Thu February 24, 2011
The Two-Way

Gadhafi's Mercenaries May Be Remnants Of His 'Pan-Arabic Army'

There's been talk aplenty about alleged African mercenaries being used in Moammar Gadhafi's fight for survival in Libya.

Witnesses and others have mentioned "white Africans," not Arabs, and "black Africans" among the Gadhafi forces who they say have been shooting at Libyans.

It's not clear — if indeed there are African hired guns — where they come from, whether they're part of an elite unit that dates back decades or new recruits. Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan and even Guinea have been mentioned as likely places of origin.

It appears they could be among the remnants of Africans recruited for Gadhafi's erstwhile "pan-Arabic army," an ideological Islamic legion dating back to the '80s, says Malian political analyst and journalist, Adam Thiam. He adds they may be those who stayed and never went home after it was disbanded.

Thiam says Mali has been worried, for the past 20 years or so, about the threat those fighters could pose because they have remained under arms. Now there's even immediate concern because of the possibility that Gadhafi might be driven from power, despite his vow to defend his 40-year rule to the death.

What would become of these presumed African fighters, even if they have become Libyan citizens? The fear is that they might head back home and make trouble.

Gadhafi has an odd relationship with the rest of the continent south of the Sahara. He's been known to play one African leader off against another, from his neighbors to more distant "brother leaders," even waging war across Libya's border with nearby countries.

African rebels have been trained in Libya and Gadhafi involved himself in the continent's civil wars — notably those in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Erstwhile West African rebel and ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague for allegedly masterminding the rebellion across Liberia's border in Sierra Leone, is said to have received military training in Libya.

After Gadhafi as good as dropped the Arab world and transformed himself into the champion of Africa, he dominated the final years of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Gadhafi then thrust himself into a leading role in the creation of its successor, the African Union (AU) and Libya is one of the continental organization's chief funders.

He adopted sub-Saharan African clothing and hats and surrounded himself with gloriously-dressed West African traditional leaders, proclaiming himself the King of Kings.

Gadhafi's critics in Africa carp that once the Arabs got fed up with his antics, they happily saw him integrate Libya more firmly in Africa, because Gadhafi was no longer their problem.

But his detractors accuse the "Brother Leader" of trying to dictate to the continent, including claiming to be the architect of a plan to establish the United States of Africa, a dream dating back to the independence era of the 1950s and '60s.

The African Union has been deafeningly silent about the uprising in Libya. Could it be because Gadhafi has useful intelligence on his fellow leaders from the continent?

Botswana, to date, has spoken up loudly, announcing that it has severed diplomatic ties with Libya because of the use of deadly force against unarmed protestors.

Nigeria has also just announced that it deplores the disproportionate use of force against Libya's citizens.

(NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is based in Dakar, Senegal.) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.