If there was ever a mad scientist in African politics, Libya’s extremely eccentric, and now embattled leader Col Muammar Gaddafi is he.
Now the 70-year-old dictator is in trouble, as his country has risen in rebellion against him after enduring him for 41 years.
Where he was once eccentric, he seems to have slipped into insanity.
His rants on Libyan state TV are unnerving. And his response to the protests, which are inspired by the ones that ousted strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt recently, is one for the record books.
Gaddafi is probably the first dictator on the continent to order his air force jets and navy ships to attack protestors in the street.
His faced distorted by botox, raving like a deranged man, Gaddafi has been a scary sight to watch on TV. Unless he flees, Libya looks set for a bloody climax.
The difference between Gaddafi, also known as “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” and other dictators, is that there is a method to his madness. No other African strongman has his large appetite for imperial adventure, and the kind of oil-money-heavy pockets he has to pay for it. After Gaddafi eventually flees, or is captured and hanged, and that cannot be too long in the future, his absence will be deeply felt in Africa.
There are the obvious reasons. Gaddafi’s Libya supplied 15 per cent of the African Union’s entire budget and pays the annual subscription fee of small, poor African states.
In the past decade, he has donated billions of dollars in aid and gifts to African causes and countries, and he established a $1.5 billion African fund.
Gaddafi can be catholic in his support, backing all sides to conflicts; he was in the DR Congo, supported rebels in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and of course Chad.
It is with his more quixotic pursuits that Gaddafi may well make most of his mark.
His relationship with the Toro kingdom in western Uganda, for example, still puzzles many.
In October last year, the Media Council, the body that oversees the Ugandan media industry, fined the saucy tabloid Red Pepper the equivalent of $50,000 for stories remarking on the relationship between Gaddafi and the comely Queen Mother of Toro, Best Kemigisa – full of private jets, and all manner of expensive gifts.
An enraged Libyan mission in Kampala had filed a suit seeking damages of a whopping $1 billion from Red Pepper.
There was in fact something strangely touching about Gaddafi’s friendship with Queen Best.
First, she is a widow, and has no significant source of income since kingdoms in Uganda are just cultural institutions that don’t collect taxes.
However, Gaddafi gave the royal children some of the best education money can buy.
Secondly, though Gaddafi sometimes seem to throw money into just about any outstretched African hand, perhaps no leader has contributed more to holding down the growth of fundamentalist political Islam on the continent.
Countries like Saudi Arabia mostly support hardline and purist Muslim institutions and Islamic groups.
The moderate Muslim groups and secular projects in Africa mostly get their money from Gaddafi.
This has prevented the hegemony of the Wahabist groups, and enabled diversity within the Muslim space in Africa.
In one dramatic example, after over 30 years, and promises of support from nearly every Middle East country, the magnificent Old Kampala Mosque was finally completed in 2007 with Gaddafi’s millions. It also has auxiliary commercial properties.
He continued to give money for its upkeep. The rich pickings from controlling the commercial properties of the mosque, and the political clout that comes from being in charge of places like Old Kampala Mosque, has shifted the conflict among the Muslim groups from a theological one, to a commercial one.
Ugandan Muslim leaders spend so much time fighting for the control of religious property, they have no time to preach tough religion.
That is one reason why it took expatriate jihadists to set off terrorist bombs in Kampala. This scene is repeated all over Africa, all thanks to Gaddafi.
One of the biggest uncertainties is what will happen in the wider East Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia will probably do well out of Gaddafi’s departure. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently accused Egypt of backing rebels who are fighting Addis Ababa. Then Mubarak fell in the protests.
Gaddafi was also viewed with suspicion by Addis Ababa. His exit will, particularly, affect Libya’s ability to prop up President Isaias Afewerki’s regime in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s mortal enemy with whom it has fought two bitter wars.
Gaddafi’s — and Mubarak’s — under-the-table support for Aferweki in turn enabled Eritrea to support spoiler militias in Somalia, as a foil to Ethiopia.
Chad will also be affected. For as long as Gaddafi was in charge, Idriss Deby could rely on Tripoli’s secret support to enable it to back anti-Sudan rebels, especially those in Darfur.
Gaddafi also played a pivotal role in the pact between Chad and Sudan last year.
Gaddafi’s absence will shift the balance of power in favour of Khartoum. It seems that, in the short-term it might be sensible for the Darfur rebels to sue for peace.
Gaddafi’s foreign adventures, clearly, were partly driven by how long he had stayed in office, and his desperate search for purpose and relevance after all those decades in power.
If you rule for 41 years, you need to go out with a bang.
The Gaddafi tragedy is that he is going out with a different bang than the one he hoped for – to the bullets and war cries of a country that finally rebelled against his excesses.