|African migrants in Libya.|
Courtesy: Al Jazeera.
“Slavery as an institution that degraded man to a thing has never died out. In some periods of history it has flourished: many civilizations have climbed to power and glory on the backs of slaves. In other times slaves have dwindled in number and economic importance. But never has slavery disappeared.” – Milton Meltzer
The recent revelation by CNN about slavery in Libya is an affirmation that this inhumane act is inherently embedded in humanity.
Across civilizations, slavery has transcended different generations with its form and nature varying from crude, to subtle and more nuanced ways of human oppression.
From the ancient civilizations to modern times, slavery has been used as a mechanism to enrich the oppressor and impoverish the oppressed. The oppressed - the slaves - are subjected to forced labour used for the production of goods or offering services to enrich the lives of the oppressor - the slave masters.
In ancient civilizations, slavery was less of a commercial affair with slaves mainly captured to render domestic services to the royalty and political leadership of the kingdom, chiefdom, fiefdom, aristocracy or any other form of headship or socio-political organization that was in existence.
With increased realization of the benefits from trade and trade related activities, the trajectory of slavery shifted and incorporated the commercial aspects that led to the exchange of human beings in markets with monetary value attached to them.
Presence of various forms of social discrimination such as slavery, racism, xenophobia and tribalism in modern times can only be understood from a historical perspective. It is through historical account of events that the foundations of these social processes can be uncovered.
Emergence and re-emergence of the afore-mentioned forms of discrimination is not an event but a process.
Existence of vestigial structures from the previous social, economic and political institutions that promoted and encouraged these negative social processes guarantee their re-occurrence based on the historical cycle and existence of social fault lines.
The historical cycle, in simple terms, refers to the act of history repeating itself which was well stated by the intellectually gifted German, Karl Marx that “history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce.”
Therefore, to understand the social and economic basis of the current Libyan slave trade, it is fundamentally important to revisit the pre-colonial and post-colonial social and economic organization as well as institutions in Libya.
Pre-Colonial and Post-Colonial Libya
During the pre-colonial period in Libya, slavery existed in the North African country. Additionally, Libya was also used as a major transit route to ship the slaves captured from Africa’s interior into other parts of the world especially the Middle East and the Far East.
Slave trade that involved the major Libyan cities and towns was aided by the Indian Ocean slave trade and the Trans-Saharan slave trade.
Historical records indicate that slave markets for slaves sold during the Indian Ocean trade were in Persia, and the cities of Medina and Mecca.
The case was the same with slaves traded during the Trans-Saharan trade who were mostly sold in the Middle-East, in the Arabian sphere of the world.
Historians collectively refer to the trade in slaves during both the Indian Ocean trade and the Trans-Saharan trade as the Arab slave trade due to the nature of the trade and destination of the slaves.
Tripoli, Libya’s capital city, was a major slave trade route and one of the largest slave markets in Northern Africa during the pre-colonial period. In this period, the slaves were sold in public a situation similar to the recent account of slavery events as documented by CNN.
Post-colonial Libya has been characterized by two major political events that have shaped the country’s economic, social and political landscape. The hallmark of both political events was regime change.
The first event was the bloodless coup d’état under the leadership of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi that toppled the monarchy led by King Idris I. The revolution and leadership of Qaddafi culminated in the establishment of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya that lasted from 1977 to 2011.
Libya’s second political event was the Libyan civil war that began in 2011 after the invasion by the NATO forces led by USA, United Kingdom and France that led to the murder of Qaddafi and subsequent regime change through the establishment of the National Transitional Council.
Qaddafi’s administration and the Jamahiriya government presided over a period of social and economic prosperity.
Since the 2011 civil war that was driven and fueled by sinister motives of the NATO states, Libya’s social, economic and political systems have collapsed.
Geographically, Libya borders Chad, Niger and Sudan to the south. Libya’s southern population especially in the Fezzan region has a significant composition of black people. A good proportion of Libya’s black population in the south is made up of migrants whose main countries of origin (before the NATO sponsored rebellion in 2011) were Niger and Chad.
In terms of development, the Fezzan region lags behind other regions in Libya though more developed than Niger and Chad.
