West Africa Rising: How Qaddafi's downfall would hurt Libya's southern neighbors

If Muammar Qaddafi falls, then West Africa would likely see the fire-sale of Libyan-owned businesses and an influx of refugees, including mercenaries.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

The downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi could spell major problems for West Africa, which would likely see an influx of refugees and the "fire sale" of Libyan-controlled businesses in the region, analysts warn.

Indeed, when the international community intervened in Libya to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, it may have caused another in West Africa.

"This is a wave that's about to hit them," says J. Peter Pham of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. "What may be a success for the international community in Libya may, long term, turn out to be a regional cataclysm."

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Mr. Qaddafi's many regional investments – from a chicken farm in Madagascar to controlling stakes in Niger's biggest telecom – could be placed on the selling block if the erratic leader is ousted, potentially sparking the African "fire sale of the century," says Mr. Pham.

"You can't throw all these [businesses] on the market simultaneously," he says. "It's going to effect the economic balance."

That balance could be further tipped by a flood of tens of thousands of Africans in Libya decamping to fragile states such as Niger and Sudan. One town in northeastern Niger likely to see such an influx is Djado – a drought-doomed hinterland that doesn't even have enough petrol to transport a few thousand unemployed migrants to whatever part of Niger is hiring.

"You're talking about up to 20 percent of Libya's population that are sub-Saharan Africans," Pham says. "They're probably going to get turned out of there. These countries are in no position to absorb them."

More concerning are the mercenaries among the refugees. Estimates of the number of sub-Saharan African soldiers on Qaddafi's payroll range from 300 to a few thousand.

David Shinn, former Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, is less alarmed.

"The whole mercenary thing is significantly overstated," he says. "I suspect we're talking in the hundreds. They are also dispersed over a fairly wide number of countries, which means that in the case of any single country, the only one that would be particularly concerned would be Chad."

"To me," he adds, "the bigger issue is the workforce."

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