West Africa Rising: Regional ties to Iran, Libya may be on the wane

Since the unrest that has swept the Arab world began in January, many of West Africa's leader nations have been distancing themselves from the crumbling regimes to their north.

By , Correspondent

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Diplomatically, West Africa may be moving closer to the West as two of its most controversial trading partners – Iran and Libya – suffer setbacks and instability.

This region has long been a place where rogue nations, isolated in the world, could court local leaders who lack the resources, geopolitical clout – or, sometimes, the scruples – to turn down an investment or high-profile visit from a shady world figure.

But since the unrest that has swept the Arab world began in January, many of West Africa's leader nations have been distancing themselves from the crumbling regimes to their north.

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The obvious case in point is Libya, an oil-fiefdom with historical trans-Saharan ties to its southern neighbors. The country of 5 million has exerted entirely outsized influenced below its borders since its eccentric leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi abandoned his failed Arab Unity project for the dream of a United States of Africa.

The man who calls himself "King of Kings" of Africa has advocated a single passport, currency, and nationality for Africa's 900 million residents, and can rightfully reap credit for keeping the vision on the table when other leaders balked – in part because his government pays more than its share of the African Union's operating budget.

The state also funds some $5 billion worth of often undertakings through its Libya Africa Investment Portfolio. The portfolio includes earmarks for a luxury hotels in Gambia, tobacco farms in Mali, telecoms in Niger, and a chicken farm in Madagascar.

The nation also planned its own Olympics for the 28-nation "Community of Sahel-Saharan States" that Gaddafi founded in 1998.

"I would not be a bit surprised if that organization collapses," former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn told Bloomberg News. "Assuming Qaddafi is finished, you’re going to have a very different role that Libya plays – whoever is in charge – vis-a-vis the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Libya will become over the next couple of years a very modest player in African affairs.”

And then there's Iran.

The Persian Gulf nation had recently worked out a nuclear know-how exchange with Nigeria, and had gotten an unlikely vote of support for its nuclear program from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.

But last month, Senegal cut ties with Iran after a forensic study found that Iranian weapons have been used to kill Senegalese soldiers fighting to put down a rebellion in the country's casamance province.

In October, the Persian Gulf nation was caught shipping 13 containers of ballistic arms – rocket launchers, grenades, guns – through Nigeria's Lagos port, on their way to Senegal or neighboring Gambia.

Iran watchers say the discovery wasn't necessarily a surprise. Iran is infamous for arming insurgent groups in forgotten corners of the globe.

But the move cost Iran its budding relationship with one of the region's top economies, Senegal. Gambia – where Iran had invested $2 billion in aid since 2005 – has also broken ties with Iran. And now Nigeria is waiting for the results of a United Nations investigation on the matter before possibly downgrading ties with Iran.

Meanwhile, Israel is planning on opening embassies in Ghana within the next six months, and "looking into possibilities elsewhere in Africa," its Ambassador to Senegal Gideon Behar told me last week.

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