Early in 2011, The Guardian reported that Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s long-standing ruler, had unleashed “numerous foreign mercenaries on his people” in an effort to subdue the persistent uprising. According to the report, the mercenaries had killed 150 people in two days and “were hardly squeamish about shooting at local people.” Further exposition of both the brutality and the composition of Qaddafi’s forces came from former Libyan Ambassador to India, Ali Al-Essawi, in a sit-down interview with Al Jazeera. He characterized these mercenaries as black Africans who could not speak Arabic – “foreigners” who were “doing terrible things” to women and children.
Both Western and Arab news outlets fed the public with a barrage of violent images that resulted in the construction of a narrative of African mercenaries as unequivocal villains in the Libyan conflict, short in savagery to only Qaddafi himself. According to the narrative, the mercenary was Sub-Saharan, non-Libyan, greedy, and had helped Qaddafi kill his own people in his efforts to extend his rule. Coverage of the conflict was shaped in a polarizing, racialized discourse that drew sharp distinctions between two groups: Arabs (non-black anti-Qaddafi rebels) and Africans (black, non-Arabic speaking pro-Qaddafi loyalists). The former were the native victims while the latter were the foreign perpetrators.
This discourse regarding the African mercenary is as false as it is destructive. It demonizes blacks in Libya and lacks both historical insight into the region and current knowledge of the events on the ground. This myth must be debunked and replaced with historically sound analysis that more accurately captures the facts of the conflict.
Importantly, it seems that the makeup of Qaddafi’s fighting force was misrepresented. Collected data contradicts the claim that his force was mostly Sub-Saharan. According to scholars Frederic Deycard and Yvan Guichaoua, 1,500 fighters in Qaddafi’s army were Africans from the Sahel region of Africa – encompassing Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and other nation-states. Qaddafi recruited fighters mainly from the Tuareg ethnic group – members of which have historically been nomads of the Sahara – as the conflict raged on and as more and more of his fighters were killed.
Carina C. Ray, a professor of African history at Fordham University, writes that Qaddafi’s military force peaked at around 76,000 fighters. When those 1,500 Africans from the Sahel are compared to the total number of fighters, it is clear that their presence was paltry. Journalists have assumed that Qaddafi’s force was racially homogenous, but this is not borne out by the data. The underrepresentation of Sahelian Africans in Qaddafi’s force, therefore, undermines the claim made by journalists and Libyan rebels that they, specifically, played a significant role in extending Qaddafi’s reign.
Yet beyond the issue of numbers, journalistic depictions of the alleged African mercenary distort history and identity. Not only do such accounts frame the mercenary as a perpetrator of violence in Libya, but they also classify him as a foreigner in an Arab nation. The implicit message of this construction is that to be dark-skinned in Libya is to be alien. Yet, the reality is that these so-called foreigners were immigrants who resided in Libya long before the conflict began. Lured to the oil-rich nation by booming economic prospects during oil crises and fat years, these immigrants from the Sahel were migrant workers from Mali, Chad, and other nations in West Africa looking to improve their lot. They had even been guaranteed the right to live and work in Libya by Qaddafi, and were offered citizenship.
These immigrants are a far cry from the greedy, amoral, guns-for-hire they were made out to be in popular discourse. A large number of dark-skinned people in Libya have been killed, and journalists have assumed that most of them were armed combatants. However, it is very likely that many dark-skinned Libyans brutalized by the rebels were not mercenaries, but ordinary workers. Noted human rights watchdog Amnesty International has confirmed reports that many black residents of Libya that were violently attacked, beaten, and killed were unarmed. That many of those killed were civilian workers has been lost in the myth of the African mercenary. But while the media’s easy and uncritical acceptance of this propaganda is clear, the root of the propaganda gripping Libya ultimately evinces a dire need of a solution.
These tensions between light-skinned Arabs and dark-skinned non-Arabs can be understood as a consequence of Qaddafi’s role in shaping the contemporary political landscape of the entire region. During his career, Qaddafi reinvented himself and reoriented Libya to suit the needs of the political moment. He shifted his attention away from the Arab world after he fell out of favor with it. His foreign policy and oil dollars shifted increasingly toward Africa. In the 1970s, he entangled himself in the region’s affairs and sought to gain control and influence over the vast resources found in different African nations – his attempt to annex the uranium-rich Aozou strip in Chad is just one of many examples. He was also a major player in the final outcomes of conflicts in different West African regions like Sierra Leone and Liberia. His regime provided funds and arms to some of the factions involved in those conflicts and trained their leadership in Libya.
