On Libya and “African Mercenaries”

by zunguzungu

A dead man, shown on Al Arabiya and said to be an "African" mercenary

As Tommy Miles put it, two weeks ago (in an excellent piece of writing that should be read in its entirety):

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.

This is because, as N. Thompson pointed out, Libya has both a sizable population of sub-saharan Africans and a history of discrimination against them:

It is estimated that about a million of the 7 million population of Libya are of Sub-saharan origin, some of whom have been in Libya for centuries and mostly found in the South of the country. A significant number of these Africans are, however, recent imigrants to Libya or using Libya as a stop gap destination on their sojurn to greener pastures in Europe. Col. Gaddafi has made no attempts in hiding his supposed love of “Africa” and his determination to help create a free borderless continent and single currency. A 2010 report about the state of “race relations” in Libya does, however, paint a different picture within his own borders.

According to a United Nations Human Rights statement – “Libya must end its practices of racial discrimination against black Africans, particularly its racial persecution of two million black African migrant workers. There is substantial evidence of Libya’s pattern and practice of racial discrimination against migrant workers”. The New York Times in the article “New Status in Africa Empowers an Ever-Eccentric Qaddafi” gives a sense of the experiences of black Africans in Libya: “All over this capital city, illegal African immigrants line up along roadways, across bridges and at traffic circles hoping to be selected for menial day jobs that pay about $8. They call the areas where they congregate the hustling grounds, which are always crowded with desperate faces from early morning until well past sundown. Many people in Tripoli said they resented the presence of so many illegal workers. “We don’t like them,” said Moustafa Saleh, 28, who is unemployed, echoing a popular sentiment. “They smuggle themselves through the desert, and the way they deal with us is not good.” In the New York Time’s article a former Libyan minister of economy, trade and investment Ali Abd Alaziz Isawi was quoted as saying that illegal immigrants “are a burden on health care, they spread disease, crime. They are illegal.”

As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday, fears that “African” migrant workers would be scapegoated appears to be valid:

Up a muddy clay road next to the University of Gar Younis in Benghazi lies a work camp, with some 52 rows of white prefabricated housing surrounded by a fence. Dozens of Africans greet visitors eagerly, “Are you from the UN? Are you here to help us? Please help us, we need help.”

These foreign workers, left behind as international companies close up shop and embassies evacuate their employees, are in a double bind. Libyans don’t trust them, and they don’t trust the Libyans. Since reports circulated that Qaddafi hired African mercenaries to kill opposition forces, several suspected mercenaries have been caught, beaten, and even killed, and many of the Africans in this camp fear stepping foot outside the compound.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 African and South Asian guest workers and illegal migrants are staying in the Gar Younis camp waiting to get out of the country. The camp is overseen by Libyan volunteers like Sami al-Bah, an engineer from Benghazi. He stalks around holding a sheaf of raggedy handwritten papers which bear the names of those stranded in this camp. His surgical mask, a precaution against rumored tuberculosis carried by the residents, slips from his face.

“Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea … they come from everywhere,” he says. “And there are so many of them. We can barely keep track.” Mr. Bah says about a third of the residents are not in possession of passports – “either because their companies were holding them and did not give them back before leaving, or because they crossed into the country illegally and don’t want to say.” In the chaos of the situation, he says, it is impossible to verify who is employed and who is not.

Or this report from Al Jazeera:

Alex Thurston (on Feb 28) argued that since “Qadhafi has long used mercenaries as advisers and soldiers,” and “African poverty has created a substantial pool of potential mercenaries,” he found it “likely that Qadhafi is now using some of these hired guns against his own people,” and outlines

“three categories of foreign fighters in Libya: foreigners who are part of the formal security forces, foreigners who are fighting for Qadhafi for political reasons, and foreigners who are killing Libyans primarily for money. Let’s add two more: those were coerced into fighting, and innocent persons accused of being mercenaries.”

David Styan is more skeptical:

There is a gulf between perceptions and reality; initially both European and Arab journalists echoed what Libyans told them, that Qadaffi’s forces comprised only ‘foreign’ and ‘black’ troops. This perception rested on a double-amalgam: firstly that anyone supporting Qadaffi 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. Qadaffi’s power has rested in part on patronage and clan allegiances, which are particularly pronounced within his diverse security forces.

It’s very hard to tell; all the pictures of “African” mercenaries that I’ve seen seem to be wearing the same uniform, for what it’s worth. Anyway, as Tommy Miles pointed out, focusing on the specter of “African mercenaries” distracts from the bigger picture:

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 notes, pointedly, that:

…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?

As Konwomyn wrote, in an open letter to Al Jazeera, and well worth reading:

I think continually pushing a singular narrative about a more complex story has the danger of reinforcing an African and Arab narrative that has an uncomfortable racial connotation to it. I am not accusing Al Jazeera of having a racial bias, far from it. I just feel its important for the network to be sensitive to how this issue plays out to an international audience of both Black Africans and Arabs when the full story is untold.

