Something there is about Muammar Qaddafi of Libya that seems to invite more scoffing than alarm. The fiery leader's schemes over the years for unifying the world of Islam and assuming the mantle of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser have so consistently failed that there is a tendency not to take him seriously. But it is clear that his current military thrust into neighboring Chad is not a matter to be ignored. It represents a lunge into the heart of Africa with most serious implications for Niger, Mali, and other countries.
Fortunately, the nations of Africa themselves are concerned, and this gives hope that they will assume the international responsibility of dealing with this disturbing development in their own backyard. France, Chad's former colonial ruler, has discreetly braced its military contingents in the country. But it is diplomacy which must be put to work. The Organization of African Unity is scheduled to take up the matter this week, and the least the world would expect under the circumstances is a strong, unified call for the withdrawal of the 4, 000 Libyan troops and tanks from Chad.
The key to action will be Nigeria, the richest and potentially most powerful black African country. Here is an opportunity for Nigerian President Shehu Shagari, himself a Muslim, to embody the vigorous, constructive leadership to which his country aspires.Nigeria's summary expulsion of Libyan diplomats last week for "undiplomatic activities" may in fact be a harbinger of the tough stand which may be expected. An odd wrinkle in the affair, however, is that Nigeria's opposition to the proposed merger of Libya and Chad puts it on the side of France, whose efforts to expand its influence in former French-ruled Africa have been resented by the Nigerians. Perhaps the present situation will open the door for fruitful cooperation.
What is the eccentric Colonel Qaddafi up to in Chad? His revolutionary ambitions are no secret. Bolstered by more oil money than he knows what to do with, he has dreams of leading a crusade for a new world order throughout the Muslim world. Alienated from most nations along the Mediterranean rim and Arabian peninsula, he has turned more purposefully toward central and west Africa. He justifies his intervention into Chad, a poor country wracked by civil war, as support for the Muslims there. A union of Chad and Libya would in theory lay the basis for his apparent goal of a Muslim Saharan Republic including also Senegal, Niger, Mali, and Gambia.
Other motives may also come into play. It is thought there is uranium in northern Chad and, if so, gaining control of it would aid Libya's nuclear and industrial development. The dangers which would arise if a quixotic leader like Qaddafi acquired a nuclear bomb need scarcely be mentioned.
The time has come, in any case, to bring Colonel Qaddafi into the spotlight of African opinion. Backed with huge stocks of weapons purchased from the Soviet Union, his military adventures and expansionist fervor pose a potential threat to African security and stability. It is true that the President of Chad , Goukhouni Woddei, has agreed to his nation's union with Libya -- probably as the price for Libyan military help in putting down Chad rebels. But it is doubtful he wishes to yield up Chad's independence through a bona fide integration with Libya. Or that any other nations of Africa see Libya as a great hope of "liberation" from their economic and other problems. On the contrary, recent moves against Libya point to the underlying wariness.
Ironically, Libya itself was once the victim of colonial domination -- by the Turks, the Italians, the British. Now, instead of endeavoring to woo influence among its neighbors through the force of its own example, it seeks to sway them by a brand by "Libyan colonialism." It is impossible to think the countries of Africa have thrown off their dependence on foreign powers only to fall prey to the enticements of Colonel Qaddafi (and by extension the Soviet Union). But they will have to show they are m ade of stern stuff to resist the Libyan's zealous moves.