NAIROBI, Kenya — The fall of Moammar Gadhafi, lauded as an anti-colonial visionary and lampooned as a buffoon, creates not just a political vacuum in Libya, the country he ruled for 42 years, but leaves behind in Africa a gaping hole once filled by the self-crowned King of King's bulging purse and oversized persona.
The eccentric Libyan dictator, whose whereabouts were unknown after Western-backed rebels had captured most of Tripoli, used his North African nation's oil wealth to leverage influence across the continent.
He largely bankrolled the African Union, the continent's regional organization, and often was the only leader willing to embrace a continental role. Whether others will now step to the fore is an open question, analysts of the region's politics said.
"For better or ill, Gadhafi did provide some of that leadership," said Thomas Cargill, assistant head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a global policy think tank in London.
The post-colonial Africa in which Gadhafi seized power was defined by its unimaginable poverty and endless conflicts, and at that time a little oil money went a long way. Gadhafi promoted a United States of Africa — with him at its head, of course. He lavished funds on friendly governments. He endeared himself to some Africans for his anti-Western rhetoric.
But he enraged other leaders with his impulsive behavior, about-faces and eagerness to meddle in other's affairs, often violently. His pan-Africanism only arose after he grew disillusioned with the Arab world. If given enough years, he often backed both sides of a conflict at different times before the conflict ran its course.
And his colorful presence on the international scene became an awkward headache for a continent seeking to change its global image. His longwinded rants before the United Nations General Assembly became an annual sideshow, as did the massive Bedouin tent he set up wherever he went, accompanied by his entourage of female bodyguards.
"I think there are very few leaders or governments who feel a genuine sense of warmth towards Gadhafi," Cargill said.
Some argue that Africa, with an economy that is expected to continue growing at 5 percent a year, was already leaving Gadhafi behind, however. Other nations, notably South Africa and Nigeria, have become regional powerhouses.
Africa's division over Gadhafi was evident in the way it reacted to his harsh crackdown on internal dissent that led to the U.N. resolution that authorized the Western intervention that paved the way for the rebel victory.
The three African members of the U.N. Security Council — South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon — voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the imposition of a no-fly zone, but South Africa and the African Union condemned the aggressive NATO operations almost immediately.
The AU's own proposal to resolve the conflict — a roadmap that called for a political transition negotiated between Gadhafi and the rebel forces — never gained any steam, as the rest of the world paid it little attention and the rebel National Transitional Council rejected it.
The rebels' perception that the AU was never on its side could lead to financial trouble down the road for the African body.
Libya and four other nations — Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria and South Africa — each pay for 15 percent of the AU's total budget. That 15 percent does not include other Gadhafi support, such as picking up the bill for events, facilities or other nations' dues.
"Relations between the AU and the rebel-controlled Libya are not likely to be good in the short term," said Isakka Souare, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
Souare, however, sees Gadhafi's fall as a possible point for the AU to redefine itself and for other African nations to pick up the slack.
"The fall of Gadhafi could provide an opportunity that really African leaders take seriously the funding of the AU," he said.
The AU's failure to broker a deal on Libya might also spur leaders to work harder to become serious international players.
"This was one of the AU's first brushes with hardcore international politics," Cargill said. "There's a feeling of having been sidelined and ignored."
"That might in a funny way be a positive catalyst for a bit of a more hardheaded think about what the AU wants to be," he said.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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