Libyan presence in Chad gives neighbors the jitters

Libya's 7,000 well-armed troops in Chad appear -- for the moment at least -- to have little interest in further adventures in the region. But their presence alone is having a profound effect on Chad's neighbors.

Since the last months of 1980 -- when Libyan military aid to Chad President Goukhouni Woddei became widely known -- six West African countries (Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Ghana) have accused Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi of various acts of subversion. Others, including Gabon and more recently Cameroon, have implied as much.

This finger-pointing seems partly an instinctive African reaction to look elsewhere for the source of mostly domestic problems. In Nigeria, Western diplomats discount direct Libyan involvement in religious riots that left several hundred dead in the northern city of Kano in late December. Still, feelings run firm in Lagos, the Nigerian capital, that the killings were instigated by Libya.

"No one in Kano thinks the Libyans were behind it, but the closer you get to Lagos, the more people believe it," said one longtime diplomat in Lagos.

But if Colonel Qaddafi presents African leaders with a convenient devil, others observors argue, he is nevertheless a bad influence. One regional political analyst argued that Cameroon concern over Libyan involvement in both refugee camps in Kousseri and recent peaceful strikes by students at the university in Yaounde was well placed.

Cameroon has not mentioned Libya in connection with either, but reliable sources here say some authorities see Qaddafi's hand in the strikes and in what was termed "political activity" in the Kousseri camps. Security forces were dispatched to the Yaounde campus two weeks ago to insure calm.

Despite an end to fighting in Chad's capital of N'Djamena two months ago, the refugee camps in Kousseri have grown from 100,000 to 120,000 people. The refugees come from all factions, including that of defeated Defense Minister Hissein Habre. No Libyan infiltration into Cameroon has been suggested.

But journalists in Kousseri, over the border in Cameroon, have reported talking to civilian Chadians at the Relais de Logone, the only hotel in the dusty river town, only to meet them in uniform later across the river in N'Djamena.

Some political observers in West Africa see quiet destabilization, not direct military action, as the real threat posed by the Libyans in Chad. Neighboring countries have varying degrees of tribal or religious animosities that could provide the Libyans a ripe opportunity for troublemaking.

Thus, Nigeria claimed Libyan money had gone to the fanatical Islamic group in Kano that started the 10-day rampage there. Niger accused the Libyan leader of trying to stir up discontent among the Tuaregs, an Arab tribe that roams Mali and Niger, when he accused the governments of mistreating them.

Because of wariness about Libya's newfound proximity to the nomads, reaction to almost any Libyan pronouncement or maneuver is dramatic, if not slightly hysterical.

Immediately after a Libyan delegation, sent to "explain" its role in Chad, met with Gabon President Omar Bongo in talks that diplomatic Gabonese sources imply went badly, Mr. Bongo asked for and received four Jaguar fighter planes from Frnace.

Similarly, Nigeria gave Libya's entire diplomatic mission 48 hours to leave the country in January. The Libyans -- on orders from "brother Qaddafi" -- announced the change of their embassy to a "people's bureau." Most Libyan diplomatic missions around the world are now "people's bureaus."

Occasional overreaction is understandable since not even Nigeria, which has the largest standing army on the continent, could confideantly confront the Soviet-equipped Libyans. And in the absence of a French willingness to "African gendarme," once again, the Libyan agitation will probably get worse.

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