Armored columns containing Libyan soldiers and top allies of former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, arriving in the West African country of Niger, set off speculation today that Mr. Qaddafi may be preparing to flee the country.
Wishful thinking, perhaps. Eyewitnesses at the border and in the Nigerien capital of Niamey say that Qaddafi himself had not been seen in the convoy, although 12 senior Libyan officials including Qaddafi’s own security chief, Mansour Dao, had been sighted, along with Niger’s ethnic Tuareg rebel leader Rissa ag Boula, who had come to fight in Qaddafi’s defense.
But Qaddafi’s long-standing relationship with his neighbors in the African Sahel region – including Chad, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso – make it entirely plausible that Qaddafi might seek refuge there, if and when he makes the decision to flee.
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“I don’t have specific information about this convoy, but what is clear is that all the Sahelian countries had relationships with Libya and benefited from Libya, and if Burkina Faso has offered asylum, it’s likely that some of Qaddafi’s people are moving to Burkina Faso,” says Thierry Vircoulon, a Sahel expert for the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi, Kenya.
Qaddafi’s ties with the arid nations south of the Saharan desert go deeper than mere financial support. They extend back several decades, when several of the present leaders of Sahelian countries were still rebel leaders, desperately seeking arms, logistical support, and training. Qaddafi provided these.
Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Campaore once trained in Libyan military training camps, before overthrowing the government of his predecessor Thomas Sankara in 1987. Chad’s President Idriss Deby once scraped together a ragtag force of fellow ethnic Zaghawa fighters, before overthrowing then-President Hissene Habre in a Qaddafi-supported insurgency.
But what the Brother Leader gives, he also takes away. Qaddafi has supported rebel attacks against several of his neighbors, including ethnic Tuareg fighters in Niger and Mali and ethnic Zaghawa fighters against Qaddafi’s own former protégé, President Deby.
As signatories of the treaty that created the International Criminal Court, both Burkina Faso and Niger would be legally obliged to hand over Qaddafi to the ICC’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has issued an arrest warrant against Qaddafi for targeting civilians in the past six months. But Mr. Vircoulon, the Crisis Group expert, says that no Sahelian country is likely to do so.
“As you know, the whole of Africa will not arrest Qaddafi, even though they all signed the ICC treaty,” says Vircoulon. “As a whole, the Sahelian countries benefited from Qaddafi’s largesse. It’s not likely that he should carefully look at which countries are offering asylum, because they simply won’t cooperate with ICC.”
Many members of the African Union – Africa’s largest regional bloc – say that African nations should resist cooperation with the ICC, arguing that the Hague-based criminal court targets African nations for human rights prosecution, but ignores human rights charges leveled against richer nations like the US, Britain, and France.
Kenya’s parliament voted earlier this year to urge the rescinding of the Hague court treaty. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has managed to travel relatively freely in Africa and the Middle East, despite facing arrest warrants for genocide and war crimes charges allegedly committed in Sudan’s Darfur region.
"We have strongly urged the Nigerien officials to detain those members of the regime who may be subject to prosecution, to ensure that they confiscate any weapons that are found and to ensure that any state property of the government of Libya, money, jewels, etc., also be impounded so that it can be returned to the Libyan people," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, according to Reuters.