The facts about racism in Libya

March 14, 2011

The claim that the Libyan uprising is motivated by racism should be rejected as a slander against a revolt against a dictatorship, writes Rayyan Ghuma.

THE UPRISING against the dictatorial regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi, like the revolutionary upsurges in Tunisia and Egypt, has inspired people around the world who yearn for social change. If the people of Libya succeed in overthrowing a ruler as ruthless as Qaddafi, it can serve to encourage movements to oust other authoritarian regimes, from Saudi Arabia to Zimbabwe and beyond.

Yet a small number of left-wing organizations and publications level the outlandish accusation that Libya's rebels are motivated not by a desire to overthrow authoritarian rule, but by a racist campaign against Black African migrant workers living in Libya.

Black Agenda Report's Glen Ford, for example, argues that "a vicious, racist pogrom is raging against the 1.5 million sub-Saharan Black African migrant workers who do the hard jobs in Libya," which the left has ignored out of a sense of "joyous delirium" at the fall of U.S.-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Gerald Perreira goes even further, calling the Libyan movement for democracy an "opportunistic conglomerate of reactionaries and racists" driven by "Arab supremacy."

Muammar el-Qaddafi
Muammar el-Qaddafi (Marco Castro)

What's more, says Perreira--echoing the claims of the dictator's son, Saif al-Qaddafi--Black Africans fighting alongside Qaddafi's government forces aren't mercenaries, as the resistance contends, but volunteers "who support and respect Muammar Qaddafi as a result of his invaluable contribution to the worldwide struggle for African emancipation."

These assertions are absurd. Not only do they absolve the Qaddafi regime of responsibility for its long history of racism, but they try to shift the blame for that racism onto a broad popular uprising against Qaddafi.

In form, these arguments share the approach of organizations like the Party for Socialism and Liberation and Workers World, which consider Qaddafi "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" because of his history of clashing with U.S. and European powers--though there are many examples, especially recently, of Qaddafi making accommodations with imperialism.

Qaddafi promotes himself as a champion of African solidarity and is known for his ostentatious attire, which often includes Africa-shaped patches and other adornments. In the past, he has claimed to favor a federation of all 53 African nations backed by a single military force.

But if his outward appearance and calls for a "United States of Africa" have been accepted by some, this shouldn't cloud the facts: Qaddafi is far from the unyielding representative of pan-Africanism he purports to be.

QADDAFI'S PUSH for a united Africa exists within the broader context of Libya's increasing isolation from the West. In the 1980s, the country was bombed by the U.S. and later subjected to trade embargos and sanctions. Libya was also blamed for the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 against a Pan Am flight from Britain to the U.S.

Given Qaddafi's increasingly strained relations with the international community, it is no coincidence that he built alliances with other African leaders as a way to maintain some power in a continent rich in resources and minerals. Qaddafi has claimed to be Africa's "King of Kings," but the record shows his calls for intercontinental solidarity are hollow.

In the 1990s, to fulfill a demand for cheap labor and curry favor with other African countries, the Libyan government eased immigration restrictions. As a result, nearly 1 million migrants fled poverty and violence in neighboring nations to take up work in Libya. Many of these immigrants were afforded no protection under the law as a result of their migrant status.

With sanctions and mass unemployment taking a toll on the Libyan economy, the government ordered police officers to crack down on African immigrants. Libyan officials consciously stoked tensions between native and foreign workers, accusing migrants of engaging in black-market dealings, running financial scams, operating brothels, dealing drugs and producing alcohol illegally.

When a horrific attack took place in 2000, ultimately leading to the deaths of at least 135 migrant workers, the regime's police reported either took part in the killings or turned a blind eye to them. The government then used this violence as an excuse to deport thousands.

In addition to the harsh treatment of migrant workers within Libya, Qaddafi's government has also voluntarily served as a gatekeeper for African immigrants to Europe. During a trip to Rome last year, Qaddafi declared:

We don't know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans...We don't know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent, or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.