Being more developed than Chad and Niger, this acted as a pull factor that occasioned the immigration of Africans from Niger and Chad into southern Libya.
With the outbreak of the civil war instigated by the USA and her allies, Fezzan region and other parts of Libya have become ungovernable with rampant incidences of lawlessness.
A stable Fezzan region under Qaddafi guaranteed sustainable livelihood at least for a significant number of Africans in the northern side of Niger and Chad.
Collapse of the economic, social and political systems in the Fezzan region and largely Libya has led to a state of economic desperation and destitution for the populations of Niger and Chad that depended on and reaped from the economic prosperity and socio-political stability of Libya under Qaddafi.
The consequence of the collapse of the social, political and economic order in Libya and the Fezzan region is the massive number of migrants seeking to get to Europe via Italy.
This high number of migrants who have fallen victim to slavery depended on Libya’s economic prosperity under Qaddafi. Economic prosperity in Libya during Qaddafi’s era trickled-down to Niger and Chad and this managed to keep low the number of migrants from these countries.
Currently, Libya has no substantive government in place with the leading political entities being the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj with its base in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar.
Besides these two political groupings, there are other political formations that are factions of the leading political units as indicated by a report published by Al Jazeera.
At the moment, there are at least 700,000 migrants in Libya as estimated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A larger proportion of these migrants are on their way to Europe and they mostly originate from Niger, Chad, and Sudan among other West African countries such as Nigeria and Cameroon.
With lawlessness prevailing in Libya due to socio-political and economic instability, the various political groups ranging from the UN-backed and “internationally recognized” GNA to other militia organizations have resorted to illicit economic activities for survival.
Among the illicit economic activities include smuggling/trafficking of people, smuggling of fuel and the illegal mining of gold.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, smuggling/trafficking of people in Libya generates annual revenues ranging between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. The same report documents that smuggling of fuel across Libya generates about $2 billion per year with fuel being sold at $0.02 in the black market lower than the official price set at $0.12.
It is the over $1 billion worth economic activity of smuggling/trafficking migrants across Libya that is the genesis of the slave trade.
Smuggling and trafficking of people in Libya has been taking place since 2012 with no substantive government in place. The smuggling has since degenerated into slave trade with the captured migrants being treated savagely.
Emergence of slave trade in Libya can also be partly attributed to legal and policy measures adopted by the European Union and the acclaimed Government of National Accord to intercept the migrants on their journey to Europe.
The resultant effect has been the retention of the migrants in Libya by the smugglers and traffickers of people. With a massive supply and glut of migrants in their retention facilities, the human smugglers and traffickers in Libya have resorted to sell them through public auctions.
A fundamental concern in the wake of slave trade in Libya is whether the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is more of a myth than reality of which the former holds.
If Africa is indeed rising, then the benefits from the social, political and economic development generated by ‘Africa Rising’ ought to be witnessed in all African countries with the lives of the economically vulnerable Africans improving significantly.
‘Africa Rising’ is mythical as well as a misrepresentation and misstatement of facts since it is only a few African countries and a certain cadre of African people that are on the rise. If Africa was rising collectively, then economic conditions in Niger and Chad would be very conducive such that there would be no or extremely few migrants crossing Libya seeking to get to Europe.
Repatriation of the migrants to their countries of origin is only a temporary measure. The African Union must take responsibility and ensure that countries where immigrants originate from have stable and functioning economies that work for all.
Foreign non-African institutional entities such as the European Union, the International Organization for Migration and extensively the United Nations must show full commitment by working with governments where migrants originate from to address the ‘push’ factors.
The UN must stamp its authority on countries like the USA that promote foreign invasion and subjugate the territorial integrity of other states which is a violation of the UN Charter. The unnecessary civil wars and civil unrests have done more harm than good and the crises facing humanity at the moment could be avoided if the self-anointed “world prefects” such as USA chose to prioritize and pursue peaceful means to solve conflicts.
Slavery and smuggling/trafficking of people should be highly criminalized with very high costs of punishment attached to the promoters of this vice.
Dealing with slave trade in Libya calls for a multi-pronged approach including an end to the nonsensical foreign invasions and promotion of tangible socio-economic development in countries such as Niger, Chad among others.
Slavery must be condemned and it must fall including human trafficking!