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Libya: The African Mercenary Question (Videos)

This post is part of our special coverage Libya Uprising 2011.

One of the more distressing sub-plots in the ongoing two-week uprising against Colonel Muammar Al Gaddafi in Libya has been reports of the Libyan leader's alleged use of “African mercenaries” to prop up his falling regime.

Global Voices has covered stories of mercenaries from Serbia bombing civilians from airplanes. But the majority of speculation regarding mercenaries portrays them as “foreign” or “African” — meaning from Sub-Sahara Africa and “Black”. This storyline is echoed everywhere in international media, in Arabic media, and in online citizen media and videos.

Why put a Black face on the mercenary story when people in Libya are both light and dark skinned?

In an open letter to Al Jazeera posted on the blog Sky, Soil & Everything In Between, KonWomyn worries that the broadcaster's shorthand description simply has become “mercenaries from Africa”, instead of looking deeper into who these people actually are, and that this description is being copied in media around the world.

Fear is another reason these claims are widely perpetuated. In a comment on a blog post on Arabist.net about mercenaries in Libya, “Benedict” writes:

… in a climate of fear and scarce information, rumours that violence is being carried out by shadowy outsiders often spread widely (e.g. the rumours of ‘Arabs’ beating protesters in Iran in 2009). Secondly, there are plenty of African migrants in Libya who may be seized as scapegoats by angry crowds, and there are also black Libyans, some of who may be members of the security forces.

Nonetheless, captured mercenaries in Libya have so far included people with identification papers from Tunisia, Nigeria and Guinea (Conakry) and Chad. In Ghana there are rumours that people in Accra had been offered as much as US$ 2,500 to fight for Gaddafi. And in Ethiopia local people have reportedly also been hired to fight. Here is a video of an alleged mercenary captured by locals in AL Barqa, Libya.

Map of Libya and the Mediterranean Sea

Map of Libya and the Mediterranean Sea

Destination Libya

For many in Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya has long been an employment magnet and also acted as a port of call for those wanting to migrate to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. An estimated 1.5 million people from south of the Sahara live in Libya, working mainly in the oil and construction industry.

Gaddafi is also financially and politically involved with governments south of the Sahara. The Libyan military has trained several rebel groups in the past, and has also recruited mercenaries on previous occasions.

In the early years of his rule, Gaddafi, who was affectionately known as “the Guide,” attempted to unify and Arabize the swath of land just south of the Sahara desert by pressing young migrants everywhere from the Sahel to Pakistan to fight as a single unit in wars in Chad, Uganda, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

Attacks on migrants

The immediate problem is that people in Libya from Sub-Saharan Africa have been attacked simply because people assume they are mercenaries. On the Ethiopian Review blog, several people commented on a post about Ethiopian mercenaries with fears that innocent refugees would become targets of mobs.

One commenter, “Ganamo” wrote:

Some of those could be innocent refugees. During uprising in a mob mentality people most often do not differentiate well between criminals and innocent foreigners. I have to say this because I believe it from learning it through an experience. While revolution must go on we must be carefully to stand for refugees. Specially Ethiopians in Diaspora since their government cares only for their money and abandons them on their times of need, while other countries are evacuating their citizens. Where will Ethiopian Refugees in Libya go?

Some bloggers and activists from Sub-Saharan Africa see the mercenary issue as opening a window into the chauvinistic attitudes of those from North Africa.

In the pan-African Myweku blog, N Thompson writes:

Africans in the main have been sympathetic and supportive of the desires of Tunisians and Egyptians in their protests. However, the African media and forums are beginning to ask if the prominence and publicity given to so called African mercenaries running amok amongst Libyan protesters pillaging and raping is beginning to tell a rather interesting story about the motives of some Libyan protesters.

On Sudan.net a question posted by a member of the forum – Is Libya racist? – has generated many emotional responses. Surely, isn’t the first rule of any revolution to garner as much international support from all quarters as possible?

That thought is echoed by Tommy Miles in New York, writing in the West-Africa focused, Tomathan blog:

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.

One commenter on this post, going by the name “Arab”, disagrees:

A purely manufactured controversy. Libyans have also reported that there are European mercenaries and you conveniently forget that because it doesn’t suit your racism agenda. The point of making it known that they are African is identification, it has nothing to do with skin color (a classic case of projection of Western biases), but with identifying a threat (based on language, since “African” denotes a non-Arabic speaking person from the continent rather than a black person as you seem to think). Libyans are more than aware that there are Libyans killing them, after all fighter jets are not being flown by mercenaries nor is the elite army corps that is headed by Gaddafi’s son a foreign one. You would have served yourself better if at this time of great distress for the Libyan people, you remained silent until all the events are known, rather than push an agenda to insult people fighting and dying for their liberty based on nothing but speculation.

People in Libya have also shown compassion to some captured mercenaries. This video shows more than one man protecting an alleged fighter from an angry crowd (Warning: These are disturbing images).

One young mercenary from Chad, claimed in an interview with UK newspaper The Telegraph, that he had met men who said they would fly him to Tripoli in Libya for work. Instead, the plane was diverted to Al-Bayda, where he and his fellow travelers were handed weapons and told to kill protesters.

The Ridja blog from the island nation Comoros in Africa, takes up that theme [Fr]:

Dans une vidéo postée sur YouTube, un homme noir, présenté comme un mercenaire, reconnaît avoir été recruté par Khamis, l'un des fils du Guide, pour massacrer le peuple. Aveu véritable ou tentative désespérée d'un pauvre diable de se sauver d'une foule qui menace de le lyncher? D'autres films sur Internet montrent les dépouilles de supposés soldats de fortune morts au combat. Les sites des Libyens en exil parlent eux aussi de ces soldats étrangers, évoquant les rumeurs les plus folles, comme des salaires de 30.000 dollars.

In a video posted on YouTube, a black man, described as a mercenary, acknowledges having been recruited by Khamis, a son of the Guide, to massacre the people. True confession or a desperate attempt to save the poor devil from a mob threatening to lynch him? Other films on the Internet show the bodies of alleged soldiers of fortune who died in battle. The sites of exiled Libyans also speak of these foreign soldiers, referring to the wildest rumors, such as salaries of $30,000 US.

Vincent Harris in the blog Colored Opinions, a blog exploring African migration politics, says European leaders share some of the blame:

Europe has a heavy responsibility for the well-being of refugees in Libya. The reason I say this is obvious, European governments, like the Netherlands, helped Libya to create a buffer against subsaharan African immigrants to Europe. Who does not remember Gaddafi's recent visit to Italy? It seemed funny to see [Berlusconi] one of the most xenophobic presidents receive Gaddafi, but in reality the visit of Libyan president Gaddafi was in line with European policy to use Libya as buffer to counter immigration.

Of great concern to many, is that the mercenary problem may have only just begun. From the Arabist blog:

… if the regime suddenly collapses, how will the successors of the regime deal with several thousand heavily armed and unpaid mercenaries in Libya’s major cities?

This post is part of our special coverage Libya Uprising 2011.

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