Gaddafi runs out of friends in his billion-dollar bolthole

The Times of London
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Ouaga man
Eric Zabsonre holds the Green Book in Ouagadougou (Times photographer, Tristan McConnell)

Clutching a leather-bound edition of Colonel Gaddafi’s Green Book, Eric Zabsonré sits on a metal-framed chair.

“Gaddafi is not a dictator, he is like the father of a family; if you want something he gives it to you,” said Mr Zabsonré, the self-appointed president of Burkina Faso’s Movement for the Support of Gaddafi. “Gaddafi is Africa’s patron,” he said. “He gives from the heart and lives in the hearts of all Africans.”

Mr Zabsonré, a 45-year-old civil servant, is not alone in his praise for the ousted Libyan dictator. Speculation that Colonel Gaddafi is about to receive an enthusiastic welcome in Ouagadougou, the sweltering capital of Burkina Faso, has forced the Government to rescind an earlier offer of asylum. Although he is nowhere to be seen and foreign diplomats in the city admit to having no clue of his whereabouts, Colonel Gaddafi’s mark is everywhere.

For years he has distributed his oil-fuelled largesse across Africa, and his willingness to invest where others would not has bought him friends and influence across the continent.

The most high-profile example of his involvement here is the Libya Hotel, the city’s plushest. It is 10 storeys high in this mostly low-rise city and painted the same vivid desert orange as the dusty soil on Ouagadougou’s sidestreets. The building rises above a neighbourhood known as Ouaga-2000, a new suburb master-planned and financed by Colonel Gaddafi, where mansions and ministries are under construction.

Next to the hotel is a complex of shops and offices, also built with Libyan money. Colonel Gaddafi has large stakes in the Commercial Bank of Burkina and the Sahel-Sahara Investment Bank. He has built a women’s medical clinic with his name and that of President Compaoré’s wife above the entrance. The broad Gaddafi Boulevard sweeps through the city.

In this landlocked and grindingly poor country, his investments have given a much-needed boost, but Burkina Faso is only one of many African states indebted to him.

Libya is one of five countries that provided three quarters of the African Union’s annual budget. Its estimated $370 million (£231 million) stake in the African Development Bank makes it the fifth largest contributor to the institution on the continent, after Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Algeria.

Libya’s sovereign wealth fund has invested about $5 billion in at least 31 countries across Africa.

Its main investment vehicle, the Libyan Arab African Investment Company, owns 14 “Laico” hotels and resorts in 11 countries, it has stakes in vast farms in Chad and Mali, plantations in Ghana and Madagascar, fruit factories in Benin and Guinea, mining companies in Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic and forestry concessions in Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon.

Libya Oil Holdings has more than 1,200 “OiLibya” branded petrol stations in 20 countries. A specialist telecoms fund has invested in mobile phone companies in Niger, Rwanda, Uganda and at least five other countries. There are also impressive monuments to Colonel Gaddafi’s vanity and wealth that bear his name and litter the continent.

The 15,000-capacity Grand Mosque in Kampala, Uganda, is one of the largest on the continent. Its completion last year finished a job started by Idi Amin in the 1970s. The new $100 million government quarter in Bamako, Mali, is named “La Cité Administrative Muammar al-Qaddafi”.

Despite his generosity, it seems that the dictator is running out of friends even in countries he has supported. Mr Compaoré insisted this week that he would not offer asylum to the illusive Libyan, a position that Mr Zabsonre called “ungrateful”.

However, some will be glad to see him go. Colonel Gaddafi’s grandstanding and oft-repeated vision of a United States of Africa with him at its head irritated other African leaders. So did his courting of traditional leaders, 200 of whom crowned him “King of Kings” after he summoned them to Benghazi in 2009. His backing of such leaders as Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Amin and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe also damaged his standing.

He has trained and financed rebel groups, notably the Tuareg desert nomads of Mali and Niger, before reining them in and acting as peacemaker.

It was in Libyan training camps that Mr Taylor, now on trial for alleged war crimes before an international tribunal, honed his military skills before seizing power in Liberia and destabilising the region. Nevertheless, Libya’s pariah leader is still held in esteem on the streets of Ouagadougou.

Jean-Matisse Kabri, the owner of a small photo studio whose walls are plastered with ageing, out-of-focus family portraits, spoke for many.

“If Gaddafi comes we will welcome him with open arms. He has done so much for us,” he said.