The slave auction in Libya

Screenshot from the CNN expose of slave auctions in Libya.

The lingering problem of racism in Libya and in the Maghreb generally is old news.

Evidence of slavery in Libya was gathered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as early as last April. Even, this site has published such pieces as “Algeria’s Black Fear” and “Next Time you See the Mediterranean” to highlight the dehumanizing conditions black sub-Saharan Africans face in Algeria and Libya in their journey to Europe.

CNN’s exclusive report on “People for sale: Where lives are auctioned for $400” showing Libyans selling migrant Africans have, however, brought unrivaled attention to the issue. CNN journalists, Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt and Bryony Jones, traveled to Tripoli to witness and confirm the information they received from their contacts in Libya regarding modern slavery. The report explains that “inside the slave auctions it’s like we’ve stepped back in time. The only thing missing is the shackles around the migrants’ wrists and ankles.”

In amateur footage included in the report, we hear what can be assumed to be a Libyan person speaking in Tripoli dialect and saying that these migrants are for farm labor, while clapping on their shoulders. There is a sense of physical closeness. The migrants being “auctioned,” as the CNN journalist insists, are seen smiling awkwardly and talking back to the speaking person.

The ensuing torrent of outraged reactions was expected.

Upon the release of the live auction footage, the institutional calls for investigation poured in. The Government of National Accord (GNA) declared that “A high-level committee has been convened encompassing representatives from all the security apparatus to oversee this investigation.”

The African Union (AU) called for a probe into Libya “Slave Market.” The actual AU chairman, Guinean President Alpha Conde, urged for prosecutions against what he referred to as a “despicable trade … from another era.”

Protests by Africans in the diaspora took place in front of the Libyan Embassy in Paris, with participants chanting “Free our brothers!”

A similar sense of brotherhood incited the widely-shared outrage of Paul Pogba, the Manchester United and the France national team football star born to Guinean parents. He tweeted: “my prayers go to those suffering slavery in #Libya. May Allah be by your side and may this cruelty come to an end!”

Nima Elbagir, the experienced Sudanese journalist, rightly expressed her shock when declared that she “has never seen something like this.”

Here, the act of seeing is fundamental. News of the rape of refugee children and that West Africans are being “sold in Libyan slave markets” can be deemed worthy of consistent worldwide attention and support only to the extent that it materially visualizes the suffering of others. It is the same old circulation of humanitarian consumption but with a visual, social media twist.

For large numbers of black north Africans, the banalization of a racial problem permeates the social, institutional, and political strata. When the black Tunisian poet, Anis Chouchene, laments “a society afraid of difference,” he decries the social debasement of black Africans as an inferior race. Scenes of racist and discriminatory practices are central to the social and cultural hierarchy in the Maghreb. Libya is no exception.

But this racism, I think, should be understood, as Fanon puts it, as a case of “a fight against non-national Africans” and not as a modern-day slavery. Against obvious references to chattel slavery, the human trafficking of sub-Saharan Africans by north African smugglers — at play in Tripoli’s migrant “auctions” — is organized around a debt bonding and forced labor that become possible as a result of contaminated imaginary and a complex system of social debasement.

Black Libyans are called “Fezzazna”, to refer to the southern region of Fezzan where they predominately live, but also to their socially distinctive inferior cast. In Benghazi, in the eastern region, a popular local market is commonly named “slaves souk.” Same as in Tunisia, where “Zinji” or “Aswad” (close to “Blakee”) are culturally accepted terms to refer to fellow black people because they are thought to be practical forms of reference which are now devoid of any racial charge.

In the absence of a true transformative revolution, complex issues of negrophobia and xenophobia among Africans continue to exist. As Fanon summarizes, “From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism.”

After independence in 1951, the brief existence of King Idris’ hereditary monarchy was replaced in 1969 by Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahirya, a dictatorship which consistently violated basic human rights for Libyans and foreigners alike. In a country that endured civil war after the fall of his regime, ultra-nationalism divides the western Tripoli-based and internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the eastern Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by the problematic Khalifa Haftar. This divide continues to contaminate the national and cultural imaginary in Libya, eventually descending into neocolonial racism.

During the popular uprising to topple Gaddafi and his regime, peculiar events have shaped the relationship between Libyan rebels and sub-Saharan Africans. Black African mercenaries, chiefly from amongst the Tuareg, were heavily recruited to join Gaddafi’s troops to crack down on protests. When the uprising turned into an armed conflict, black African workers and black African mercenaries faced increased hostility from Libyans and acts of revenge and killings were directed at them. A widely-shared video published in 2012 showed Libyan rebels caging black Africans, accused of being mercenaries, in a zoo and force feeding them flags. Amnesty International reported that sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees “became targets of stigma, discrimination and violence.” Where does contamination go? It goes nowhere. It rather, saturates the national imaginary and feeds into the same destructive energies at home and abroad.

In Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi or Tobruk, the CNN report will not change much. In a nation torn by an ongoing bloody civil war, skyrocketing inflation, a failing economy and mass executions of prisoners, everyone is either in the smuggling business or the anti-smuggling business.

Although the CNN report shows a case of debt bonding, a large number of migrant auctions in Libya are related to ransom trafficking. With the closing of the Libyan route to Italy, sub-Saharan migrants find themselves often in a position where they cannot pay their smugglers to be returned to their homes. Smugglers choose to sell the migrants to the highest bidder or entity, such as a militia). The buyers force the migrants into calling their families to ask to send this ransom money. Traffickers are reported to collect ransoms ranging from 2000 to 3000 dinars per person.

Outside Libya, the report would confirm the Italian and European crackdown on the Mediterranean route. A few days before the publication of the CNN piece, the UN’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, accused the EU policy of “aiding Libyan authorities to intercept migrants and return them to detention as being ‘inhuman.’”

Among many Libyans, news of “slave auctions” is met with bewilderment and shock. European military and political intervention and the coercion of Libya to become an ad-hoc gatekeeper of the migrant crisis has turned an already disastrous situation into an unmanageable one.

Haythem Guesmi

Haythem Guesmi is a PhD candidate in English studies at University of Montreal.

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