Qaddafi's new role: peacemaker

Critics accuse him of meddling in other nations, but the Africanleaders he helps pay him homage.

Mention "peacemaker," and most people will name South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, or Jordan's King Hussein, - even former US President Jimmy Carter.

But Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who has been accused for years by America of sponsoring terrorism - a peacemaker?

In Africa, a continent riven with conflict, Mr. Qaddafi has been playing exactly that role - bolstering his aim to become a regional leader. Decades of support for African liberation and rebel groups has given Libya a strong influence in many African nations. Qaddafi appears to be orchestrating a makeover designed to reestablish Libya as a regional power and dispel its "bad boy" image in the West.

"It is not only cosmetic: When Qaddafi is involved in the peace processes in Congo or Eritrea, they welcome him, they don't reject him," says a Western diplomat here. "The Africans take [Qaddafi] in a very serious way, and want to be seen to be close to him, while in the West they still think of the old images [that link Libya to terrorism]. They are not aware of the changes of the last 1-1/2 years."

Stunned by what he saw as weak support from the Arab world during years of UN-imposed isolation, Qaddafi has recently turned to Africa.

Analysts say there are many reasons the phrase "Qaddafi the peacemaker" is fitting here in Africa, though there is also skepticism from Libya's Western-leaning neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, among others.

The eccentric Libyan leader brought Congo's Laurent Kabila and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni together last December and again in May. Cease-fires were announced both times. He has attempted to mediate in the Sudanese civil war. And despite caution from rebels, President Omar al-Bashir last month said that "Libya was the only country that has offered a beneficial initiative."

Qaddafi also has worked to bring Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders to the table - he once backed both presidents' guerrilla campaigns - and has sought to mediate in Sierra Leone, where he has good relations with both rebel chief Foday Sankoh and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

One key is generous cash handouts to friends. But it's not just that. "He has a lot of [oil] money to spare, so he can engage in 'checkbook diplomacy,' " says an Asian diplomat in Tripoli. "But that doesn't explain why people come when he summons them. They trust him not to talk to one against the other, so Qaddafi is able to be on talking terms with all views on the political spectrum, without compromising any side."

But observers say that the effective "checkbook diplomacy" in Africa also can be a reason leaders prefer not to cross paths with Qaddafi.

Libya has spearheaded the formation of a new group of states from northern Africa, for example. Arab powerhouse Egypt was reluctant to join any regional grouping of which it was not the leader. But Egypt and Tunisia have become group observers, diplomats say, for fear that Libya would otherwise support opponents of those regimes.

"Even when it is uncomfortable with Qaddafi," says the Asian diplomat, "they must live with him."

Qaddafi also went to the annual Organization of African Unity summit in Algiers in July, for the first time since 1977. But two weeks ago, he presided over a special summit in Tripoli, which considered changes to the charter that would support Qaddafi's proposed "United States of Africa."

Another proposal is an OAU conflict resolution center - to be based in Libya.

Still, for many, the image of Qaddafi as a peacemaker is unrealistic. Years of supporting African rebel and liberation groups were often seen as unwanted outside meddling in local African affairs, and just anti-West measures. Not everyone is convinced that Qaddafi is a true man of peace.

"I can't see [Qaddafi] as a peacemaker - what is behind him?" asks one senior Western diplomat. "It's all money. He has no troops to send anywhere, because he needs them to guard himself. He has a 'parade' army."

Still, years of Libyan largesse seem to be yielding diplomatic fruit. There is a Libya cultural center in the West African state of Burkina Faso and one in neighboring Chad - where Qaddafi's military support of rebels in the 1980s was no match for the French-backed government.

And lip-service underscores deep gratitude. Qaddafi supported the government of Idi Amin in Uganda against a 1979 invasion from Tanzania that was partly led by Yoweri Museveni. Libya's 1,500 troops, though, fled after several humiliating defeats, and Amin fled to Libya. But Qaddafi later backed Mr. Museveni in his bid to oust dictator Milton Obote, and in 1986 declared Museveni's victory a "great triumph of the Libyan people."

A videotape shows Qaddafi asking the guerrilla leader: "What arms can we send you? Can we send you tanks?" Museveni replied that he needed anything he could get.

Relations with Zimbabwe were almost as close, and President Mugabe repaid the favor last year by calling for "unjust" United Nations sanctions against Libya to be lifted "now, now, now."

"Yes, there is gratitude in Africa," says Richard Cornwell of the South African Institute for Security Studies. He says Qaddafi receives a hero's welcome when he visits because he backed the African National Congress against the apartheid regime. "This is the popular view of history, but more discerning minds have reasons to be weary of him. He is, to put it politely, mercurial."

But few have paid such strong respects as Mr. Mandela, South Africa's archetypal peacemaker. Calling the Libyan leader "brother Qaddafi" during a visit of President Clinton to Cape Town in March 1998, he defended South Africa's close ties with Libya, Cuba, and Iran."We should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour in the history of this country," he said. "They gave us the resources for us to conduct the struggle and to win." As for South African critics, Mandela said, "literally they can go and jump in a pool."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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