OBBO: The future of Africa is in Libya’s migrant camps

Thursday December 12 2019

Migrants and refugees on a rubber boat waiting to be evacuated off the coast of Libya on November 5, 2016. PHOTO | AFP


Last weekend, Nation Media Group’s inaugural Kusi Ideas Festival took place in the Rwandan capital Kigali.

This year is the 60th anniversary of NMG, but also, in a manner of speaking, the 60th anniversary of the independence of many African countries. So NMG decided to examine Africa’s remains of the last 60 years, to see that missed lessons might be learnt, and to peer into the continent’s next six decades. This looking far ahead, and preparing for the surprises and fortunes that might come, is not something we Africans are very good at.


Far away from the hallowed conference halls of Kigali, is something that turns out to be of great consequence in Africa, but is still not yet on many people’s radar.

In recent years, thousands of Africans, have made insane journeys across the Sahara, to strife-torn Libya. From there, thousands have made horror journeys in rickety boats across the Mediterranean, aiming to get to Europe. Many have ended up at the bottom the sea.

Today, there are still over 5,000 of them held in filthy Libyan detention centres. A brutal slave trade, sexual exploitation, and other evil enterprises have engulfed them.


Nigeria has repatriated a few of its nationals, but most are stuck in Libya. Rwanda offered to take in some. So far, about 400 have been repatriated to Rwanda. Most of them, according to a report in Rwanda’s New Times, are “younger than 20 and hail from the Horn of Africa”.

Occasionally, stories of the “refugees”, playing football happily in a camp, appear in the Rwanda press. And little else.

But there is a lot. For starters, no one knows how to call them. Are they “refugees” or “migrants”? Seems a bit of both, and more.

Until now, you had South Sudanese refugees in Uganda or Somali refugees in Kenya. These Libyan strandees are something else. So, you read references to “Libyan migrant/refugee from Eritrea”.

They’ve changed the game. The words until we had now to describe categories of imperilled peoples, don’t fit them.


And that is a wonderful thing. Anyone who can get up from Mali or Eritrea, hitch-hike, lie their way, bribe, dodge scorpions, snakes, bandits and terrorists in the desert, and leg it into Libya past landlines and murderous militia, is a special — and new— breed of African.

The migrants in Libya are not only extremely adventurous with fire in their bellies, but also a multicultural crowd, not the monolithic Congolese only or Sierra Leoneans only types you find in many refugees, that can sometimes compound parochialism.

With ever rising anti-African xenophobia in South Africa, it’s not unreasonable to project that in five to 10 years the vast mix of Africans there will be driven out, and become stranded in their flight path, or resettle in strange places.

These refugee-migrants, unmoored from their parochial roots, infused with an enlightened pan-African nomadism, could be the ones who make Africa great again.

Since Kusi Ideas is a roving annual festival, hopefully one of the next ones will have a topic like “The future of Africa is in Libya’s squalid migrant camps”. I will climb mountains and trek across the Sahara to speak on that one.

The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]