Why black Africans are becoming the target of racist attacks by Libya’s new rulers

Sunday September 25 2011

Soldiers of the National Transitional Council hold African prisoners in Tripoli. Picture: File

Soldiers of the National Transitional Council hold African prisoners in Tripoli. Picture: File 


Contrary to what the African Union would have you believe, most people on the continent, including many potentates, were probably glad to see the back of the self-styled King of Kings. By the time of his overthrow, Col Muammar Gaddafi had become something of a sick joke — a veritable madman with grandiose visions of a United States of Africa, who had stoked murderous wars and insurrections across the continent. But following the spate of racially inspired atrocities committed by rebel forces in the wake of his ouster, for many of Libya’s black residents, it seems to be a case of: “The King is Dead. Long Live the King!”

The Gaddafi days were hardly a bed of roses for darkies. According to an October 2000 article published in the Economist at the height of another pogrom targeting sub-Saharan immigrants, Libya has had a long history of racism: “Libyans were slave-trading until the 1930s and, under Italian colonial rule, they saw themselves as mediterranean, calling Africans chocalatinos.”

Despite the rhetoric of pan-Africanism, Libya under Gaddafi remained a staunchly mediterranean country. Despite indigenous blacks forming 20 per cent of the population, a majority resented his overtures to their southern neighbours, preferring instead to break bread with the Arabs of the Middle East. Being one of the richest on the continent with the 10th largest proven oil reserves of any country in the world and the 17th highest petroleum production, they wanted to live in a better neighbourhood. Unfortunately, Gaddafi had other ideas, which would involve the use of millions of dollars of Libyan wealth to curry African favour, including bankrolling the AU itself as well as several armed rebellions and buying himself a legion.

As a result, though in 2009 the country had the fourth highest GDP per capita on the continent, 20.7 per cent of her population was unemployed, according to the Oea newspaper, widely seen as the most influential in Libya because of its close links to Gaddafi’s youngest son, Saif al Islam. In more than 16 per cent of families, not a single member was earning a stable income.

Faced with such dire straits at home, it is understandable that Gaddafi’s profligacy abroad would rankle the hundreds of thousands of job-seeking immigrants from the south who flooded Libya at his invitation. According to Hein de Haas, a senior research officer at the International Migration Institute of the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, “since the 1990s, Gaddafi had actively stimulated immigration from sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger as part of his ‘pan-African’ policies. These immigrants from extremely poor countries were easier to exploit than Arab workers. From the year 2000 onwards, violent clashes between Libyans and African workers led to the street killings of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants, who were routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions.”

In a paper, The Myth of Invasion, Haas elaborates on Gaddafi’s motivations. In 1992, the UN Security Council’s imposed an air and arms embargo on Libya after the regime refused to hand over two intelligence agents accused of carrying out the Lockerbie bombing. Feeling abandoned by fellow Arab nations, Gaddafi “embarked upon a radical reorientation of Libyan foreign policy in which he positioned himself as an African leader.”

Popular sport

In a bid to get around the air travel bans and the subsequent international isolation, he opened his land borders to the Sudanese, Chadians and Nigeriens, offering them the opportunity to work in Libya “in the spirit of pan-African solidarity.” What was traditionally a destination for Egyptian and Tunisian migrants now became a major destination for sub-Saharan workers. By 2000, they numbered over a million or nearly a fifth of the total population. As tensions rose, black-bashing became a popular afternoon sport for Libya’s unemployed youths. The feared security agencies did little to stop them.

Interestingly, the immigration policy represents a total about-face for Gaddafi in his dealings with the continent. Two decades earlier, in 1973, just three years after taking power, he donned the garb of an Arab cultural supremacist and created what he called the Islamic Legion. Modelled on the French Foreign Legion, it was supposed to be a force for Arabizing the region, and creating the Great Islamic State of the Sahel. Conveniently, Gaddafi’s definition of “Arab” was broad, including the Tuareg of Mali and Niger, as well as the Zaghawa of Chad and Sudan. According to Alasdair McKay, a researcher for the UK Defence Forum: “Despite the Arab and Islamic-focused ambitions of the group, the Legion was comprised of individuals from various ethnic origins.”

The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, suggests that the force may even have included thousands of Pakistanis. It quotes a French journalist, speaking of the Legion’s forces in Chad, who observed that they were “foreigners, Arabs or Africans, mercenaries in spite of themselves, wretches who had come to Libya hoping for a civilian job, but found themselves signed up more or less by force to go and fight in an unknown desert.”

Though the Legion was primarily associated with the 9-year Libyan-Chadian conflict, some legionnaires were sent to Lebanon, Syria, Uganda and Palestine, though to no great effect. In 1980, 7,000 legionnaires took part in the second battle of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, and distinguished themselves by their ineptitude. Following the humiliating retreat from Chad, Gaddafi disbanded the Legion in 1987.

However, the Legion’s dissolution did not necessarily mean the end of his dream to achieve regional Arab supremacy. Soon after, he was sponsoring another ‘’Arab Gathering’’, which many of his former legionnaires joined. “With its racist ethos of Arab supremacy, writes McKay, the Gathering’s ideology… evoked a potent and compelling mythology concerning Arabs in the region, tracing the origin of the Juhanya Arabs [of the Sudan] back to the Prophet Muhammad.”

At the beginning of the 1987 Libyan offensive on Chad, the Legion maintained a force of 2,000 in Darfur. Continuous cross-border raids greatly contributed to a separate ethnic conflict within Darfur that killed about 9,000 people between 1985 and 1988. By the turn of the millennium, the world would know the “Arab Gathering” by a more sinister name, Janjaweed, and they would be accused of committing genocide in Darfur. Other legacies of the Legion include the bloody Tuareg rebellions of 1989 and 1990 in Mali and Niger.


A particularly brutal and ironic legacy of the Legion is to be found in the current persecution of blacks in Tripoli and in other “liberated” Libyan cities. Many have been rounded up and some have even been hung or shot after being accused of being mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi.

Others have seen their homes trashed, their earnings stolen and their daughters raped despite the fact that initial estimates of tens of thousands of black mercenaries have proven to be unfounded. In fact, Amnesty International accuses the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government of “wildly exaggerating” the issue of foreign mercenaries.

“They have made matters worse. They have ignited public anger by tapping into an existing xenophobia with very dire consequences for many guest workers,” said Diana El Tahawy, the group’s Libya researcher.

Having been lied to, conscripted and sent unprepared into war outside Libya, and made the subject of regular pogroms within it, black immigrants to Libya have little reason to support Gaddafi. However, today, they find themselves in the crosshairs of a new revolutionary regime. Killings, rapes, assaults and theft committed against innocents were the hallmarks of the Gaddafi regime. The actions of the “liberators” will erode their confidence that the National Transitional Council is any better than Gaddafi was.