With this statement, Qaddafi was not only giving cover to the racist ravings of Europe's rising far right and fascist parties, but he was also justifying the atrocious treatment of African migrants in Libya. In particular, Qaddafi has collaborated with the right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to "warehouse" African migrants looking to escape political persecution or economic squalor. According to researchers Gregor Noll and Mariagiulia Giuffré:

In the last two years, hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers intercepted at sea have been driven back to Libya without any chance of setting foot on European soil to claim asylum. But in Libya, migrants and refugee are victims of discriminatory treatment of all kinds. They live in constant fear of being arrested, in which case they will be indefinitely confined in overcrowded detention centers, where they are exploited, beaten, raped and abused. Refugees who have no possibility of applying for asylum or accessing any other effective remedy, thereby run the risk of being forcibly returned to countries of origin, where they may face persecution or torture.

The inadequacy of Libya's response to the flow of migrants and refugees is so infamous and well-documented that it simply cannot be the case that the EU member states are only now starting to gain an insight into Libya's doubtful track record in human rights, rule of law and democracy.

IN ADDITION to Qaddafi's racist treatment of African migrants, his regime has also given consistent support to various murderous regimes. The Libyan dictator is widely known for providing military training and support to Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh.

In the 1980s, Islamist rebels from Sudan received military training in Libya before returning to Sudan "infused with a supremacist agenda." The idea of Arab racial supremacy that later emerged in Darfur's Janjaweed militia was thus nurtured by time spent in Qaddafi's military training camps.

Today, Qaddafi's best-known dictatorial ally is Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, whose regime recently arrested and tortured solidarity activists for the "crime" of discussing the North African revolutions. Mugabe's ties with Qaddafi run so deep that Mubgabe has offered Zimbabwe as a safe haven for the Libyan dictator if he is ousted. Additionally, the Zimbabwean ruler has committed to sending troops to aid Qaddafi loyalists against the mass uprisings.

This history is critical to any discussion of Qaddafi's use of foreign mercenaries in Libya. Throughout the years, Qaddafi has kept the country's state security apparatus weak and divided to prevent a military-style coup. When necessary, the Libyan regime has hired private mercenaries to augment its military forces. In fact, during the 1990s, foreign mercenaries played a role in defeating an uprising in eastern Libya.

In order to crush the current opposition, Qaddafi is again relying on private mercenaries. There are rumors that these mercenaries have come from as far away as Serbia, but most media accounts detail Qaddafi's use of African mercenaries.

Saif al-Qaddafi would have the outside world believe that everyone fighting on behalf of the regime is a Libyan national. While it is true that a significant chunk of the state security apparatus is still loyal to Qaddafi, Libyans do have legitimate concerns that private mercenaries are being used to supplement a weakened military force. According to Adam Roberts, an expert on the use of mercenaries in Africa:

[Qaddafi] has traditionally had a network of skilled soldiers from all over West Africa. There are lots of Africans, particularly from West Africa or Sudan, who go to Libya because it's wealthier. Qaddafi and other dictators tend to surround themselves with fighters who will be loyal to them rather than to a local faction. Foreign mercenaries are likely to be less squeamish about shooting at local people. They are likely to better trained--a small unit that can be relied upon. They might also have experience of fighting battles, and therefore be more capable if push comes to shove.

To the extent that there are racist attacks on Black Libyans and other African migrant workers, they must be opposed, as we oppose any form of racism--bigotry is wholly out of step with the spirit of the revolt sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East.

But the reality is that Qaddafi has consciously used racism to maintain power and create divisions between Libyans and their neighbors for years. His latest use of foreign mercenaries is yet another attempt to keep his grip over the Libyan population.

The consequences of Qaddafi's racist policies lie squarely with his regime, which has proved time and again that it does not stand on the side of ordinary Africans, whether they are Libyan or not. The opposition in Libya is fighting for genuine liberation after living under a brutal dictatorship for more than 40 years. The vast majority of Libyans have spent their lives dreaming of a country without Qaddafi.

For people like myself, who are Libyan, but who have been born and raised in exile, Qaddafi's overthrow would bring the first opportunity to visit a home we have only known from afar. For those of us who consider ourselves leftists and socialists, the latest battle on the Libyan landscape presents an opportunity to celebrate and support yet another North African revolution unfolding before our eyes.

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