WASHINGTON — NATION of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose Million Man March in October galvanized hundreds of thousands of black men and shut down Washington for a day, has caught US officials off guard with a controversial 27-day trip through Africa. The trip included an unscheduled meeting on Jan. 23 with Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who promised the black leader between $5 million and $1 billion to organize American blacks and minorities and to set up a lobby, according to Libyan news reports.
The administration views the Rev. Mr. Farrakhan's trip with increasing apprehension since President Clinton acknowledged the Million Man March and its aims, though he did not attend. Justice Department officials plan to question Farrakhan about the nature of his relationship with Colonel Qaddafi.
Black Muslim sources say the controversy and publicity of Farrakhan's trip are all part of the minister's strategy to achieve high visibility among his followers in America. It is an effort by Farrakhan to build on the Million Man March, extend his influence here and abroad, raise money, tweak the American Jewish community, and make US officials nervous, they say.
"I'm sure he likes to meet heads of state," says an American Muslim leader who requested anonymity. "He's trying to build himself up. This shows he's a leader."
Farrakhan's philosophy of separatist black nationalism has created a huge split between the Nation and the American Muslim community, including the largest black Muslim groups. On many occasions, the minister has made openly anti-Semitic statements. Moreover, the all-male march in Washington was criticized by some black women as sexist.
In his stops on the African continent, Farrakhan appealed to the need for Islamic solidarity and traditional values. He also met with South African President Nelson Mandela, who lectured him about tolerance and ending racism.
The black leader is traveling as a private citizen throughout Africa, the Middle East, to the Gulf States, Iran, Turkey, and Malaysia, US officials say. The Nation of Islam leader sent a letter to the State Department Jan. 9, according to sources, stating that Farrakhan intended to lead a "distinguished delegation of citizens" on a "friendship tour" of Africa and the Middle East. The trip was to bring about a day of "Atonement, Reconciliation, and Responsibility to our people in Africa."
Names of Farrakhan's 41-member entourage, were not included, and, in an unusual move, assistance with visas or briefings on some 15 countries was not requested. "We did tell the minister his trip seemed fairly ambitious," one source stated. "He has not made any attempt to visit our embassies so far."
The minister said in the letter he would "bring the spirit of the Million Man March to Africa and the Caribbean." The reference to the Caribbean puzzled officials, since no stops in that region were on any of several revised itineraries submitted by Farrakhan.
The Libya trip came between a visit to Nigeria Jan. 22 and a trip to Senegal Jan. 24, where Farrakhan held a two-hour press conference.
Administration officials said the meeting with Qaddafi was not on the itinerary Farrakhan submitted. "The first we heard about it was when JANA [the official Libyan news agency] reported it," said one government source. JANA quoted Qaddafi as saying Farrakhan had agreed to fight the US "from inside." Farrakhan was a "breach to enter into this fortress [America] and confront it," Qaddafi reportedly said.
Administration officials said that they did not take Qaddafi's threats seriously, though they plan to question Farrakhan. As of this writing, Farrakhan has not refuted any of the Libyan leader's statements.