As I write this, Saif Gaddafi is speaking to a Libyan people who have seemed to have already moved past his father’s regime. His late and desperate attempt to scare his countrymen into rejecting a revolution which has engulfed his nation touched one element with which, seemingly, those opposing him might agree. He blamed “crimes” on “Africans, paid by criminals” to kill Libyans.
There is a very widespread and dangerous trope being played upon when Libyans accuse Gaddafi’s crimes of being committed by “African Mercenaries”, hints of which are being picked up in the foreign media.
CNN has just prominently shown a Libyan woman, tear stained, crying out on the newly liberated streets of Egypt. She calls for justice for her people, for the killing to end, begs Obama to intervene, and then repeats “Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans!” She is not alone in arranging this revolution between the Libyan people on one side, and Gaddafi, his family, and dark-skinned “outsiders” on the other.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the use of a map, Libyans are Africans. But Africans here means “black people” and there is a very long very pernicious racism in their part of the world towards “black Africans”, not unlike that in my part of the world. When I see tweets like the following, I cringe. I also see a history of fear and contempt slipping out in a time of unparalleled suffering.
In all honesty, I support the people of Libya’s righteous anger against the brutal Gaddafi regime. It will not be going out on a limb at this point to say they will succeed, and that the entire region (including Tchad, Mali, & Niger) will be better off without Gaddafi’s almost constant destabilization of his African neighbors.
But like much of northern Africa, in Libya there is a long history of fear, hatred, and oppression based on skin color. There is a distinct minority of “black” Libyans whose slave origins mean they are still regarded with contempt by some, as there is a large number of political and economic refugees in what is a relatively prosperous state.
And while oppression organized by skin color has a long history, the Gaddafi regime has contributed a different angle to this prejudice: the foreign fighter. Since the early 70s, Libya has offered aid, by degrees of openness, to revolutionary and opposition groups in most every corner of the world. Begun as an extension of Soviet Cold War policy, Gaddafi’s involvement with foreign dissident groups — funded by the oil boom of the 1970s — has extended beyond ideology or geopolitics. For those of us who remember the Cold War, it’s easy to see a degree of hysteria — almost equal to today’s anti-Islamist hysteria in the west — in the views current in the 1980s that Gadaffi was behind most every threat, from Belfast to Managua. But to whatever small degree his support was really effective, most every African nation has seen some of it’s citizens trained in Libyan camps.
Foday Sankoh, Charles Taylor, Moses Blah, Blaise Compaore trained in Libya. Future Malian and Nigerien Tuareg rebels trained in Libya in the late 70s, recruited from refugees fleeing famine and oppression. The band Tinariwen actually formed in one such camp.
Libya has developed a sophisticated infrastructure to support rebel groups, based around Tripoli’s “Al-mathaba al-alamiyya…” — “World Center for the fight against Imperialism Racism and Fascism“. While support offered to leftist militants from Palestine, the Provisional IRA in Ireland, Nicaragua, and, the ANC fighting Apartheid South Africa, may represent an ideology which matches the admirable title (at least to this leftist), most “Al-mathaba” operations have taken “anti-imperialism” to rather vaguely coincide with Gaddafi and the Libyan elite’s nationalist expansion.
The most famous local manifestation of this was surely the 1970s & 80s Tchadian war. Libya was early to bankroll FROLINAT and it’s splits. The Soviets (most notably the GDR) helped early in this process, as part of a strategy against the undoubtedly neocolonial French supported government in Tchad. But Libya had nationalist motivation, in particular the desire to expand control over the Uranium rich Aozou Strip. Gaddafi’s support at times made Hissène Habré and Goukouni Oueddei almost entirely creatures of Libyan policy. Habré, now endlessly awaiting trial in Senegal for his brutality as Tchadian president, saw the flexibility of Gaddafi’s support, when Goukouni was in turn supported as insurgent leader against Habré’s government. The U.S. backed Libyan dissidents were later set up in mirror image camps until ejected by a Tchadian ideological shift in 1991.
Since, Libya has most notably hosted Sudanese, Liberian, Sierra Leonian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Tunisian, Egyptian, Tuareg, and Somali rebel groups. There is, in this, little discernible ideological continuity apart from a desire to maintain Libya as a player to be courted by leaders of every troubled nation in the area.
But note from the list above, dissidents hosted in the past by Gaddafi are as likely to be “white” Arabs as “Black Africans.”
