent events.

He fled Tripoli, Libya's capital, two weeks ago as the Western-backed rebel forces took the city, he said.

Since then, he has been absorbed into this Laico branch office as an administrator. He declined to discuss his previous life, calling it a "secret."

At times, he seemed in denial, such as when he insisted that the hotel photo of Gadhafi — whom he still referred to loyally as "our president" — was not really taken down but rather moved temporarily because of maintenance.

But mostly, he appeared dumbfounded by recent events, often staring down at his desk and shaking his head in response to questions.

"Somebody comes and somebody goes. This is life. I don't understand what's going on," he said after one particularly long pause.

Ghidaoui, the hotel manager, who works for a private management company contracted by Laico and not for Laico itself, said he asked the Laico Ouagadougou office to allow him to remove the Gadhafi photo over a year ago, but he didn't get the green light until the Burkina Faso government recognized the rebel National Transitional Council as Libya's government in late August.

"This hotel belongs to the state of Libya, not the Gadhafi family," Ghidaoui insisted, while stressing he could only express his own views.

The United Nations has frozen the Libyan leaders' assets, and the United States and Europe are pushing for those assets to be turned over to the rebel government.

But what will become of fleeing loyalists such as Ashour when the rebels take control of Laico's offices here? It's a question that will confront the new Libyan government throughout Africa. Laico owns 13 similarly opulent hotels throughout the continent.

And what will become of other Gadhafi-financed businesses? A white marble building with jutting gray pillars in Ouagadougou's downtown houses the Burkina Commercial Bank. A decade ago, the bank changed its name from the Libyan Bank of Development — also founded by Gadhafi.

But the change is beginning. The Libyan Embassy, now flying the rebels' version of the Libyan flag, has shut down Gadhafi's Libyan Cultural Center and given the building back to Burkinabe government.

Back at the hotel, Ghidaoui has more changes in mind. He wants the "Libya Hotels" sign at the top of the building removed.

"We don't think it's a selling sign," he said, adding with a chuckle: "The 'Obama Hotel' would sell more, I think."

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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