REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- He was embraced by former South African President Nelson Mandela as his “brother leader" in 1997, had himself proclaimed the "king of kings" in Africa in 2008 and was voted in as head of the African Union in 2009.
Libya's Moammar Kadafi maintained his influence across the continent through a strong patronage network, scattering his petrodollars to African friends.
African leaders were happy to accept Kadafi’s largess when he funded liberation movements and governments, and offered a polite display of loyalty in return -- even as the Libyan leader faced a liberation struggle from many of his own people, whom he called "rats."
(They were less enthusiastic when he had himself proclaimed Africa’s king of kings, assembling 200 tribal chiefs and traditional leaders in Benghazi who duly voted him No. 1. Nor did African Union leaders embrace his grand vision of a United States of Africa, with one gigantic army and himself as leader and commander in chief. When he tried to cling on as AU leader in January 2010, he was forced to face a vote and a new leader was elected.)
South Africa’s African National Congress remained grateful to Kadafi for his support of the movement during its liberation struggle, and in 2009 South Africa sold weapons to Libya for about $10 million, despite a law banning sales to governments that systematically abuse human rights.
When Kadafi violently suppressed anti-regime protests in February, sparking international outrage, African leaders were conspicuously silent.
South African President Jacob Zuma twice traveled to Tripoli this year to try to broker a negotiated compromise between rebel forces and Kadafi. The African Union proposal was rejected by the insurgents, who demanded Kadafi’s unconditional departure.
After initially backing the U.N. Security Council resolution allowing NATO to use force to protect Libya’s civilians, Zuma later accused the alliance of overstepping its mandate. The South African government said NATO was bombing to force regime change.
In August, Zuma declared the African Union would not recognize the Transitional National Council that took over after Kadafi fled Libya's capital, at least not until there was peace in the North African country. But as fighting dragged on, the AU and South Africa did finally recognize the council a month ago.
Though Kadafi apparently imagined himself much loved in Africa, it turned out he was not much mourned. The headline about his death in Nigeria's Guardian newspaper ran: "Quit notice ... to bad leaders!"
The response of Zuma's government was understated when the end came Thursday. It issued a statement merely noting Kadafi's death and calling for peace, unity and reconciliation.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi , right, stands with former South African President Nelson Mandela at the launch of the African Union in Durban, South Africa, in this July 9, 2002, file photo. Obed Zilwa / Associated Press