As reports are emerging, it seems to be that the ‘mercenaries from Africa’ are most likely from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia and Guinea as well as South Africa and parts of Europe. So they are White, Arab, European and Black, not all Black Africans. They may not be from the Congo, maybe not from Somalia but almost certainly not Zimbabwe as some wild speculations claimed. Yes, there was no plane full of soldiers dispatched from Harare to Tripoli at 1 a.m (!) on Sunday morning – any well-educated Zimbabwean could have told these international journalists tweeting in their personal capacity that this ‘witness account’, as dubbed by Al Jazeera, was untrue. Of course AJE is only the messenger so you can’t be blamed for what you can’t verify and I don’t blame you. But since this is an open letter I may as well post some info for other inquiring minds who’ll stumble on my blog. For starters soldiers are not mercenaries, our history of mercenaries is mainly from the apartheid era, Mozambique’s civil war and the Angolan war when White South Africans and White Zimbabweans (some of them were former Rhodesian soldiers) would use Zimbabwe as temporary base but they did not operate in Zimbabwe. Secondly today in Zimbabwe we have thugs (don’t often use guns but often beat and rape) not mercenaries (skilled hit-men like Simon Mann (Equatorial Guinea plot)) that are busy with their own electoral campaign of violence, thirdly Zimbabwe’s thugs* have no knowledge of Libyan terrain and finally Zimbabwe doesn’t speak French. Sadly no amount of @’ing international journos on twitter could kill this rumor. But as untruths die in time, I sincerely hope that this untruth will die sooner rather than later. (see Smith’s column)

Anyway about these mercenaries and Al Jazeera’s role in coverage. As there have been suggestions that it is likely the ‘African mercenaries’ are from the above-mentioned African countries, I’d like to know why an investigative journalist couldn’t be dispatched to these countries to find out how the mercenaries work – surely Chad, Tunisia and Niger are not as hostile to international journalists as Mummar Gadaffi’s Libya. If not, could a Chadian Ambassador or Activist could be invited to Al Jazeera studios to share their view? How can the story of mercenaries be reported to the exclusion of Chad, yet Chad is the French and Arabic speaking nation where some of these hitmen are allegedly coming from?

It bears repeating that Chad is an Arab African nation. It is Libya’s neighbor. As your coverage is mainly centered on the ‘Arab World’ its tempting to think that Chad is perhaps not Arab enough that it should be spoken of and not spoken to in news reports and analyses. I appreciate that this is a fast-developing story and there are many angles to cover, but the impact of events in Libya on security and political relations between these two countries cannot be so insignificant that it’s not worthy of mention, can it? At the very least one would think, Idriss Deby must be having sleepless nights while the Arabs next door are revolting. He could very well be the next Arab dictator to go.

And finally, Callie Maidhof at Jadaliyya:

I suggest that it should give us pause to consider the stakes of this conceptualization of a basic Arab-African or Arab-black antagonism—one that not only formulates these as mutually exclusive categories but also pins them against one another in the context of the Libyan revolution. This formulation is taking place both “on the ground” in Libya as well as in its representation outside its borders, and the generalized media blackout has severely compromised understanding of the situation. Just a handful of commentators have questioned the veracity of the “African mercenaries” charge while maintaining their support for the uprising…Whether or not Qaddafi has recruited foreign mercenaries, it is clear that none of us—in Libya or abroad—are getting the full story. However, the speed with which this charge has been accepted as true should call into question our own assumptions about relations between Arab and black Africans.

Whether or not Qaddafi has recruited foreign mercenaries, it is clear that none of us—in Libya or abroad—are getting the full story. However, the speed with which this charge has been accepted as true should call into question our own assumptions about relations between Arab and black Africans.

This is not the first time that Arab and black Africans have been tragically opposed; rather, this has been integral to policymaking in the United States and beyond, as well as to numerous think tanks and international organizations, humanitarian and otherwise. For a far more extreme example, we can look to Sudan. In his work on that topic, Mahmood Mamdani (2009) has argued that the perceived dichotomy between Arab and black Africans is a false one, relying on colonial-era tropes of settler and native which additionally sought to retribalize and reify Sudanese social (and ethnic) divisions. Mamdani holds that anti-genocide campaigns focusing on Darfur such as Save Darfur depoliticize the insurgency/counterinsurgency by shifting the discourse into the moral realm in order to: 1) link the conflict to the War on Terror; and 2) instigate a military response on behalf of the United States and other Western powers. This move also includes Sudan in the political geography of the Middle East.

and notes that:

Libya has long played a critical role with regard to its neighbors, and Qaddafi himself has been heavily involved in African politics. In his February 22 speech, he further reinforced his ties to Africa, calling into question the consonance of something called the Middle East when he claimed that without him, Libya would undergo US occupation or incorporation by the UAE. Additionally, while the Arab League has suspended Libya for its brutal treatment of civilians, the African Union (of which Qaddafi used to be the chairman) has remained silent on the matter.

The use of the term “African mercenaries” points to African-ness as a site of difference. But Qaddafi’s career has been characterized by a loud and memorable involvement in African politics—even taking on the title “the King of Kings” of Africa or in Arabic “malik al-muluk“. This would suggest that if he has deployed non-citizen mercenaries, it would highlight his and Libya’s regional embeddedness rather than its absolute difference.

Given this embeddedness, we may account for the use of the word “African” to suggest “foreign” in a number of ways. One answer would be the radical break this uprising has produced in our conceptions of “Libya” and “Libyans” versus Qaddafi himself, who has until recently been regarded as almost selfsame with his state and people. In contrast with Qaddafi’s African ties, one could argue, Libyans have determined that they will stand in concert with other Arab revolutions.