TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi plucked some fluff from his flowing golden robes, poured himself another steaming cup of tea and continued with his lecture, not seeming to notice the wide yawns around him. It was 2 a.m. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was dozing in a corner.
The leaders’ rigid stares and sour faces at an African Union summit in 2009, witnessed by journalists peering through a gap in the curtains, showed how most African leaders felt about the continent’s self-styled “King of Kings.” “There goes the sideshow clown,” one African diplomat muttered, as Gaddafi swept out of the room and told the waiting journalists to get some sleep.
Now, the man whose theatrics overshadowed their summits for so long is dead and buried, and sub-Saharan African leaders are trying to assess what a world without Gaddafi will mean for them, according to interviews with a dozen or so African diplomats in Tripoli. Some enjoyed substantial investments and gifts from his oil coffers. But many also hated what they saw as his meddling, even while they paraded solidarity with a fellow African who saw himself as an anti-colonial revolutionary.
African ambassadors and diplomats say they are already starting to feel the impact of the shift in power from Gaddafi to his enemies. Many feel frozen out by Libya’s interim rulers, the National Transitional Council (NTC). Some suspect the new government is even going to want some of Gaddafi’s gifts back. Whatever happens, Gaddafi’s vision of a united Africa — always quixotic — is gone.
“He made us feel important,” one told Reuters. “But there aren’t so many of us being invited to sit and break bread with NTC leaders. They think that we sided with Gaddafi.”
That perception has arisen in part from a belief among NTC and western officials that the African Union’s attempt to mediate during the civil war was designed to protect Gaddafi. For Libya’s new leaders, the western allies who helped them to power will be more important.
“The new administration in Tripoli will want to set relations with the AU off right,” said Mark Schroeder, sub-Saharan Africa analyst at consultancy Stratfor. “But the AU will only be a smaller actor they will establish priorities with.”
Western diplomats have become more visible in Tripoli, shuttling back and forth between the two luxury hotels where most meetings with NTC officials take place. Some even wear wristbands in the revolutionary colors, their drivers flashing the “V” for victory sign at checkpoints run by NTC forces.
African diplomats are more rarely seen out and about in a capital where fellow non-Arab Africans can risk arrest, and worse, as suspected pro-Gaddafi mercenaries.
With Gaddafi gone, others also feel vulnerable.
“There was a sense that we were supporting him at all costs just so that we could protect his investments in our countries,” one sub-Saharan African ambassador in Tripoli told Reuters. While some African leaders may indeed have been keen to keep Gaddafi’s cash, others saw the West’s action in Libya as “an act of colonial aggression,” he said.
Whatever African leaders’ motives in supporting Gaddafi, now could be payback time: “The poorest on the continent will pay.”
Officials in Tripoli say the Gaddafi government’s investments across sub-Saharan Africa were massive, although so far there is no complete picture of them.
He invested widely in projects from donated tractors in Gambia to $90 million telecoms deals in Chad, in what most political analysts saw as an attempt to buy clout on a continent he aimed to unite with anti-colonial rhetoric. Entire hospitals and mosques bore his name.
He gave Gambian President Yahya Jammeh aid and huge herds of camels. Al-Madar, a state-owned Libyan mobile phone operator owned or controlled telecoms operations with assets worth over $100 million in eight other African countries.
“It wasn’t all cynical,” said another African ambassador in Tripoli of Libya’s spending spree. “He did a lot of good for African countries ... There was little racism in him, unlike some other Arabs, who treat us like slaves when we come here looking for work.”
There is real fear in African capitals that the NTC is going to want to take that money back, though it has not yet outlined official policy on the issue.
“Such investments as exist in sub-Saharan Africa are likelier than not to come under pressure to liquidate in order to secure the funds to rehabilitate the war-torn country,” agreed Peter Pham, an analyst with U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council.
The African Union’s already meager budget may take a hit: the former Libyan strongman paid more than his allotted share. Libya’s formal contribution was 15 percent of the half of the Union’s budget that is put up by Africans themselves. But African Union officials say Gaddafi also paid the contributions of several small west African nations, more than doubling the share of funds coming from Tripoli. In public, officials deny a possible loss of funding is a concern.
The African Union, which replaced the Organisation of African Unity, held its inaugural meeting in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in 1999. Gaddafi tried in vain to have it move headquarters there from the OAU’s base in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. But he nonetheless treated the Union like a personal club.
Theatrical summit entrances, rambling speeches and buffoonish behavior married with a seemingly genuine desire to encourage African leaders to stand up to their former colonial masters and build more unity among themselves.
Many African heads of state were already tiring of his attempts to dominate them. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni was seen arguing with Gaddafi at a Kampala summit in 2010, after the Libyan’s personal guard, trying to bring concealed guns into the meeting hall, had brawled with the Ugandan president’s own security.
Gaddafi, apparently trying to deflect blame, then slapped his own foreign minister across the face in full view of a group of journalists.
“For us, there was some good and some bad,” an African Union official told Reuters. “But, overall, we won’t miss him.”
Plenty of rebels-turned-presidents — including South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Uganda’s Museveni — have made a point of remembering how Gaddafi supported them during their days fighting in the bush. With Gaddafi, who himself took power in a military coup in 1969, they would salute each other and talk with pride of being Africa’s “revolutionary” leaders.
So their initial impulse was to close ranks and defend him, even as his forces were attacking demonstrators; and they ensured the African Union dithered as NATO acted.
Since his fall, most have been conspicuously silent. They are trying to build ties with an NTC that seems little interested, beyond calling on its southern neighbors not to shelter the Gaddafi loyalists Libyans want brought to justice.
“Why are you asking me about Gaddafi’s legacy?” one African Union official said in response to a question. “Stop associating us with him. We cannot afford it.”
Edited by Alastair Macdonald and Sara Ledwith