Since coming to power in 1969, Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi has led his North African nation on a bumpy ride away from "foreign domination and influence," preaching the same independent path for others in what he calls his Third Universal Theory.
But Colonel Qaddafi now finds himself pursuing an African policy that ironically resembles the foreign interference against which Libya fought for years as a ward of Italy.
Some analysts charge Libya's involvement in Africa puts it in a position to become a new colonial force in areas where European powers have pulled out.
The focus of the Libyan leader's attention lately has been the impoverished, Saharan nation of Chad, a former French colony that has been in a state of civil war for 14 years. In recent weeks, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Libyan soldiers, along with Libyan-supplied tanks and artillery, have been reported to be helping Chad's President Goukhouni Woddei fight forces under the command of Chad's defense minister, Hissein Habre.
On Dec. 15, Libyan and Woddei forces, according to reports from Chad, pushed Mr. Habre from the capital city of Ndjamena. Mr. Habre was said to have fled into Cameroun.
Although there were indications late last week that France was preparing to send forces into Chad or support a pan-African military group from Francophone nations, there has not yet been any sign of such a move. Even so, the Libyan-Woddei positions are by no means consolidated. Analysts say Libyan forces may be required in the country for some time to come to keep President woddei in control.
Analysts believe Colonel Qaddafi is interested in Chad because of uranium and oil deposits that are reported to have been surveyed there and in the neighboring Central African Republic. Also a strong motivation for Qaddafi, experts believe, is his desire to aid African Muslim forces and to see, as one Qaddafi-watcher puts it, "a constellation of African states with Libya at the center."
Colonel Qaddafi has turned toward Africa in general, analysts say, because his eccentric, threatening style has estranged him from most nations along the Mediterranean rim and Arabian Peninsula. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan have decreased or shut off their relations with Libya for various reasons.
Ghana, Gambia, Gabon, and Senegal have broken relation with Libya in the past few months. Nigeria was considering expelling the Libyan ambassador to Lagos, Nigeria, last week for "undiplomatic activities."
Thus Qaddafi has concentrated on aiding Polisario Front rebels in the former Spanish Sahara, threatening neighboring Tunisia, and stepping up controversial activities throughout central and west Africa.
With a pyramid of oil money (almost $9 billion per year) spread over a population of only 2.6 million people, Libya is one of the richest countries in the world on a per capita basis. That wealth finances Colonel Qaddafi in his zealous mission to spread his vision of a new world order -- which seems to be a confused mix of socialism, capitalism, populism, and institutionalized upheaval.
Meanwhile, the Qaddafi inclination to employ assassination squads and to support insurgency has rankled most African and Mideastern leaders. A notable exception (for the present, at least) is Syrian President Hafez Assad. Mr. Assad was in Benghazi, Libya, Dec. 16 conferring with Qaddafi about an agreed merger between the two countries. Both Syria and Libya find themselves increasingly isolated from other Arab states because of their ties to the Soviet Union and to Iran.
Most analysis give the Libya-Syria merger little chance of success. They are divided by 500 miles of Mediterranean coastline and are oriented toward different concerns. Syria has a population of 8.1 million, a large Palestinian refugee presence, and a costly, tricky peace-keeping military force in Lebanon. Libya comes closer to being a dabbler in radical chic.
As a champion of Arab unity -- albeit in his own unique view of it -- Qaddafi has at various times proposed unification of Libya with Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Sudan. But when his unity moves have been frustrated, he has lashed out at the leaders of these countries and urged their populations to overthrow them. Yet with the exception of Egypt's 1977 raid on Libya's Tobruk air base, little retributive action has been directed at Qaddafi.
His tactics in Africa seem to be even, less diplomatic than those in the Middle East. His small, well-equipped Army faces easier foes in Africa than against Libya's Arab neighbors. If he is able to maintain influence in Chad, analysts say, Qaddafi's armed forces might be able to move against relatively weak neighboring states in central Africa from a forward location.
But like the African adventures of Italy's Benito Mussolini, Qaddafi's forces may get tied down in a costly, time-consuming campaign.