Why Libya's unrest could threaten the Sahel region

African leaders in the Sahel – the coast-to-coast belt of countries just south of Libya – are afraid that Libya's unrest will disrupt the region's balance of power and put arms in the hands of rebel militias.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Suspected mercenaries (C) are detained by rebels in Benghazi on March 13. Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi's troops forced outgunned Libyan rebels to retreat eastwards on Sunday and laid siege to pockets of resistance, unimpeded by diplomatic efforts to impose a no-fly zone.

One reason why Africans worry about Libya is that they see the possibility of a protracted civil war with multiple power centres, which destabilizes the entire Sahelian region.

The civil war in Libya, and the military intervention against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi are generally portrayed as a democratic uprising against a dictator. But they are also the breakdown of a system of governance without institutions. Qaddafi deliberately refused to build institutions in Libya, reflecting both his own Bedouin background and his philosophy of people’s government. His Africa policy was similarly pursued by through the instruments of monetary patronage and ideological solidarity, strictly on the basis of personal relations with counterparts.

RELATED: Libya timeline (updated daily)

Qaddafi has been erratic and mischievous, misusing Libya’s financial clout to act as the biggest buyer in a regional political marketplace. Between 11 and 17 African countries – to be precise, African heads of state – have benefited from his largesse. Many rebel groups, especially in neighbouring countries, have also been the recipients of extraordinary Libyan giving sprees. Not only Qaddafi, but his lieutenants, possess large reserves of money and enormous stores of weaponry.

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighboring governments such as Niger, Chad, and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Qaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease. The Sudanese defense minister visited N’djamena last week to discuss the threat.

Reporters on the coast have spoken about African mercenaries serving in the pro-Gaddafi forces, mentioning countries of origin such as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. There are also rumours that Darfurians, including members of rebel factions based in Libya, are fighting in Libya. The deal is reportedly simple: take whatever arms you can handle, and fight for me, and then those weapons and vehicles are yours for whatever use you see fit.

Mercenaries, freebooters, and rebels from across the Sahel and even beyond are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take-all-you-can arms bonanza.

I spoke with one African military officer who welcomed the NATO action in Libya, saying “nothing could be worse than Qaddafi.” I suggested that he wait and see.

– Alex de Waal is regional advisor (on the Horn of Africa) to Social Science Research Council’s Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum and also program director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation and a group of projects on Conflict And Humanitarian Crisis in the Southern Cone of Africa. Mr. de Waal blogs at "Making Sense of Sudan."

RELATED: Libya timeline (updated daily)

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