Libya: Uprising Revives Entrenched Racism Towards Black Africans

By Guest Contributor Simba Russeau

Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi’s use of African mercenaries to quell the uprising against his autocratic regime has revived a deep-rooted racism between Arabs and black Africans.

Though most will deny its existence, in Libya discrimination is common not only against migrant black Africans, but also against darker-skinned Libyans, especially from the south of the country.

“Against this background, one needs to be a little wary of the accusations of ‘African mercenaries’ or even ‘black African mercenaries’ that have been bandied around. Certainly, Gaddafi has used, in the past, mercenaries from other parts of Africa, and our information is that some of these are likely involved in the current situation on Gaddafi’s side,” Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa told IPS.

“Mercenaries, of course, are extremely useful because the regular army forces include conscripts — who can easily leave their posts and join the uprising. Mercenaries work for money and have no compunction about whom they kill.”

About one and a half million sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees, out of a population of nearly two to two and a half million migrants, work as cheap labour in Libya’s oil industry, agriculture, construction and other service sectors.

However, this is not the first time Libya’s most vulnerable immigrant population has fallen victim to racist attacks. In 2000, dozens of migrant workers from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria were targeted during street killings in the wake of government officials blaming them for rising crime, disease and drug trafficking.

In response, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern over Libya’s practices of racial discrimination against dark-skinned migrants and refugees. In 2004 it accused the country of violating Article 6 of the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and for failing to implement proper mechanisms safeguarding individuals from any racial acts that circumvent human rights.

“However, it is also possible that many of those identified as ‘African mercenaries’ could be darker-skinned Libyans. It is easier for people to project their problems onto outsiders than on their own people,” adds Jeenah.

A case in point is Karim, an African-Lebanese. After a day of visiting relatives, he was traveling with his African mother on the bus back down to Beirut when the vehicle was stopped at a military checkpoint. Soldiers entered the bus and asked for everyone to show their identity papers. While he was searching the bag for his wallet to find his military standby card and identity papers, one of the officers in charge ordered his arrest.

During several hours in custody, Karim was subjected to continuous physical and verbal abuse; not a single soldier even bothered to check his identification.

“It wasn’t until my mother shouted that they call a relative who is known in the military that the soldiers stopped mistreating me and checked my papers,” says Karim in an interview with IPS. “Even then they tried to save face by claiming that my military card was new though in fact it has been standard for over ten years.”

Experts argue that though a taboo subject, racism is not confined to Libya; it is found throughout the Arab world, and stems from historical linkages of the Arab slave trade to the way blacks were used during European colonisation in the region.

In his study titled, ‘Perceptions of Race in the Arab world’, Mark Perry says: “The past and present trade in African slaves to the Arab world has left a long and bitter memory in African society to this day. Black Africa was the earliest source for slaves and the last great reservoir to dry up; already in the 640s slaves were part of the ‘non-aggression pact’ between Arab conquerors and Nubian rulers, while as late as 1910 slave caravans were still arriving in Benghazi from Wadai (in Chad).”

Scholar Elizabeth Thompson adds that French colonisation of Syria and Lebanon was charged with racial overtones due to the use of West African soldiers. “The Senegalese would become a regular target of nationalist propaganda in sexualised and racialised imagery that fused men’s gender anxieties with outrage at French domination.”

As the world marks the 2011 International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which has been dubbed the ‘International Year for People of African descent’, uprisings sweeping the Arab region should include a social transformation to shift perceptions of dark-skinned Arabs and non-Arabs to put an end to racial discrimination and xenophobia, experts say.

Otherwise, they warn, a violent backlash by anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya who link black skin with the regime could lead to a massive genocide once the long-time leader is ousted.

Image courtesy of شبكة برق | B.R.Q

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  • Noah

    You’re right that he nationalized the oil reserves, which I think was excellent. every country with natural resources “developed countries” want should have the right to demand a fair share of the wealth from them rather than giving the profits to multinationals.
    But where Gaddafi and ofther autocratic leaders lose my support is when they kill their own people, deploy secret police at all levels of society turning everyone to be exiled, jailed or inform on their neighbors. Gaddafi and his family have treated Libya like their personal ATM, amassing a huge fortune. How does that help his people? How does it help his people when his sons and their private militias fight for control of factories?
    Obviously the West has ulterior (and despicable) motives in Libya. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of supporting butchers simply because do some anti-imperialist posturing.

