By Sudarsan Raghavan
Niamey, Niger — A couple of months ago, Saadi al-Gaddafi and his entourage partied at a swank restaurant in this steamy West African capital. When the DJ played a Tuareg song glorifying his late father, Moammar, Saadi and his companions jumped out of their chairs and clapped their hands to the rhythm.
“Then they all started dancing,” recalled Jean-Yves Rico, the restaurant’s owner.
In one of the unfinished businesses of the Arab Spring, Libya is seeking the extradition of Gaddafi, who fled here in September after rebels seized Tripoli, to face trial for alleged war crimes. The soccer-playing, flamboyant third son of the late Libyan leader, Saadi was the commander of Libya’s Special Forces during the civil war; Interpol has issued a “red notice” requesting member countries to arrest Saadi if they found him on their soil, to pave the way for extradition.
In interviews, Niger and American officials said that the 39-year-old Gaddafi is under house arrest in a state guesthouse. But that “guesthouse” is a luxurious, high-walled mansion in one of Niamey’s most affluent neighborhoods, near the American and French embassies. Since Gaddafi arrived, he has led a normal life, eating at restaurants and dancing at nightclubs early into the morning, according to restaurant and nightclub owners and local journalists.
Over the past three months, though, Niger’s government has ordered him to keep a low profile and stay inside his mansion, following comments he made to al-Arabiya television that he was in contact with Gaddafi loyalists and wanted to retake power in Libya.
At the same time, Niger’s government has refused to extradite him, saying that Gaddafi would never receive a fair trial, raising tensions with Libya’s new rulers. “We won’t accept this demand,” said Morou Amadou , Niger’s justice minister. “We won’t extradite someone where he is certain to face the death penalty.”
Unlike his elder brother Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Saadi is not wanted by the International Criminal Court at the Hague. In addition to the Interpol warrant, he is the subject of U.N. sanctions for commanding military units that targeted demonstrations during Libya’s revolution. He’s been barred from traveling to other countries.
Saif Gaddafi, who was caught in southern Libya, is being held by Libyan authorities to face trial inside Libya.
Niger owes a lot to Moammar Gaddafi, and he remains deeply popular here. As he did with other African nations, Gaddafi directed tens of millions of dollars in investments and aid toward Niger. He built mosques, including Niamey’s main one, and roads, as well as the building where Niger’s national assembly meets.
Gaddafi also allowed more than one hundred thousand Nigeriens to work in Libya; their remittances were vital for several million back in Niger, one of the least developed nations in the world.
When the rebels overran Tripoli, Niger was a key destination for Gaddafi loyalists. In September, a large convoy of Libyan military vehicles, carrying military and government officials, as well as reputedly gold bullion, crossed from Libya’s southern desert into Niger. The Nigerien government has acknowledged that they received 32 Gaddafi loyalists, including relatives and military generals, on “humanitarian grounds.”
The most prominent was Saadi Gaddafi. According to a 2009 U.S. State Department cable, released by Wikileaks, Saadi had a “troubled past” that included “public scuffles with authorities in Europe,” drug and alcohol abuse, “excessive partying” and “profligate affairs with men and women.” He played for Italian soccer teams, but was later barred for failing a drug test.
In November, the Nigerien government granted him asylum.
In December, though, Mexican authorities said they had foiled a plot by criminals to smuggle Gaddafi into the country. And in February, he told al-Arabiya that his return to Libya was imminent, and claimed “70 percent of Libyans are unhappy with the current circumstances.”
“There is an uprising that will happen everywhere in the country,” Gaddafi told the network. “This will be a new popular uprising.”
That prompted Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council to demand that Niger extradite Gaddafi and other ex-regime officials to “preserve its relationship and interests” in Libya.
There are signs that Niger’s government is tired of Gaddafi. It needs to maintain good relations with Libya, not least because so many Nigeriens depend on remittances sent home by their relatives who work in Libya. After fleeing the civil war, a growing number of Nigeriens are returning to Libya to seek work.
Amadou, the justice minister, said that the ministry was in discussions with its Libyan counterpart, and that Niger would readily hand over Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court if he were indicted. “Even his lawyer wants him to leave Niger, even we want him to leave,” said Amadou. “We don’t want to have problems with Libya.”
At Rico’s restaurant, everyone wants Gaddafi and his entourage of Libyan exiles to return. “He used to come on Fridays and Saturdays, even weekdays, and stay sometimes till three a.m.,” said Rico. “He and his friends drank lots of vodka — and Heinekens.”
Rico asked that his restaurant’s name not be identified because he feared Nigerien authorities would be upset at him.
Gaddafi, he said, would come with five or six Libyans, including a military general, adding that they were “very polite.” But they have stopped coming to the restaurant. “It’s been more than a month since I have seen him,” said Rico. “Now, he is really under house arrest, I guess.”
Source: The Washington Post