Libya’s Race Problem

Colonel Gaddafi's alleged use of "black mercenaries," has put the question of race in Libya's revolution front and center.

Muammar Gaddafi, 2009. Image credit U.S. Navy photo, via Flickr CC.

As this report by Al Jazeera English indicates, being black in Libya is always a precarious existence and have become even more dangerous since the revolt against Muammar Qadafi’s regime commenced. Editor Sean Jacobs asked his former Ph.D. advisor David Styan, who writes on politics in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa and who is based at Birkbeck College’s School of Politics and Sociology in London, to unpack for AIAC some aspects of the revolt in Libya.  The interview took place via email. David sent back answers, not just on the media’s reporting of Gaddafi’s use of “African/black mercenaries,” but also the Libyan’s regime’s political legacy in the continent, especially in the Sahel and West Africa, and, finally, Libya’s role in European immigration politics. (David prefers the Qaddafi spelling over Gaddafi for the Brotherly Leader, so we’re using that.) Sean Jacobs asked the questions.

How should we decipher the outcry over ‘Black Africans’ in the Libyan crisis?

Media views of the ‘African’ dimension of Libya’s crisis are contradictory and fluid. The political crisis has prompted most of Libya’s estimated 1.5 million migrants to try and flee. Laborers from neighboring Egypt and Tunisia flocked to land-borders. European oil personnel, plus Chinese, Turkish and Asian workers have been evacuated by their governments. Yet many Africans migrants remain trapped in extremely dangerous and uncertain conditions.

As the Al Jazeera English report highlights, Sub-Saharan Africans face several acute problems. First and foremost there is a widespread local perception that forces loyal to Qaddafi comprise “Black,” implying non-Libyan, Africans. While this perception has been the catalyst for violence, it is fanned by deeper-seated discrimination. The contradictions surrounding this, and Qaddafi’s diplomacy towards the continent, have prompted debate over representations of Libya this week.

The livelihoods of sub-Saharan Africans in Libya are precarious; most having neither assets nor legal status in the country. Some arrived initially in the hope of transiting to Europe. Effectively trapped by poverty and EU-Libya migration accords, many tens of thousands, primarily from West Africa have nevertheless scraped a living as laborers and petty-traders in Libya’s post-sanctions oil-boom. Other recent arrivals, particularly from the Horn of Africa, have faced a bleaker outlook, incarcerated in camps or repatriated, notably to Eritrea.


What lies behind the ‘black mercenaries’ story?

There is a gulf between perceptions and reality; initially both European and Arab journalists echoed what Libyans told them, that Qaddafi’s forces comprised only “foreign” and “black” troops. This perception rested on a double-amalgam: firstly that anyone supporting Qaddafi is a “foreign mercenary;” secondly that these mercenaries were drawn principally from sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, there is little evidence that either is true. Initial fighting in Benghazi produced images of a single mutilated corpse of an ‘African’.  Yet Libya’s own population is racially variegated, with ‘black’ populations straddling Libya’s vast Sahelian borders with Niger and Chad. Qaddafi’s power has rested in part on patronage and clan allegiances, which are particularly pronounced within his diverse security forces.

Qaddafi has contorted political ties with southern neighbors; disillusioned with the failures of Pan-Arabism, since the late-nineties he reoriented diplomacy towards the continent, investing heavily in his Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and the African Union. Financial and political support brought many African leaders, rebels and militias to Tripoli, both from the Sahel and further afield.

More specific are Libya ties with Chad. In addition to the border war of the 1980s, Qaddafi has been a key player in successive Chadian civil wars. In 2008, alongside France, he supplied arms to prevent the overthrow of Chad’s President Déby and is the key power broker between both Déby and his opponents, as well as in the fractious Chad-Sudan rivalry over Darfur. Diverse Chadian militia are present in Tripoli and Sirte and Chadian websites in Europe, which are far from reliable, claim they have evidence that Chadian forces and commanders are helping defend Qaddafi.

Did Libya welcome sub-Saharan migrants?

Hardly, some Sahelian groups from Chad and Niger have long had a presence in Libya. Yet while cash-handouts via CEN-SAD has boosted the number of African diplomats in Tripoli, the influx of migrant workers  has more to do with shifting migration patterns from West Africa overland via Niger. Since 2007 the EU moved, with some success, to halt illegal migration via Morocco and the Canaries. Migrant trafficking from the Libyan coast to Malta and Southern Italy then increased.

This route has particularly drawn migrants from the Horn of Africa, notably Eritreans and Somalis (ironically, like Libya, both former Italian colonies) funneled through Sudan, via the southeasten Libya oasis town of Kufra, to the coast.  US-based Human Rights Watch has provided extensive research and documentation of the plight of these migrants over the past five years.  First Italy, thence the EU has worked increasingly closely with Libya in recent years to monitor and control these migrant flows.

So Qaddafi’s Libya has been a key partner in the European Union’s migration controls?

Yes, while ample publicity has been given to the way in which Britain, France and Italy rushed to sign oil, defence and construction contracts with Libya, less attention has been paid to the migration dimension of Qaddafi’s rehabilitation. Particularly for Paris and Rome, where governments face acute electoral pressure over race and migration, getting Libya to control migrant flows has been important. In 2008 Italy signed a bi-lateral deal, and in 2010, the EU agreed to a Euro 50m package whereby Libya would “manage  migration” and process refugee for the EU.  This was hugely controversial and prompted significant and ongoing protests. (See here and here).   The EU’s ad-hoc border force ‘Frontex’ was mobilized after the Tunisian government fell, and an EU summit has been called on Migration on 11 March.

For those further interested, the subject of “black mercenaries” have also been covered in detailed blog posts elsewhere; like that by and on Pambazuka News, to name a few.

Further Reading