| ADDIS ABABA
ADDIS ABABA A special welcome was laid on for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi when he arrived in Uganda earlier this year for an African summit: hundreds of children lining the road wearing T-shirts with his face on them.
In fact, Gaddafi stood out right from moment he stepped off his jet wearing sunglasses, a safari suit with silhouettes of the African continent printed on it, and accompanied by a female bodyguard in Bedouin headgear.
"It's the usual sideshow," a senior South African official said of the clamour surrounding Gaddafi at the summit in July.
Gaddafi's opulent entrances are just the most visible part of a huge and growing Libyan influence in Africa that ranges from donated tractors in Gambia to $90 million dollar telecoms deals in Chad and hospitals named after the Libyan leader.
The countries that benefit, and many independent observers, say Libya is bringing real benefits for Africa. Officials in Tripoli say their objective is to promote development and allow Africa to shake off exploitation.
But Tripoli's approach also has some African governments worried that Gaddafi, who often uses the title African "king of kings," could become too powerful, and use his new influence to try to re-model the continent in his own image.
Other countries, especially China, are seeking a bigger role in Africa. What sets Libya apart is that it approaches the continent with a very distinctive political vision.
Gaddafi, author of the "Green Book" by which Libya is governed, views elected democracy as a form of dictatorship, has described working for wages as slavery and said his aim is to create a United States of Africa.
"I think it (Libya's role in Africa) is one of the great untold stories so far ... very few people have paid attention to this and what it really symbolizes," said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya scholar at Dartmouth College in the United States.
"The interesting story of course is how much can he provide and what are the sub-Saharan African countries willing to give in return," he said.
Since he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1969, Gaddafi has made Africa an important part of Libyan identity.
Libyans often express pride that the African Union was founded at a summit in Gaddafi's hometown on September 9, 1999. The state-owned Afriqiyah Airways marks that date by painting the motif "9.9.99" on the tail of each of its jets.
Libyan handouts to its neighbors on the continent are nothing new. The change in the past few years is that the amount of Libyan cash flowing to Africa appears to have increased -- along with the influence that it buys.
That is in part because Libya has grown richer. Its once-stagnant economy has boomed since international sanctions were lifted in 2004. Oil revenues have allowed it to build up sovereign wealth funds worth about $65 billion.
There are no official figures publicly available, but evidence on the ground points to a growing Libyan presence, especially in West Africa and the Sahel region, along the southern edge of the Sahara desert.
In August, Libya announced an increase in assistance to Niger including the creation of a $100 million investment fund, a big sum for a country ranked third from bottom in the United Nations human development index.
In Gambia, the anniversary of Libya's Revolution -- Gaddafi's coming to power -- is usually a low-key affair but this year Foreign Minister Momodou Tangara attended a celebration with other officials and heaped praise on Libya.
Last year Gaddafi gave Gambian President Yahya Jammeh camels as a gift, as well as providing substantial aid.
Libyan business has also started to take a role. LAP Green Networks, a state-owned mobile operator, owns or controls telecoms operations in eight African countries and this month paid $90 million to buy assets in Chad.
"Libya has in the past ... played a less than constructive role in certain countries." said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a British-based think tank.
But he said: "There has been some fairly useful Libyan aid, and over the years I think one can say it's improved ... Libya has tried to further extend its statement of leadership on the African continent and this is part of that."
Mohammed Syala, the secretary of cooperation affairs at the Libyan foreign ministry, said Libya offered African countries an alternative to the Western model of development.
"Libyan assistance ... gives them an opportunity to control their economic resources and natural resources in a better way, away from the influence of exploitation and monopoly," Syala told Reuters in an interview.
"Certainly, there are leaderships who are convinced, while there are countries which are not convinced yet, but time will prove that the strategic vision of Gaddafi is correct," he said.
That is not a view shared by some diplomats at the headquarters of the African Union, in Addis Ababa.
"We've been dealing with Libya trying to use money to buy influence in Africa for some time," said a senior AU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It is true that Gaddafi has upscaled it recently, yes. In the weeks before our summits, donations will be made -- usually to West African countries. There will be investments and talks."
"What is destructive for the AU sometimes is that the summits are hijacked and time is wasted dealing with him and his projects ... What I hope is that poorer African countries become less and less susceptible to him buying their allegiance."
Gaddafi's critics say there have been several cases where Libya has assembled coalitions of countries that benefit from its largesse to push its agenda, though not always successfully.
Some alleged that as holder of the AU's rotating presidency for a year until July, he frustrated efforts to condemn African coups d'etats, giving fuel to critics who say the union only pays lip service to democracy.
At the Uganda summit in July, Libya and its allies lobbied for a resolution advising member states not to arrest Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, even though the International Criminal Court has indicted him for war crimes.
At a previous summit, Gaddafi made a failed bid to extend his chairmanship for an extra year, and to have the union's executive granted more power.
Many of Gaddafi's initiatives have been vetoed by an opposing bloc often led by South Africa. But he seems unbowed and is likely to keep on building support for his own vision of how Africa should be governed.
"A lot of people are deferring to him politically because of the aid he's providing," said Libya scholar Vandewalle.
"My hunch is that particularly since Libya has a lot more money now and is able to increase the amount ... we'll see a lot more of those kinds of very strategic coalitions."
(Additional reporting by Salah Sarrar in Tripoli, Abdoulaye Massalaatchi in Niamey, Pap Saine in Banjul, and Christian Lowe in Algiers, Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)