The few young men that were recruited as soldiers for Qaddafi’s army are remnants of failed Libyan-sponsored insurgencies in the Sahel during the 1990’s. The idea at the time was to train these unemployed young men to be able to “start their own war of independence in Mali and Niger.” Quite to the contrary, Qaddafi’s marginalization of their leadership and lack of assistance and the soldier’s poor training doomed their rebellions to failure. However, in the aftermath of those failures, many former combatants were offered citizenship by Qaddafi. Qaddafi has been deeply entrenched in the affairs of the Tuareg-speaking community in Niger and Mali, as the Tuareg have maintained a “cross-border” connection between Libya and other nation states.
Discourse on Libya has failed to adequately discuss the context of Qaddafi’s role in shaping the political climate of the region. Instead, dialogue has vilified certain groups, and tapped directly into the resentment that many light-skinned Arabs have toward dark-skinned non-Arabs as a result of Qaddafi’s strategic moves. When Qaddafi failed to gather support from other Arab nations in the aftermath of a 1992 United Nations embargo against Libya, his shift from the Arab world to the African continent was all but complete, just as the mounting frustration of Libyans directed towards him reached its pinnacle.
Libyans responded to Qaddafi’s reorientation toward Africa in new foreign and domestic policies with a wave of xenophobic acts against black residents and migrant workers – acts that occurred even before there was any sign of an insurgency. Violent confrontations resulted in the deaths of several “Sub-Saharan” Africans, as well as the displacement of thousands who fled as a result of the violence.
Human Rights Watch has documented that during the early 2000s, there were several instances of human rights abuses where dark-skinned people were dropped off at the border of Libya by Libyan officials and left to die. Thus, xenophobia and racism are a part of contemporary Libyan society and, while the Western and Arab media exacerbated preexisting tensions, the agency of ordinary Libyans played an important role. In fact, the narrative of the African mercenary was made possible by the testimony of anti-Qaddafi rebels. That no credible evidence could be found raises the horrifying possibility that the rebels constructed this myth of the African mercenary in order to justify their brutality toward blacks in Libya.
While these divisions, as evidenced by the racial and xenophobic violence in Libya, are real and destructive, they are not eternal. Rather, they are the result of a particular historical narrative that has constructed Arabs and Africans as intrinsically different and eternally divided. But the notion that they are two distinct categories is not supported by the region’s history. Islam and Arabs are essential to the history of most of the African continent. Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui of Binghamton University argues that in North Africa, “Black Africa and the Arab world have been linked by a fluctuating pattern of economic and cultural connections for at least 12 centuries.” Economically, these connections played a central role in the Trans-Saharan Trade and the spread of commerce and new social groups throughout the region. This relationship lasted from the ninth century through to the nineteenth century, and was larger and longer in scope than European involvement in trade and commerce.
In fact, the majority of the black population in Libya – which makes up roughly one-third of the total population – is descended from those who participated in the Trans-Saharan trade across the Sahel (most particularly in the south of the country). Thus, not only are they as Libyan as anyone else, but the notion that Libya is a country of only light-skinned Arabs does not hold. Admittedly, trans-racial interactions were not always egalitarian and took on many varying forms, but the point is that the groups share a history that is ancient, complex, and virtually ignored in popular discourse.
The idea that there exists a single “African identity” whose lines can be drawn to include certain groups and exclude others is a deeply false notion that must be jettisoned. The solution is twofold: On the one hand, informed scholarship and commentary must challenge and replace lazy journalism and sloppy reporting in order to offer a well-informed account of facts on the ground; on the other hand – and perhaps more important – Africans have to confront the violence that the colonial legacy has wreaked upon the psyche and ultimately transcend it.
The Libyan conflict has marred the image of the Arab Spring and has undermined the movement’s call for democracy and dignity. But its promise can still be fulfilled. Removing longstanding dictators is a necessary yet insufficient step toward crafting a new and just future. The movement must not stop with Qaddafi’s removal, but must continue to the historic and contemporary roots of social divisions. Rather than succumb to notions of a singular identity, Africans must acknowledge the diversity of their identities. The fact is that Libya is an African country, and all Libyans are Africans – Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Understanding this history and identity is necessary to recover and protect cultural and political unity.