Libya’s southern neighbors voiced hope on Friday the death of Muammar Qaddafi would mean a new start for relations with Tripoli, for years at the whim of a man who styled himself Africa’s “king of kings”.
But there was no rejoicing in a region where exasperation at Qaddafi’s constant meddling was offset by admiration for his defiance of the West, and gratitude for millions of dollars of sometimes quirky investment in impoverished economies.
The governments of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad must now also deal with the fall-out from a Libyan war they never wanted, but which they fear has thrown trafficked weapons into the hands of local rebels and al Qaeda allies.
“Qaddafi won’t be disturbing us with the rebellions he bankrolled here and there, but Libya is still like a Damocles sword hanging over the heads of its neighbors,” said Moussa Aksar, head of publication for Niger’s bi-weekly “L’Evenement”.
Qaddafi’s role across Africa has ranged from the concrete, often in the form of investments in banks, hotels, agriculture or military support, to the grandiose, including the idea of a trans-Sahara highway or a United States of Africa.
Known locally as the “pyromaniac fireman” for his penchant over the decades for setting alight conflicts and then offering to help end them, Qaddafi supported Tuareg nomads that plagued successive Malian and Nigerien governments with rebellions that have only abated in the past couple of years.
Yet the fall of Qaddafi has brought new woes for countries such as Niger, Libya’s drought-plagued southern neighbor which counts as one of the poorest states in the world.
The arrival on its soil of his son Saadi and other Qaddafi loyalists last month fanned tension with Libya’s new rulers, with Niger fearing any extradition would lead to rough justice at the hands of ex-insurgents in whom it has little confidence.
The sense of mistrust grew as thousands of black African immigrants who for years provided cheap manual labor in Libya were caught up in the violence, often accused of operating as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries and targeted by insurgent fighters.
Amadou Saidou, a businessman in the Nigerien capital Niamey, said he nonetheless believed that Qaddafi’s death could open the window for greater stability in the region ─ if the National Transition Council were up to the task of government.
“It’s all open for a fresh start. I am placing my hope on the ability of Libya’s new leaders to reunite their country and to have open relations with other states,” said Saidou.
Shame and pragmatism
In Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, where Libyan money doled out by Qaddafi helped build roads, a bank and hotel, his death left a bitter taste in the mouth of many, prompting the anti-West sentiment on which he thrived.
“Africans should be ashamed of themselves,” said unemployed Jean-Pierre Ouedraogo, voicing the discomfort felt widely on the continent at the inability of African leaders to prevent a war spearheaded by former colonial masters France and Britain.
“The Westerners came to kill the man who told it like it is ─ he was the only one they couldn’t control,” he said.
Official reactions from governments of the region were more pragmatic, with many of them having months ago embraced the international consensus against him.
“We already took the position that Colonel Qaddafi will not return to power any more,” said Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, information minister in Sierra Leone whose 1991-2002 war is thought to have been aggravated by Qaddafi’s long-distance funding of rebels.
“Now it has come to this point, Sierra Leone will definitely go by public opinion, which is very important to us,” said the West African state, which is hoping that signs of oil off its coast will draw foreign investors into its economy.
Senegal, whose leader Abdoulaye Wade was the first African leader to declare support for the Libyan rebels with a visit to their Benghazi stronghold, said Qaddafi’s “tragic end” could have been avoided if he had stepped down voluntarily.
For many Africans, the open question now is whether those leaders on the continent who have used their grip on the state machinery to remain in power will sit up and take notice.
“Qaddafi should serve as a lesson for all the other African dictators who tweak the constitution to hold on to power for life,” said Alain Sanou, a student in Ouagadougou.