By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: March 15, 2011
BAMAKO, Mali — Elhadj Maiga is a Qaddafi recruiter and a proud one at that, scrambling to assemble a pipeline of young men from Mali to go and fight for The Great Leader.
At this stage, without cash for guns or transport, Mr. Maiga’s group of about 200 young men is more of a fan club than a militia. But like other pro-Qaddafi groups that have sprung up here since the rebellion in Libya began, what it lacks in logistics it makes up in loyalty.
“We’re all ready to die for him,” Mr. Maiga said. “He’s done so much for us, after all.”
Just look at Mr. Maiga’s life: he prays at a mosque in Bamako, Mali’s capital, that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi built; he watches television on the Malian national network that Colonel Qaddafi set up in the 1980s; and he admires with a feeling nothing short of awe La Cité Administrative Muammar el-Qaddafi, the gleaming new $100 million government complex that Colonel Qaddafi is helping pay for and that bears his name — even though it is for Mali’s government, not Libya’s.
Mali, a desperately poor country near Libya, is a case in point of the allegiance Colonel Qaddafi has bought in many parts of the continent. He has tapped Libya’s vast oil reserves to liberally sprinkle billions of dollars around sub-Saharan Africa, playing all sides and investing in almost anything — governments, rebel groups, luxury hotels, Islamic organizations, rubber factories, rice paddies, diamond mines, supermarkets and the countless OiLibya gas stations.
From Liberia to South Africa to the island of Madagascar, Libya’s holdings are like a giant venture capital fund, geared to make friends and win influence in the poorest region in the world. This may help explain how Colonel Qaddafi has been able to summon sub-Saharan African soldiers to fight for him in his time of need — Libyans have spoken of “African mercenaries” killing protesters and helping him rout rebel fighters — and why so many African leaders have been so slow to criticize him, even as his forces slaughter his own people.
“So many of these presidents at one time or another have gotten something directly from him,” said Manny Ansar, a prominent Malian intellectual who organizes one of West Africa’s most celebrated cultural happenings, Mali’s Festival in the Desert. “So what are they going to say now?” While the Arab League was quick to suspend Libya last month and has even asked the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-flight zone to stop Colonel Qaddafi’s attacks on his people, the African Union has taken a more cautious stance, deciding only on Friday to send negotiators who will meet with both sides.
Seen as eccentric and unpredictable, Colonel Qaddafi never got far as a leader in the Arab world. But in sub-Saharan Africa, many have been inspired by his vision of a “United States of Africa” and appreciate his anti-Western tirades. The Libyan government, which is, in essence, Colonel Qaddafi, also pays 15 percent of the African Union dues. He even succeeded in getting some traditional African leaders to call him “King of Kings,” and in Mali, from the streets to the president’s office, there seems to be near unanimous respect.
“Some people see the colonel as the devil, but he’s not,” said Seydou Sissouma, spokesman for Mali’s president. “He’s a great African.”
Mr. Sissouma bristled at the idea that Libya was buying friends. “That’s not the case,” he said. “Libya has accepted to share its resources with others. Other African oil producers, like Nigeria, don’t do this.”
But Colonel Qaddafi’s involvement in sub-Saharan Africa, said J. Peter Pham, editor of the Journal of the Middle East and Africa, has been “nothing short of catastrophic.”
His meddling in Sudan’s Darfur region and arming of Arab militias there helped lead to the rise of the notorious janjaweed, armed groups that have terrorized civilians for years. His support of the former strongman Charles Taylor in Liberia added to the bloodshed and mayhem in that country. His backing of various rebel factions across the Sahara has destabilized Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and others, allowing Al Qaeda to grab a foothold in the vast, unpatrolled deserts.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he recruited thousands of Africans into his Islamic Legion, an experimental Muslim army that failed on the battlefield in places like Chad and then sent so many young men drifting back to their home countries embittered — and heavily armed.
The various African wars that Colonel Qaddafi helped stir up “took hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions, and their ripple effects continue to this day,” Mr. Pham said.
Mr. Sissouma’s response to such criticism: “Nobody’s an angel.”
Many members of the nomadic Touaregs, who roam across the deserts of Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya, see Colonel Qaddafi as their champion. For the past 40 years, the Touaregs have rebelled, on and off, against the governments of Mali and Niger, provoking brutal anti-Touareg campaigns. Touaregs in Mali spoke of government soldiers poisoning wells and pulling Touareg men off buses and making them eat their national identification cards at gunpoint and then arresting or shooting them for not having any identification.
When thousands of Touaregs fled into Libya in the 1970s and 1980s, Colonel Qaddafi welcomed them with open arms. He gave them food and shelter. He called them brothers. He also started training them as soldiers. Touareg elders here say that many of the so-called African mercenaries Colonel Qaddafi is now relying on to suppress the revolts are actually Touaregs who have been serving in the Libyan Army for years, not new arrivals.
Still, Touareg elders in Mali and Niger have also said that in the past few weeks hundreds of former rebels have crossed the porous borders into Libya to fight for Colonel Qaddafi. Most are said to travel in pickup trucks, unarmed, appearing as migrant laborers, only to be armed once they get to Libya.
In another wrinkle, some Touaregs are widely believed to be cooperating with Qaeda agents in the Sahara, which would completely undermine Colonel Qaddafi’s repeated utterances that his forces are defending the nation against a Qaeda onslaught.
One person close to the Libyan government estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 mercenaries from Mali, Niger and the Darfur region in Sudan have been hired by the Libyan government for at least $1,000 a day each. But several people here, including Mr. Ansar, the cultural festival organizer who is also a well-connected Touareg, had their doubts.
“It’d be very difficult in just two or three weeks to organize a system to pay and recruit mercenaries,” he said.
Beyond that, he said: “Even if Qaddafi didn’t ask them, they’d go. He’s their chief, their leader, everything to them. If he’s out, they lose their protector.”
Mr. Maiga — by day a small lender, by evening a rabble-rouser who sits on a cracked concrete stoop with a gaggle of young men who say they are eager for war — said he was envious of the Touaregs fighting for Colonel Qaddafi.
“We wish we could be like them,” he said. “We’re just waiting on the means.”
His group has distributed pro-Qaddafi fliers across Bamako’s drab, sun-blasted neighborhoods. Indeed, all across this city, young men have formed into pro-Qaddafi organizations, and many said they, too, were eager to join the fight and were just waiting on “the means.”
Mr. Maiga looked intently at the journalist interviewing him, and a light bulb of an idea lit up his face.
“Hey, wait, you’re American,” he said excitedly. “Think the American government could help us defend Qaddafi?”
Source: The New York Times