TUNIS (Reuters) - Ugandans from remote northern parts of the country still fondly remember the snaking convoy of limos and armored cars that would pass through their small villages, passengers hurling fistfuls of dollars out the windows.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was the man leading those expeditions, which became a regular sight in the east African country soon after the showy leader encountered one of its traditional leaders -- the strikingly beautiful Queen Mother of the Toro Kingdom.
Other guests at the inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni in 2001, where the two met, would later tell the media that the Colonel seemed instantly smitten.
Over the next few years, Gaddafi landed several times at Uganda’s Entebbe airport and, instead of flying to Toro, unloaded a long caravan of vehicles and drove six hours, taking in the country’s lake-dotted landscape, to meet his new friend.
He ignored advice from Museveni that it would be safer to fly, local media said, and, on at least one occasion, he didn’t bother to tell the president he was coming at all.
The toppled leader’s adventures in Uganda highlight two experiences from his swashbuckling life that could become central to his survival: his love of road trips across the continent and his years of lavishing attention and cash on its traditional leaders.
When news broke early Tuesday morning that scores of Libyan military vehicles had crossed into Niger, and some Libyan provisional government officials said they might be laden down with gold and cash looted from Libya’s banks, it somehow made sense.
Whether or not the “Brother Leader” himself proves to have been sitting in one of the cars this time, the incident has highlighted a potential escape route through Libya’s vast deserts and on toward its porous borders with its poorer neighbors.
It is difficult to imagine, though, such a large convoy leaving the country without being attacked by NATO, unless some sort of a secret deal has been reached.
Even Gaddafi’s enemies in Libya concede that the man who loves to boast that he was born in a Bedouin tent may be hardier than most and quite at home in the desert.
But this particular brand of caravan is more likely to be made up of bullet-proof Mercedes rather than the camels of his ancestors. He has also shown a penchant for bubble cars and gold-plated golf carts over the years.
Such is Gaddafi’s love for his modern caravans, and such is the oil money he has bestowed on African countries over the years, that he has even managed to convince other heads of state to join him on his travels over the years.
In 2003, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki kept Gaddafi company on an 800 km (500 mile) jaunt around that country without incident. But when Museveni joined him for a trip to Toro, local media said the pair argued so much that the Ugandan leader decamped to a guesthouse.
Reports that Tuareg tribesmen were traveling with the convoy won’t have surprised Gaddafi-watchers who have long seen him cozying up to Africa’s traditional kings -- most of their titles hereditary and some from families who once ruled ruthlessly.
Though few of them still have any official power, many are still hugely influential across remoter parts of Africa, and could provide much-needed cover.
At an African Union summit in 2009, Gaddafi, resplendent in gold robes and wrap-around shades, showed up with an entourage of these kings, some carrying gold staffs, and managed to have one give a speech to more than 30 African heads of state after the Libyan leader was elected for what would prove an embarrassing year as AU chairman.
“On behalf of the traditional kings, on behalf of all the sultans, on behalf of all the princes, on behalf of all the customary rulers, I want to say thank you to the King of Kings who we have crowned,” the man said, to a ripple of giggles.
The statement was struck from the record.
Editing by Rosalind Russell