Guns, migrants, mercenaries: Qaddafi's loss is the Sahel's gain

Aside from Qaddafi and his family, up to one million migrants from Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso may leave war-torn Libya, and arms from Qaddafi's arsenal are already showing up in conflict zones as far away as Somalia.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Butchers burn cow legs to sell in Niamey, Niger, Wednesday. A son of Muammar Qaddafi and three of his generals were trying to gain political asylum Wednesday in this poor, landlocked nation at Libya's feet, after a more than 1,000-mile drive across the vast desert that separates the two countries for what could be their only shot at refuge.

Leaders from the Saharan nation of Niger, yesterday requested international aid to curb the flow of migrants, militants, and guns across their desert border with Libya.

Turmoil in post-Qaddafi Libya, say Nigerien officials, residents, and analysts, could augur an explosion in violence and unemployment across Libya's sub-Saharan flank. The neighborhood is occupied by some of Africa's least peaceful, most impoverished countries.

Africa's Sahel, a drought belt that stretches from Senegal to Somalia, “has long had a wild west quality to it,” writes former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn in an e-mail to the Monitor.

It is the stage on which semi-nomadic Tuareg combatants have fought sporadically for independence over decades; failing that, many have linked up with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist sect that kidnaps foreigners. The Mali-based Al Qaeda, reports claim, begun collaborating as recently as last month with Boko Haram, the Nigerian pro-Sharia law rebellion that took credit for an August 26 bombing on a United Nations headquarters.

Further east, the militia Al Shabab has seized large swaths of the Somalia's south. In Ethiopia, rebels and state troops continue gun battles in Ethiopia's gas-rich Ogaden region. On Sunday in Darfur, the site of Sudan's mass killings, the separatist region's top rebel leader returned from nearly two years in exile, in Libya.

“The region can't get more unstable than it already is,” says London's School of Oriental and African Studies Professor Jeremy Keenan, who performs hostage negotiation for conflicts in the region.

And yet, it might, he and other analysts agree.

A southward wave of people – and weapons

Aside from sparking a “mass movement of one million people plus” – sub-Saharan Africans who sought migrant work in oil-rich Libya – the end of the country's conflict could send a southward wave of thousands of dejected Libyan fighters, including Nigerien Tuaregs, and sub-Saharan mercenaries hired by Libya’s ex-leader Muammar Qaddafi, says J. Peter Pham, Director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

“The consequences are enormous,” editor David Yacouba for newspaper Aïr Info in the Nigerien desert town of Agadez writes in an e-mail to the Monitor. “What we fear is that, after this conflict, the arms used in Libya will come into Niger.”

Libyan weaponry, however, has likely already entered black markets throughout the Sahel, Pham said, citing “direct knowledge” of RPG 29s for sale as far east as Somalia. RPG 29s are the shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades deployed by the Soviets in the final days of their Afghan war, powerful enough to stop a tank.

"If those are cropping up in Somalia I can just imagine what's available if you happen to be slightly closer to the source," Mr. Pham says.

Aside from arms, Keenan adds, there's Mr. Qaddafi's army.

A Sept. 5 convoy that drove southward into Niger was reported to contain anywhere from a handful of vehicles to 250 trucks, loaded with pro-Qaddafi combatants fleeing Libya.

The arrival of thousands of armed fighters into such a poorly-policed region, Pham says, could be a boom to the local Al Qaeda group.

"All of a sudden, right on their door step, and in a buyer's market, here comes a whole flood of trained fighters," Pham says.

Unemployment also raises concerns

For Niger, the more persistent problem, Pham adds, may be unemployment.

Migrant workers comprised as much as a fifth of Libya's resident population, according to estimates from the Nigerien and Malian governments. As fighting eases and roads become safe for travel, hundreds of thousands of these migrants may return home, fleeing both Libya's shaken economy, and the random arrests of black Africans – accused of being mercenaries – documented by Human Rights Watch.

“These people will be confronted by unemployment,” Yacouba writes.

Formal, salaried work is almost non-existent in Niger, whose 15 million people largely live off farming or herding on the increasingly dry land.

“These people coming back into regions whether there’s no employment, no likelihood of employment, famine, and some of them are coming back with arms,” Keenan says.

An invitation for Qaddafi

On Saturday, Guinea-Bissau – a former Portuguese colony that enjoyed lavish Libyan aid, and receives most of its income from the cocaine trade – invited Qaddafi to take up residence. Burkina Faso also extended Qaddafi protection, only to retract the offer later.

"His presence would be a major cause for continued chaos and instability," Keenan says, citing Qaddafi's connections to rebels in the region, and his capacity to bankroll them.

The more likely outcome, he adds, is that Qaddafi remains in Libya, in its south – beyond the reach of Libya's National Transition Council, beyond the reach of NATO, and far beyond the reach of Niger.

"You could have a situation where Libya divides, not into an East-West division, but where the south never falls under the control of the NTC," he says. "The NTC doesn't have forces down there. Niger's army is lightweight. NATO can't get down there in any hurry."

"There could still be another chapter," he adds.

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