LILONGWE, Malawi – Throwing fistfuls of cash from his open-top limousine to puzzled villagers lining the route, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his flamboyant roadshow rumbled into drought-stricken Malawi Wednesday. It was the Libyan leader's latest stop on his charm offensive across southern Africa.
Police were brushed aside by Colonel Gaddafi's fearsome female bodyguards in their figure-hugging green uniforms as he made his triumphal appearance at the head of a cavalcade of 70 armored vehicles.
There was little danger of him running out of money to hurl at bystanders on his 218-mile drive from Lilongwe, the government capital, to the commercial center at Blantyre, because one of the cars in his entourage was reported to be stuffed with $6 million in cash.
His hosts knew better than to question why Colonel Gaddafi also needed to bring his own mobile hospital, 600 security personnel and a vehicle carrying a jamming device, which played havoc with Malawi's telephone system.
He paused long enough to admire troupes of dancing girls and allowed himself to be photographed alongside strategically placed placards proclaiming him "The Champion of African Unity."
For all his typical showmanship, the Libyan leader was in Malawi to use his oil wealth to enlist the country's support for his vision for the newly created African Union, which was launched in Durban last week.
Colonel Gaddafi never travels light. He showed up at the start of his African adventure with two Boeing 707s, his own personal jet and two transport aircraft, including a giant Russian Antonov, as well as a ship full of goat carcasses.
He insisted on making his own security arrangements, although some of his hosts balked when they discovered that this meant two 46-seat buses containing crateloads of submachine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers.
It is his plan to make the long drive home, stopping off along the way to preach his vision for the African Union, which he wants to mold into a powerful organization that will take on the United States and the West, with himself as its leader.
It helps that everywhere he stops he doles out millions of dollars in aid to cash-strapped governments and promises further, lucrative help if he is assured of that country's support.
Malawi's leaders were astonished by their guest's request to make the five-hour drive between their two main cities, as President Bakili Muluzi has hardly ever made the back-breaking, bone-jarring journey since he took power in 1994.
A 21-gun salute greeted Colonel Gaddafi at the sports stadium in Blantyre, which was packed with thousands of cheering onlookers who craned their necks to get a glimpse of him, smothered as he was by his security team.
When he turned up with all his firepower in the tiny mountain kingdom of Swaziland at the weekend, bystanders thought they had been invaded and ran for cover.
Colonel Gaddafi beamed with evident satisfaction when Swaziland's young ruler, King Mswati III, made him a Grand Counsellor of the Order of Sobhuza II, which is the country's highest honor.
From Malawi he was off to Mozambique and a banquet with President Joaquim Chissano, during which Colonel Gaddafi said ominously: "No one will teach us democracy. We have our tradition, and we have our own democracy."
Earlier he had hinted that Libya would forgive the interest on the $140 million debt that Mozambique has owed the Libya since the 1980s.
The Libyan leader is also busily buying his way into Africa's oil industry. Already he has a controlling stake in Zimbabwe's state-owned National Oil Company, as well as the country's refineries.
Colonel Gaddafi covets control of the oil pipeline that runs from the Mozambique port of Beira to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. He is battling against Kuwait for a sizeable part of Mozambique's state-owned oil company, Petromoc, as well as storage terminals at Beira.
Western diplomatic sources say that Libya is acquiring land and assets in other parts of southern Africa, including Malawi, although the precise details remain sketchy.
He has paid part or all of the membership dues of at least ten African states, enabling them to vote in the new AU.
The Libyan leader said that he was travelling through the region "to see for myself the real condition of the people."
After completing his tour of Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, he promises to draw up detailed plans to assist the region economically.