OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — In recent days, the elusive Muammar Gaddafi has been variously placed in his hometown of Sirte, the loyalist oasis of Bani Walid, Libya’s southern desert wastes, and even across the border in Niger.
Late on Tuesday a convoy led by Gaddafi’s security chief arrived in Niger, raising speculation that Gaddafi may attempt to follow, fleeing south across the Sahara Desert.
Gaddafi has denied these “lies,” insisting he's still in Libya, and Niger’s government has also said Gaddafi was not in the convoy that crossed the border.
So, where is he?
Not, it seems, in Burkina Faso.
Though a warm welcome awaits him should he ever show up.
It was suggested Gaddafi may show up in Burkina Faso, where he might be given temporary asylum. But on Wednesday, President Blaise Compaore backtracked on the offer.
“Gaddafi is not here and we have no interest in hosting him,” Compaore told state media.
Campaore may be washing his hands of his old friend and ally, but on the streets of Ouagadougou, Gaddafi is still a hugely popular figure amongst ordinary folk who are grateful for the support — and money — that Libya has poured into the impoverished, landlocked country.
“Gaddafi is a good man,” said Yunus Dakisaga, a 28-year-old moped mechanic whose outdoor workshop sits on the grand Gaddafi Boulevard. “What is happening to him is very bad. Why does the West attack him? I like him, he has done a lot for Burkina Faso.”
Dakisaga’s sentiments are widespread, perhaps most clearly articulated by Eric Zabsonre, president of the Movement for the Support of Gaddafi, a pressure group that writes op-eds and organizes demonstrations in Ouagadougou.
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“There are a lot of Gaddafi supporters in Africa. He is not alone,” said Zabsonre. He objected to descriptions of Gaddafi as a dictator, saying he was more like “a good father," after his people, providing for them.
“Here we struggle, but Libya is like paradise,” said Zabsonre. He has never visited the country.
“My heart races when you ask what Gaddafi has done for Burkina Faso, it is so much,” he said, before listing Libya’s investments in mosques, schools, health clinics, infrastructure, a hotel, and banks.
The most high-profile Libyan investment here is the Libya Hotel, the city’s smartest, which towers over the surrounding Ouaga-2000 suburb, which was also financed by Gaddafi.
Through the African arm of Libya’s sovereign-wealth fund Gaddafi, also has large shares in the Commercial Bank of Burkina and the Sahel-Sahara Investment Bank, has built a women’s medical clinic with the name of his and President Blaise Compaore’s wife above the entrance.
“They have all been financed by Gaddafi as gifts, not credit, gifts!” he cried.
Gaddafi’s Africa investments have bought him friends and influence on the continent at the African Union and individual countries.
Now Libya's National Transition Council fears that Gaddafi might cash in favors and escape across the desert. The council has demanded that neighboring countries not harbor the deposed strongman.
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“We have sent a delegation … to Niger to talk about securing our borders to stop any kind of infiltration of Gaddafi troops to Niger, to stop any attempt by Gaddafi or his family to escape to Niger,” said Fathi Baja, head of the National Transition Council’s political affairs committee.
This is easier said than done. Niger and Libya share a porous and largely unpatrolled 220-mile-long desert border.
“We have no means to close the border, it’s too big,” said Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s foreign minister.
NATO, the United States and France say they have no information about whether Gaddafi had left Libya or not.
But with an International Criminal Court indictment hanging over him, and Libya’s rebels strengthening their grip on the country, wherever Gaddafi is, his days as a free man appear to be numbered.