While the Libyan rebels continue their search for deposed dictator Muammar Qadhafi, rumors abound as to where the former despot could be hiding. Some believe he fled to Niger, others suspect that Zimbabwe or Burkina Faso have granted him asylum, and some are certain he’s still in Libya. As Qadhafi’s family and closest allies seek refuge in Algeria and Niger, it has become apparent that Qadhafi’s neighbors could be his saviors.
When Qadhafi issued a brutal crackdown on opposition forces last spring, African leaders called for an end to the violence, and some even called for Qadhafi to step down. Others, such as South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, sought to negotiate in an attempt to secure Qadhafi’s place in power. When talks failed and rebels advanced on Tripoli, Qadhafi’s government sought an exit plan, relying on African neighbors to harbor them.
Qadhafi has long had cordial relations with Libya’s African neighbors. Despite being of Arab ethnicity, for political convenience he has long considered himself to be African. Many African recipients of Qadhafi’s stolen oil wealth refer to him by the grandiose title of “King of Kings” and “dear brother,” as Nelson Mandela called him in 1999. Since the Arab world ignored his pleas for help during the 1990s Lockerbie sanctions debacle, Qadhafi has resented Arab leaders and sought friends closer to home. In 2007, Qadhafi rejected his allegiance to the Arab world and proclaimed that “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.”
African leaders have reciprocated, embracing Qadhafi with open arms, hailing him as a revolutionary and an independent leader who refuses to cave to foreign demands. Throughout his four decades in power, Qadhafi bought his way into the hearts of African leaders. He poured billions into African capitals, funding the construction of government offices and five-star resorts. He also catered to Muslim piety by building grand mosques, and he feted Africa’s marginalized indigenous tribal leaders, promoting himself as Africa’s unifier.
These handouts often overshadowed Qadhafi’s appetite for instability. During the civil war in Sierra Leone, Qadhafi armed former president Charles Taylor’s Revolutionary United Front. Taylor is currently awaiting a verdict by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on charges of war crimes. In the 1970s, Qadhafi provided safe haven to various terrorist organizations and is suspected of planning the assassinations of leaders in Chad, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Zaire. Qadhafi has also funded armed rebellions in Niger and Mali. Yet many in Africa continue to stand beside him.
As long as Qadhafi remains in hiding, the revolution lacks closure. Qadhafi’s flight to a sympathetic African neighbor would provide the Libya’s fledgling government, the Transitional National Council (TNC), with significant challenges. In addition to the long and difficult process of prosecuting the former despot, Qadhafi could mount a campaign and return to power. Furthermore, the TNC’s rebel army is disorganized and fractured. Political and military rivalries between the TNC and the army risk the total implosion of an emerging government and make both entities vulnerable to challenges from opposition factions and Qadhafi loyalists.
In order for Libya to be rebuilt and a new government to be formed, Qadhafi must be found, and those suspected of committing abuses against civilians must be brought to justice.