Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Officials in this mostly desert nation bordering Libya are warily watching and bracing for what they call the disaster scenario that has not yet happened: a huge influx of defeated soldiers loyal to the fallen Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
So far, they have had to contend with only a thin trickle of loyalists making their way across hundreds of miles of desert to the bare-bones towns in northern Niger, including one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, a handful of his generals and his security chief.
But officials here in one of the world’s most impoverished nations — the third from the bottom on the 2010 United Nations Human Development Index ranking of 169 countries — emphasized that the diplomatic awkwardness of allowing the former government’s dignitaries here was nothing compared with the influx they feared with somewhat more urgency each day the Libyan conflict was drawn out.
“If there is a negotiated solution, we won’t get the worst case,” said Massaoudou Hassoumi, the chief of staff to Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou. “Unfortunately, it looks like that won’t happen. So, it looks like there will be armed men. If they don’t hand over their weapons, we will disarm them.”
“What’s happened so far is very minimal,” Mr. Hassoumi added.
Colonel Qaddafi’s son Saadi — one of the less politicized of his progeny — is believed to have arrived in Niger on Sunday night. The three generals have been in a hotel in the central desert town of Agadez, the first major agglomeration after the frontier. Colonel Qaddafi’s security chief, Mansour Dhao, is in the capital, Niamey, and is “under surveillance,” Mr. Hassoumi said.
“When he goes out, we are watching him,” he said. “If there is a demand for their arrest, of course we will turn them over.”
Officials here are at pains to emphasize that they are not playing host to the uninvited fugitives out of any attachment to the fallen leader’s government. Rather, there are no international warrants for their arrest, they say, so there is no choice but to give them sanctuary on humanitarian grounds. Several officials said they had no intention of meeting with the fugitives.
“All they are doing, they are saving themselves, and that’s the frame of mind they are in,” said Marou Amadou, the justice minister.
Some officials here complained that Colonel Qaddafi had done little for Niger. The grandiose building projects and streets named for him in neighboring countries are largely absent, apart from a principal mosque in the capital. Farther to the west, the tiny and destitute coastal nation of Guinea-Bissau said over the weekend that it would welcome the former leader and guarantee his safety, according to news reports, one of the few places so far to overtly bid for his presence.
Mr. Issoufou, a mining engineer who became president this year, was recently welcomed at the White House as one of four West African leaders symbolizing so-far-successful transitions to democracy. A number of his top appointees, including Mr. Amadou, were persecuted by preceding authoritarian governments here.
Mr. Hassoumi, the president’s chief of staff, was critical of the new Libyan leadership for not policing its country’s borders more carefully. He pleaded with Western nations for more surveillance help and emphasized that Niger’s recognition of the new government in Tripoli was “pragmatic,” based on what he described as common interests. But he suggested that the new leadership in Tripoli was not upholding its end.
“Why are they letting them flee?” he asked “They shouldn’t come here. It’s their responsibility. We said, ‘Guard your frontiers, and we’ll guard ours.’ They haven’t done it.”
Mr. Hassoumi complained that his country — plagued by Al Qaeda’s North African branch in its vast northern deserts, and now worried about the influx of Qaddafi loyalists — was being left to shoulder too large a security burden.
“We are alone in assuming the whole world’s security situation,” Mr. Hassoumi said. “Why? We need support.”