  • Ms. Four

    Like Aiych and Frenchie, I’ve also seen and experienced incredible racism towards black Americans and sub-Saharan Africans in Egypt. What was most striking to me was how casually racist even some well-educated and well-traveled Egyptians were. An Egyptian doctor once commented to me (apropos of nothing) that he didn’t understand why a white woman would ever throw her life away by marrying a black African man. And certainly there was much racism towards darker-skinned Egyptians from Upper (southern) Egypt.

    This article about Lara Logan, the American journalist who was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in today’s NY Times reminded me that women have a long way to go in Egypt as well: Logan says she was assaulted by 200-300 men–who were in throes of celebrating Mubarak’s resignation. Some revolution.

  • Anonymous

    I used to feel some kind of solidarity with the people in those countries experiencing political upheaval. However, after several months of hearing/reading about the anti-black discrimination by Arabs as well as studying up on the Arab slave trade, that solidarity has virtually vanished.

    It’s funny how so many Egyptians were citing Martin Luther King as an inspiration when there is so much racism against blacks within Egypt. It was hypocritical and disgusting for them to pull that move. Don’t cite MLK as an inspiration until you look at yourself and your society, Egypt, and see the vile way you treat the blacks who you see daily. They’re no better than the white oppressors that blacks fought against in America.

    Solidarity my ass.

    • John Cale

      Why can’t you stand in solidarity with people DESPITE their failings? Also, do you think it’s fair to generalize a people like this?
      Imagine a white women walking the streets of south Chicago, getting cat called and leered at…do you think it’s fair if she went home with the conclusion that black men lewd, aggressive and oversexed? Would that be fair?
      Further, your experiences with Arab racism appears to be coming by of the MEDIA. Really?! They’re such a trustworthy source of unbiased information now? You don’t think they have an incentive to portray Arabs as so many bad things?
      And of course they can use MLK as an inspiration, we want them to….why would you want them to become NONRACIST before they can look to MLK for inspiration when the life and ministry MLK is an affective tool AGAINST racism. WE want them to look at his life and internalize what he stood for, maybe then their attitudes will begin to change.

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  • Frenchie

    I lived in Egypt for almost a year and the overt racism was astounding and disturbing. often, racism against blacks and African refugees would lead to violence and sexual assault against women. after going to school in the South and traveling the world. the Arab racism was the most pernicious I’ve ever experienced b/c it was largely accepted by society as normal and fueled by propaganda from the leadership. Egypt is the only place I’ve been to that I have no intention of ever returning b/c, walking down the street or going to the grocery store, I was often met with racist chants from children and their parents, men felt as if they had the right to touch me inappropriately in public, and I often received terrible service in stores.

    Thus, as much as I think the Arab spring deserves to be celebrated in history, I wonder if it will bring the type of social and gender reforms that will truly make North Africa and the Mid East a welcoming place for nonwhites and women.

  • AngryBroomstick

    I find it extremely hard to support the anti-Gaddafi uprising in Libya when all I hear are reports of disgusting racism and extreme violence against Africans and dark skinned Libyans of Afro-Arab origin.

    • Sugabelly

      Don’t support them. It’s easy to see them suffering on tv and feel pity for them when you don’t see what those same people do to black people in their midst on a daily basis. Gaddafi is horrible but as far as I am concerned and I think quite a few Nigerians who either have been in Libya or had relatives that were butchered there by Libyans, people in Libya are On. Their. Own.

      They should deal with Gaddafi themselves. They don’t deserve anybody’s support.

      • John Cale

        People use similar excuses as reasons NOT to Black Americans or Africans: That they’ve demonstrated some unenlightened attitudes towards others or engage in some behavior that we find distasteful. Sure, it’s easy to read some article about prejudice in Libya and conclude that “hey they’re on their own” without actually engaging with the people and maybe realizing that this prejudice may not be universal among the Libyans and even it is, they are human and still deserve freedom and self-determination as all Africans do. It’s always easy to find reasons NOT to help somebody but real hard to help DESPITE their failings and imperfections.