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The many people trying to flee Libya include thousands of foreigners from other nations in Africa. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has pursued close links with the rest of the continent over the years, but it's been a checkered relationship. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton explores the ties between Gadhafi and Africa.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Moammar Gadhafi's pursuit of a United States of Africa, with himself as the continent's self-styled King of Kings, is one of the mercurial colonel's more recent projects. Syracuse University law professor, David Crane, says close Libya-Africa relations date back to the 1980s.

Professor DAVID CRANE (Law, Syracuse University): Shortly after the operation Eldorado Canyon, where the Americans bombed Moammar Gadhafi's headquarters, he backed away from the Arab League and declared that he wanted to be the Emperor of Africa. He invited various individuals who were willing to be his surrogates, and he trained them in various terrorist camps throughout Libya and then sent them south to West Africa to do his bidding.

QUIST-ARCTON: Crane was the founding prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where Liberia's ex-president, Charles Taylor, is currently on trial. Taylor faces war crimes charges for fueling and financing the brutal rebellion in neighboring Sierra Leone. Crane says West Africa felt the malign hand of Gadhafi, courtesy of amenable regional rogues, like Taylor.

Prof. CRANE: Moammar Gadhafi's plan was a geopolitical one. He intended to take over West Africa, placing each of these surrogates in various countries.

QUIST-ARCTON: But political analyst Issaka Souare from South Africa's Institute of Security Studies says Gadhafi's legacy in Africa is mixed, that he blows hot and cold in his dealings with the continent.

Mr. ISSAKA SOUARE (Institute of Security Studies): You could describe him both as an arsonist and a firefighter. He actually contributed to the destabilization of many African countries: Chad, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone. But he also came to play a role in brokering peace between the warring factions in some of the same countries that he was destabilizing.

QUIST-ARCTON: Gadhafi has dominated and helped fund the African Union since its creation in 2002. He's well known in Africa for his fiery anti-Western speeches and crisscrossing the continent, pitching his bespoke, Bedouin tent.

Analysts say Gadhafi showers Libya's oil largesse on his brother leaders. To date, few African heads of state have spoken out publicly against him. The African Union deplored what it called the disproportionate use of force. Botswana went further and cut diplomatic ties. Foreign minister, Phandu Skelemani.

Foreign Minister PHANDU SKELEMANI (Botswana): Ordinary protestors were being shot at. And he's breathing fire on his own people. Yeah, you don't expect a leader to come out and say I'm going to kill the lot of you, saying people are cockroaches and rats which must be eliminated and killed.

QUIST-ARCTON: The unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has not sparked similar revolts in sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda's opposition called for a popular uprising to keep President Yoweri Museveni from extending his 25-year rule. Museveni dismissed the call and said he had a solution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President YOWERI MUSEVENI (Uganda): Very simple. We just to lock them up. Simple. In as a humane a manner as possible, bundle them into jails, and that will be the end of the story.

QUIST-ARCTON: Human rights lawyer Irene Petros says Zimbabwe's veteran President Robert Mugabe is watching closely. Zimbabwe denies sending weapons or troops to help prop up Gadhafi in Libya. But Petros says the people charged with treason for watching TV footage of the Egyptian revolution serve as an example for others.

Ms. IRENE PETROS (Attorney): If you even attempt to try and talk about something like this, then we'll come and get you. The government has become so paranoid about the possibility of mass protests because of what is happening in other parts of the continent.

(Soundbite of yelling)

QUIST-ARCTON: But the soundtrack of the regional uprisings continues to reverberate around the continent.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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