From propping up rebellions to amassing billions of dollars in investments, Muammar Qaddafi has long played a hand in sub-Saharan African affairs. Though once a prominent destabilizer, he is now one of Africa’s most steadfast patrons, and his fight to cling to power has threatened beneficiaries across the continent.
By Jon Rosen for ISN Insights
With a towering minaret that is visible across town, the Islamic Cultural Center of Kigali is an enduring landmark in Rwanda’s well manicured, undulating capital. Here, on a recent afternoon, hundreds of young men and women in green headscarves scurried about the center’s airy campus, nestled in Kigali’s vibrant Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo. Though established in the interest of Rwanda’s Muslim minority, the center hosts one of Rwanda’s top scientific high schools – offering a highly subsidized education to 1,200 students regardless of religion – and provides vocational programs that teach skills like tailoring to underprivileged and orphaned young women.
In one of Africa’s least developed countries, it is largely the work of the foreign donors represented by two of the three flags perched just outside the center’s domed mosque: the colors of the United Arab Emirates, and the solid green banner of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. The institution, though it receives funding from both countries as well as the Rwandan state, was originally built by Libya in 1979 and remains an enduring symbol of its embattled, eccentric president.
“Everyone calls this the Qaddafi center,” a staff member told ISN Insights. “He personally came to Rwanda to build it.”
It’s a tale that is repeated in more than two dozen countries across sub-Saharan Africa. From Uganda, to Burkina Faso to the island of Madagascar, Qaddafi has long used his oil wealth to curry favor among African governments – by funding schools, cultural institutions and infrastructure projects, or by paying smaller states’ dues to the African Union. Through the Libyan Arab African Investment Company (LAAICO) and other subsidiaries of the Libyan Investment Authority – a $65 billion sovereign wealth fund – Gaddafi has invested more than $8 billion on the continent in businesses as diverse as luxury hotels, telecoms, rice paddies and oil pipelines. In a trademark fit of hubris, he offered to invest $97 billion in Africa last year to free it from Western influence, on condition that African states rid themselves of nepotism and corruption.
Yet as he struggles to hold on to power at home in the face of NATO-backed rebels and UN sanctions, his lofty promises and current projects abroad are under threat – and some are predicting severe economic consequences for Africa. According to Ugandan commentator Charles Onyango-Obbo , Libya’s crisis could be a “nightmare for a continent that has only recently started to restore some international business confidence.”
From arsonist to firefighter
While Qaddafi’s key Africa contacts today may be his fund managers, the “mad scientist in African politics,” as Onyango-Obbo calls him, was long more at ease with leaders of armed rebellions. Initially meddling in Africa for the cause of Arab nationalism – by disrupting relations between various African states and Israel – he later sought a more durable sphere of influence by supporting armed groups he considered fellow revolutionaries. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Qaddafi sponsored militias in Chad and Sudan, armed nomadic Touareg rebels in Mali and Niger, and helped Liberian rebel Charles Taylor – now in The Hague on war crimes charges – ride to power on the backs of loyal, beleaguered child soldiers.
By the late 1990s, as his cooperation with investigations into the Lockerbie saga led to a warming of relations with the West, Qaddafi began to engage more constructively in Africa, shedding the role of “arsonist,” according to Isaaka Souare, Senior Researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, and increasingly seeking to play “firefighter.” Never getting far with other Arab leaders, who viewed him as dangerously erratic, he shifted his foreign policy goals south, acting as a peace broker in the same countries he had once destabilized, and becoming a leading voice for African integration. By calling for a “United States of Africa,” whereby one government would rule the whole continent, he was one of the main drivers behind the 2002 formation of the African Union, a less ambitious yet more realistic pan-African body. And in a move that irked some African presidents , he even convinced more than 200 traditional leaders to crown him Africa’s “King of Kings”, a part inane spectacle and part legitimate attempt to gain support for his pan-African pet project.
Petrodollars in flux
Qaddafi’s most substantial influence, however, may lie in the billions of dollars in assets he has sprinkled across the continent – many of which are now under threat. In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1970, various African states have frozen Qaddafi’s assets, including Rwanda, which recently revoked the license of an underperforming telecom majority owned by the Libyan Africa Investment Portfolio (LAP) and seized LAP’s 60 percent share in Kigali’s up-market Umubano hotel. While classes at Kigali’s “Qaddafi Center” are still in session, Qaddafi’s charitable works are in jeopardy throughout Africa; small countries that have benefited disproportionately from his largesse could be hit particularly hard. These include countries like Mali, where he helped fund a new $100 million government complex, and Guinea, where – in a throwback to his days of revolutionary fervor – he was accused of sponsoring a December 2008 coup, and has since bankrolled various projects instigated by the new government.
Yet on the whole, says Philippe de Pontet, lead Africa Analyst at the risk consultancy Eurasia Group, the financial shock of the Libyan crisis on Africa may not be as debilitating as some are predicting. He notes that though the professionalism of Libyan investments has increased in recent years, Qaddafi’s Africa holdings still contain a number of “white elephant” projects, driven more by political calculations than by returns or quality of investment.
“In analyzing the sweep of Qaddafi’s spending across the continent, a lot of it was misspent, a lot of it was wasted,” de Pontet told ISN Insights. “If your real goal is to be relevant and powerful you don’t necessarily care about your returns or the impact of the projects on the ground.”
If this is the case, then Qaddafi’s fall – or the disintegration of his financial empire – could open doors for other private sector actors. Even so, this does not mean that the “King of Kings” demise wouldn’t entail further trouble for Africa. According to Souare, due to accusations that Qaddafi has employed black African mercenaries in his fight to cling to power, relations between sub-Saharan Africa and a Libya controlled by rebels could be quite bad.
“Many Libyans think Qaddafi was wasting Libyan money on Africa,” he said. “And because of these accusations you have very strong anti-African sentiments in rebel-held areas.”
This, as well as Qaddafi’s history of largesse, may be one reason why the African Union, which has emerged as a potential Libyan peace broker , refused to support coalition air strikes, even as the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council came out in favor.
On the other hand, while Qaddafi may have won over more African than Arab governments, his patronage didn’t stop all three African members of the UN Security Council from voting in favor of Resolution 1973, which effectively authorized the attacks on his forces.
Moreover, most African governments appear willing to shake off Qaddafi’s trail of investments, despite the potentially painful short run consequences.
Jon Rosen is an independent journalist focusing on East Africa and Africa’s Great Lakes Region. He holds a Master’s in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Bologna, Italy, and Washington, DC. He researched this story on the ground in Kigali, Rwanda.