Thursday, March 3, 2011

Libya: The African mercenary question


John Liebhardt, who a year or two ago was posting some excellent analytical blogs on post-coup political developments in Fiji – in contrast to the rabid anti-coup blogs (and some pro-blogs for that matter) that were obsessed with political point scoring and obscuring the truth – has recently turned his attention to the Middle East. This extract is from his post on the vexed “mercenary” issue on Global Voices - and the full article is well worth a browse. It strikes a chord when Café Pacific recalls the foiled Sandline mercenary adventure plot against rebels in Bougainville in 1997:

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. The video above is of an alleged mercenary captured by locals in the oil town of Al Barqa, Libya.

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.

Map source: National Post

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