Current numbers are even harder to discern. Tchadian and Sudanese rebels must be the largest groups still in the country. But even these are not huge contingents: a few hundred at most. Some blurry photos and one video show two dozen yellow capped men identified as “African Mercenaries.” Little can actually be discerned from the photos, but assuming the poster is accurate, and these are “black Africans”, and they are working with the security forces, and they are armed, they might be wearing the yellow turbans favored by some Tchadian and Sudanese ethnic Zaghawa and some of the Darfuri Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels. But that is a lot of ifs.
Large numbers of “Africans” seen in Libyan cities are much more likely to be foreign workers and those trying to reach Europe. Libya has alternated in support and oppression directed to refugees passing into their country from the south. These are not all “Black Africans”, but include South Asians and others, many trafficked from Nigeria, through Niger via a brutal desert crossing. West Africans are periodically outraged by news stories of migrants deported by force, or simply dumped in the desert by Libyan government. More scandalous are stories of robbery, abuse, and even killing by criminal gangs and (less frequently, but more disturbing) by xenophobic Libyans. Many migrants are locked up in camps across Libya, kept in conditions unmonitored by outsiders.
This has played into some of the “African Mercenary” rumors of the last few days, with reports of ever increasing amounts paid to migrants by Libyan security forces to carry out crimes against civilians.
No one should doubt that there are dark skinned men in the Libyan security forces. Despite the unspoken assumptions of some Libyans, most are surely their fellow Libyans. There are also, undoubtedly, foreign born guerrillas under arms in Libya, or former fighters long ago enrolled in the security services. But again, these cannot be a large number.
Who Pulls the Trigger?
Reports of “African Mercenaries” have become, since 17 February, a staple of Libyan revolutionaries’ news feeds. We have seen reports, repeated as fact, that almost every time Libyans have been massacred by the state security forces, “Africans” have been to blame. “Africans” are said to have been flown into Benghazi and Tripoli to protect them for the state, 1300 by one rumor. A widely quoted report comes from a revolutionary in Ajdabiya saying: “The regime has sent African forces into the city but we are here waiting in the square of the martyrs. Everyone here is ready to defend the city against the mercenaries. We’ve discovered that these African mercenaries are going to land at Zouitina airport. I can assure you that everybody here is ready to fight against these traitors and African mercenaries.” Not that he has seen any, but he believes they are coming none the less.
Photos and videos, many horrific, have been provided of a handful (I have seen five total) dead uniformed soldiers with varying degrees of dark skin. This is hardly proof of the hysterical rhetoric built around thousands of black Africans raping women and murdering protesters.
More reports, including those showing troops attacking civilians, point to the Army and the internal security forces. The Security Battalions (‘Kataeb al Amn’) include forces directly under the command of Colonel Massud Abdul Hafiz al-Gaddafi. Not only are these groups well armed and trained, they are carefully chosen for loyalty and ideologically motivated. If there is any truth in the “African Mercenaries” rumors, Tchadians or other former foreign guerrillas, long ago integrated into these internal security forces, would be cause. But the Libyan military and security establishment is gigantic: 50,000 regular troops and almost as many reserves, bolstered by recent spending sprees on Russian and other western equipment. It strains credulity that a few hundred, even a few thousand, “black African” mercenaries would be able to enforce submission upon the Libyan people without the participation of these forces.
On twitter, users have dubbed stories of “African Mercenaries” “Confirmed” after Al Arabiya – and later Al Jazeera — reported as unconfirmed the same stories of “African Mercenaries” twitter users had earlier broadcast. A news agency, I should remind readers, cannot “confirm” a story by reporting that you are saying it. It would need multiple individual, reliable, first hand sources providing consistent stories of having seen the original event themselves. We only have inconsistent third hand reports so far.
And this is not the first time recently we have heard such stories.
In Bahrain, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters with assault riffles, anti-aircraft weapons, and helicopter fire, some locals have accused “Iraqi”, Pakistani” or other mercenaries of having infiltrated the army. In the recent massacres on Guinea Conakry and Abidjan, victims have blamed Liberian mercenaries for having murdered and raped protesters. Again and again, as here in Libya, we hear the cry that “no fellow countryman would do this!” “Gaddafi couldn’t get Libyans to kill Libyans, so he brought Mercenaries”, not Arab mercenaries, not western mercenaries, but those people who resemble the “lowest”, most “foreign” of our fellow citizens. There have, just today, been a couple of isolated reports that North Koreans were shooting protesters in Libya, but such reports have not gotten the traction that the “African Mercenaries” have. I must ask why this is?
