Libyan army vehicles loyal to Moammar Gadhafi are reportedly crossing the desert borders southward into the West African nation of Niger. Speculation is rising that Gadhafi, realizing he has completely lost his hold over Libya after more than four decades, is desperate to find refuge in a friendly African state.

But what's Niger?

This vast landlocked country just north of Nigeria and east of Mali, is one of the world's poorest nations. More than four-fifths of Niger's territory is desert, forcing most of its about 15 million people to reside in the fertile far south and western corners of the nation.

Most of the people – who generally belong to the Hausa tribe, Tuareg or the Zarma-Songhai – are subsistence farmers with little access to education.

Nigeriens are plagued by various ills that keep them in poverty: periodic droughts, substandard schools, poor health care, and lack of infrastructure.

Despite a high infant mortality rate, Niger has one of the world’s highest fertility rates, which has led to half the population being under the age of 15.

Gadhafi has long intervened in the affairs of the Sahara nations, including Niger. He has sent money and arms to various groups engaged in uprisings, and he has reportedly recruited thousands of Nigeriens to fight as mercenaries in his private army in Libya.

As the former head of the African Union, Gadhafi allegedly viewed himself as “King of the Africans” and dreamed of a “Unites States of Africa.”

During the recent civil war in Libya, West African soldiers (as well as ordinary migrant workers) have tried to flee -- those who couldn't leave suffered horrific abuse and even death at the hands of Libyan rebels. Many of these Africans crossed into Niger, directly south of Libya’s border.

It is in Niger’s rugged northern terrain where the fabled Tuareg tribe dominates -- these are the hardy warriors whom Gadhafi has long hired as his soldiers and bodyguards. However, how many of them have crossed northward to Libya during the civil war to help fight the rebels is unclear.

A Nigerien Tuareg told France’s Le Monde publication: “There are hundreds of [us]. [We] leave in caravans. The ride is long but easy. We avoid Nigerien army checkpoints, and once in Libya, we’re at home. We’ve always been welcome there.”

Issuf Maha, a former official of the Nigerien Patriotic Front rebel group, told the French journal: “Unemployment, idleness, destitution and political frustration, added to the feeling that they are in debt to Gadhafi. All the ingredients are there to make the Tuaregs fight by his side. Gadhafi doesn’t need equipment or money, he needs men.”

Gadhafi has also recruited Tuareg fighters from the southern part of his own country Libya, as well as from Mali.

In a sidebar analysis, the BBC said “There is some support for Col Gadhafi in Niger: local groups have tried to organize pro-Gadhafi demonstrations, although turnout was fairly small. However, Niger's government has recognized the National Transitional Council in Libya and is a new democracy.”

In addition, BBC noted that Niger’s new leader, President Mahamadou Issoufou, who was elected in February, “is trying hard to convince the international community that he is a responsible leader, so he will be keen to prevent Niger getting caught up in the Libya conflict.”