When Libya’s dictator for more than four decades fell victim to the Arab Spring, Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s influence didn’t end. It is now contributing to increased attacks by rebel groups, the arming of terrorists and a hunger crisis in other parts of Africa.
“This is a setback for the international community which has invested so much money in the past decade in democracy, peace, and security in Africa,” said Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru at the Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria, South Africa.
After Gadhafi’s fall, thousands of his soldiers left the country with stockpiles of weapons, including machine guns, ammunition, and shoulder-fired missiles. Maru says at least 2,000 of them were mercenaries who returned to their native countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Nigeria. . Many have already returned to fighting.
In the West African country of Mali, when ethnic Taureg fighters returned from Libya well armed, it encouraged Taureg separatists to launch a new rebellion against the government in January. While Gadhafi’s weapons were no match for the NATO forces that came to the rescue of Libyan revolutionaries, they were far superior to the weapons of the impoverished Malian army. A mutiny by Mali’s out-gunned and frustrated soldiers turned into a coup d’etat when they stormed the Presidential Palace in March, erasing more than two decades of democratic rule.
In the chaos that has ensued after the coup, Taureg separatists in Mali have had more success than ever before. On Sunday they seized the last government holdout in the north, the legendary town of Timbuktu. There is now concern a Taureg victory in Mali could inspire another rebellion in neighboring Niger.
“The Tauregs in Niger got funding from Gadhafi. The government of Niger has been able to negotiate with them for peace, but for how long? That is questionable,” said Maru.
Gadhafi’s fighters and weapons also streamed into other nearby countries in the Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert. It is an area where a major Al-Qaeda affiliate has announced it acquired thousands of Gadhafi’s weapons.
“We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world,” Mokhtar Belmokhar, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) told Mauritanian news agency ANI last November.
The proliferation of weapons in the Sahel comes at an especially bad time. After another year of drought in parts of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, aid agencies say millions of people need urgent food assistance, but violence in the region makes it hard– in some places impossible– to help.
“Under these security conditions, we are not able to access the displaced who are living in extremely difficult conditions,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Fatouma Lejeune-Kabu about trying to help those forced to flee their homes in northern Mali.
The U.N. estimates about 130,000 people in Mali have been displaced by the fighting between Taureg rebels and the government army.
Maru believes Gadhafi’s weapons will spread farther in Africa. Gadhafi supported insurgencies in several African countries including Chad and Sudan. He also voiced support for Islamic separatists in northern Nigeria, and some analysts suspect he had been supporting Boko Haram Islamic militants.
“Those arms can circulate and come into the hands of anyone who can pay for them,” Maru said.
The impact of Gadhafi’s trained mercenaries and arsenal of weapons will likely be felt on the continent for years.
“Until such time as the root causes of rebel uprisings are addressed, such as marginalization by governments and socio-economic struggle, the demand for arms and rebel movements will continue,” said Maru.