Apart form those mentioned above, the photographic evidence for “African Mercenaries” include these photos on Flickr.
I cannot help but note some possible problems with images from Libya that are said to be of an identity card carried by a Guinean captured or killed in Benghazi. The reports are the man was fighting with Libyan government forces against citizens. That there is no direct evidence linking the man on the card with violence might be the first question.
I am not an expert but I am tempted to refer to that old internet meme: “This picture is shopped, I can tell from some of the pixels…” Honestly, my observations are no proof either way, but it raises enough questions to suggest that someone better qualified in photographic forensics should look at these images.
Note the circled areas in one section of one of the pictures I examined.
1) Unnatural distinct blur marks, the largest in a square shape.
2) Red stamp patterns that don’t conform consistently to the fold mark.
3) The text has been sharpened. It is dark, consistent, and the background between letters is pixelated, different from the background in other parts of the card, which is smooth. This may merely be artifacts of a sharpening attempt so the text was made legible. Or it is an artifact from pasting.
4) This same text lines do not conform to the card where bent. All such text lines are parallel to one another, where the other text is skewed..
5) Artifacts where the background bleeds through the fingers which are supposed to be in front of it.
Stabbed in the Back
Everything alleged by the photographer above may be true. But I hesitate as these stories play into a natural combination of nationalism, existing social prejudices (of low class “slave” “Blacks”) and fears (of foreign looking immigrants, familiar to xenophobic discourse in Europe and America). They are understandable, but should they go unchallenged in the lore of this revolution, the new Libya being build risks becoming a no less cruel and unjust place, if for a smaller part of its citizens, adjudged outsiders and traitors by their skin color.
These phobias of the “other” neglect the horrible reality that Libyans have lived for the last four decades. They have been oppressed, murdered, tortured and exploited by their fellow Libyans. It has been said that ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ (A mangled false quotation of Edmond Burke, but I digress.)
The quote perhaps survives because it speaks to what Europe learned in the 20th century: oppressive states survive by fear and collusion.
The most dramatic example of this, the murder of 12 million Jews and others by Nazi Germany in the 1940s, provides some of the most despairingly stark lessons. For decades, scholars sought some explanation, some psychological profile of those who carried out this mass murder. I come back again and again to writers like Tim Mason, an historian of resistance and collaboration with the Nazis, and his despair in finding so much of the latter. Or Chris Browning, whose book “Ordinary Men” showed those who took part in war crimes were neither born monsters, warped sociopaths, or cold ideologues, but victims of the pedestrian social pressures to conform, turned to the most extreme ends.
Libyans: your fellow citizens have enabled this regime to oppress you for so many years. You must come to terms with this in the aftermath of this revolution, or it will be no revolution at all.
But you have already learned the converse: you have the power to stop this oppression. You are doing it now, and the world, awed by the bravery and audacity in the Arab world this year, stand now amazed by your fearlessness.
But Libyans, you do yourself an injustice with these fears directed at “Africans”. You, in more than one sense, are these Africans. You cannot build a society of justice by until you learn this.
UPDATE 2011-02-21 23:49 EST
Please take a look at this VERY useful article focusing on color politics in Libya in the light of these events: Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans! by N. Thompson, published at “My Weku” Magazine, 2011-02-21 A useful look at the immigrant condition in Libya from 2000: Ethnic violence and mass deportations of immigrants in Libya By Trevor Johnson, WSWS 28 October 2000
- Libya Must End Racism Against Black African Migrants and Others UN Watch Written Statement, UN Human Rights Council 13th Session, 16 February 2010
- Libya: ‘Beaten and deported to the Sahara’ Article translated from the Italian by Francesca Megna, published first on 18. Dec 2009 by :: fortresseurope.blogspot.com.
- Migrant Workers From Ghana Who Fled Libya Cite Racism Los Angeles Times
- Racism: Arab-Black African Relations in North Africa Noah Bassil, Khaldoun, 2008
- Losing Libya – Blog – The Arabist (arabist.net)
- Libyan troops defect amid crackdown – Aljazeera.net (news.google.com)
- Benghazi defies Gaddafi (independent.co.uk)
- Libya: US accuses Britain of legitimising Gaddafi (telegraph.co.uk)
- Tony Blair our very special adviser by dictator Gaddafi’s son | Mail Online (dailymail.co.uk)
- LENIN’S TOMB: Libya’s uprising (leninology.blogspot.com)
- Demonstrations in solidarity with the Libyan people February 19th, 2011 ” Enough!Khalas (enoughgaddafi.com)