BAMAKO, MALI — Moammar Gadhafi’s Libyan regime poured tens of billions of dollars into some of Africa’s poorest countries. Even when he came to visit, the eccentric Libyan leader won admiration for handing out money to beggars on the streets.
“Other heads of state just drive past here in their limousines. Gadhafi stopped, pushed away his bodyguards and shook our hands,” said Cherno Diallo, standing Monday beside hundreds of caged birds he sells near a Libyan-funded hotel.
“Gadhafi’s death has touched every Malian, every single one of us. We’re all upset.”
Critics, though, note this image is at odds with Gadhafi’s history of backing some of Africa’s most brutal rebel leaders and dictators. Gadhafi sent 600 troops to support Uganda’s much-hated Idi Amin in the final throes of his dictatorship.
“Is Gadhafi’s life more important than many thousands of people that have been killed during the war in these two countries?” said one shopkeeper in the tiny West African country of Gambia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing recrimination.
Some analysts estimate that the Gadhafi regime invested more than $150 billion in foreign countries, most of it into impoverished African nations.
“Gadhafi was a true revolutionary, who focused on improving the lives of the underdeveloped countries,” said Sheik Muthal Bin-Muslim, from the Gadhafi mosque in Sierra Leone’s capital that was built with Libyan funds.
Muslim worshippers were planning an all-night vigil in honor of the slain Libyan leader.
In Bamako, the capital of the desert nation of Mali, one huge Libyan-funded mosque was built right next door to the U.S. Embassy.
And in Uganda, Gadhafi built a mosque that can host more than 30,000 people. Libyan-funded companies - everything from mobile-phone companies to cookie factories - are valued at $375 million and employ more than 3,000 people in the small East African country.
Ugandan schoolchildren and Muslim supporters lined the roads, waving Libyan flags, whenever Gadhafi visited.
“Gadhafi was a godfather to many Ugandans,” said Muhammed Kazibala, a head teacher at a Libyan-funded school in the country’s capital, Kampala.
The Libyan leader also built a palace for one of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms. It was a fitting donation for a man who traveled to African Union summits dressed in a gold-embroidered green robe, flanked by seven men who said they were the “traditional kings of Africa.”
Gadhafi used Libya’s oil wealth to help create the AU in 2002 and served as its rotating chairman.
During the revolt against Gadhafi, the AU condemned NATO airstrikes even as evidence mounted that his military was massacring civilians.
Gadhafi’s influence even extended to Africa’s largest economy: The Libyan leader supported the African National Congress (ANC) when it was fighting racist white rule and remained close to Nelson Mandela after the anti-apartheid icon became South Africa’s first black president.
Current President Jacob Zuma also was one of the most outspoken critics of the NATO airstrikes in Libya, and he told reporters he thought Gadhafi should have been captured and tried, not executed.
The ANC Youth League described Gadhafi as an “anti-imperialist martyr” and a “brave soldier and fighter against the recolonization of the African continent.”
For many of Gadhafi’s supporters, the military operation to oust him was another example of the Western interference and neocolonialism that he railed against.
F. Mbossa, 52, a schoolteacher in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, said she was shocked by the “arrogance of the West” in carrying out the NATO airstrikes.
“It’s clear that France and the others never truly wanted an independent Africa, and that is why they never hesitated to kill all those who advocate for a strong and unified Africa,” Ms. Mbossa said with tears in her eyes. “But for Africa, Gadhafi remains a martyr.”
In Central African Republic, Gadhafi sent troops to support a government confronting coup attempts and an insurgency in 2001. But he also fomented instability.
He funded rebel movements that committed some of the worst human rights abuses on the continent, including the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone.
Historian Stephen Ellis called Gadhafi’s World Revolutionary Headquarters, just outside Benghazi, “the Harvard and Yale of a whole generation of African revolutionaries.”
While Gadhafi won praise from some for not fleeing Libya, others chastised him for failing to see how it all would end.
In Zimbabwe, businessman Daniel Musumba said Gadhafi had been trapped by his own ego.
“For a man who was telling his people they were rats and cockroaches to end up in a drain. Who is the rat now?” he said. “But the rat needed to be captured alive.”