Gaddafi: African asylum seeker?

By Farouk Chothia
BBC African Service

image captionAfrican traditional rulers declared Col Gaddafi "King of Kings" in 2008

Ousted Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi once drove through several African countries in a convoy, throwing money out of his window to poor people who had lined the road to catch a glimpse of him in his flowing robe.

Col Gaddafi - after being shunned by Arab rulers - switched his focus to Africa in the 1990s to raise his international profile.

This was not surprising: Libya's petro-dollars could not buy him influence in the Arab world, but they gave him status and clout in poorer Africa.

"Libya is an African country. May Allah help the Arabs and keep them away from us. We don't want anything to do with them," Col Gaddafi said in 2007.

A year later, several African traditional leaders declared him "King of Kings", while Africa's politicians - including Nelson Mandela - addressed him as Brother Leader.

Col Gaddafi's government invested heavily in Africa - from building roads to financing the African Union (AU).

He saw the African stage as belonging to him, calling for a "United States of Africa" to rival the United States of America and the European Union.

Now, his dream lies in ruins - and his latest African convoy could be carrying him as a refugee to escape justice at the International Criminal Court.

Convoys carrying some of his close aides, including his son Saadi, have crossed the Sahara Desert into Niger, from where they could carry on to other countries in West Africa.

While African leaders have had many differences with Col Gaddafi, they admired him as a revolutionary who championed Africa's cause since he seized power in a bloodless coup in Libya in 1969.

'Western puppets'

As Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni said in February: "In Africa, we have benefited from a number of independent-minded leaders: Col [Gamal] Nasser of Egypt, Mwalimu Nyerere of Tanzania [and] Samora Machel of Mozambique.

"Muammar Gaddafi, whatever his faults, is a true nationalist. I prefer nationalists to puppets of foreign interests.

"Therefore, the independent-minded Gaddafi had some positive contribution to Libya, I believe, as well as Africa and the Third World.

"We should also remember, as part of that independent-mindedness, he expelled British and American military bases from Libya [after he took power]," Mr Museveni said.

African leaders seem to fear that following the offensive by Nato-backed rebels to take power, Libya will again become a "puppet" of the West.

For this reason, the AU has refused to recognise the rebel body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the new government in Libya.

Nor does the AU support Col Gaddafi being hauled before the ICC on war crimes charges.

Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, had been said to have offered him asylum but now denies it.

The landlocked country is heavily dependent on French aid - and is unlikely to follow through on its offer without approval from Paris, which led the Nato bombing in Libya, analysts say.

Guinea-Bissau's prime minister has said his government would welcome Col Gaddafi "with open arms" if he needs exile.

Libya has invested heavily in Guinea-Bissau, which is not a signatory to the Rome Statute setting up the ICC.

Several members of his family have taken asylum in Algeria.

An academic at the University of South Africa, Shadrack Ghutto, says Col Gaddafi would be better off if he sought asylum in a powerful African country such as South Africa and Nigeria.

"Any country that decides to give him asylum will have to be strong enough to withstand political and economic pressure from the West," Mr Ghutto says.

War crimes charges

Nigeria gave asylum to ousted Liberian leader Charles Taylor in 2003, but it faced enormous pressure from the US and UK to hand him over to a UN-backed special court to face war crimes charges for his role in Sierra Leone's civil war.

Fearing that Nigeria would succumb, Mr Taylor tried to flee by road to neighbouring Cameroon in 2006.

image captionNelson Mandela refers to Col Gaddafi as Brother Leader

He was arrested and Nigeria handed him over to the court. He is now on trial at The Hague.

The NTC spokesman in London, Guma el-Gamaty, has warned Niger not to grant Col Gaddafi refugee status.

"Niger is a neighbour of Libya from the south and should be considering the future relationship with Libya," Mr Gamaty said. "This - if confirmed - will very much antagonise any future relationship between Libya and Niger."

Niger has said it would recognise its international obligations - and is signed up to the Rome Statute.

Col Gaddafi has strong support among Niger's Tuareg ethnic group.

He backed their two-decade long rebellion for more political and economic rights, before brokering a peace deal between them and Niger's government in 2009.

Several thousand rebels - including their leader Rissa ag Boula - then went to Libya, either to work or to join Col Gaddafi's army.

Risk for Africa

They were among the mercenaries who fought for Col Gaddafi as he tried to repel the Nato-backed campaign to overthrow him.

Mr Boula has now returned to Niger, causing a crisis for the government.

The former rebels could either push the government to grant Col Gaddafi asylum or they could harbour him in their desert strongholds along the Libyan border - that is, if Col Gaddafi does not live up to his promise to fight to death in Libya in the hope of being lionised by future generations of Africans as a revolutionary who fought, as Mr Museveni put it, " puppets of foreign interests".

But the Libyan rebels were not only backed by Western powers: Arab countries - especially Qatar - played a key role in the campaign to oust Col Gaddafi.

Against this backdrop, the new Libya could build strong ties with the Arab world, shunning Africa.

This would be disastrous for Africa - not only was Col Gaddafi's Libya a key African financier, it also gave employment to hundreds of thousands of African migrants in the oil and other industries.

Denounced by the Libyan rebels as sympathisers of Col Gaddafi, they have been forced to flee, carrying the psychological scars of the conflict and battling to rebuild their lives in their home countries.

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