Understanding the Libyan Slave Trade Markets

Mohammed K. Ibrahim

Although both the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan slave trades ended officially more than 200 years ago, this crime against humanity still takes place in several countries, notably in Mauritania, India, Pakistan and Haiti. Mauritania had tried three times to abolish slavery within its borders, most recently in 2007, and three times it failed. According to “Walk Free Global Slavery Index”, 4% of Mauritanians, mostly dark skinned, live in slavery. While many believe that slavery is a historical issue, in reality it is an everyday problem, as millions of people are forced to work through coercion, mental or physical threats. In the Maghreb, it’s so much a cultural issue that it is not uncommon to hear even children calling African diplomats “Abid” (slaves).

In spite of what we thought we knew about global slavery, the CNN report of early last month showing sub-Saharan African migrant workers being auctioned in Libya like commodities was received with a huge shock and outrage around the world. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres; the Chairman of the African Union, President Alpha Conde of the Republic of Guinea; and Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union, not only condemned this evil trade, but also called for its immediate stop and the rescue of all those sold as slaves. Although the CNN report did not indicate where the slave trade markets were located, intelligence reports indicate that this vile trade regularly takes place in nine Libyan towns: Zuwara, Sabratah, Garyan, Castelverde, Gadamis, Kabaw, Alzintan, Alrujban, and Sabha. At least four of these cities are outside the control of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli.

Knowing Libya as much as I do, I wasn’t surprised to hear that African migrants were being sold as slaves in this troubled North African country. Indeed in a less formal sense, exploitation of African laborers working on farms in Libya wasn’t entirely new even during the rule of Col. Gaddafi. However, in post-Gaddafi Libya, things got worse as even indigenous Black Libyans are now subjected to despicable racial atrocities, because of the perception that most of them fought on the side of the pro-Gaddafi army during the NATO-inspired war that led to the killing of Gaddafi and the toppling of his government.

Another reason why the sub-Saharan African migrants are today hated in Libya is because the average Libyan believes that Gaddafi squandered their wealth in developing the economy of Black Africa. In the first few weeks after Gaddafi was killed, thousands of Blacks in Libya were summarily executed without anybody raising a finger in the international community. The ethnic cleansing that took place in Tawergha, a city of 30,000 people, remains one of the most inhuman tragedies of the Libyan war.

The people of Tawergha – Blacks – are up till now isolated in camps in Tripoli to prevent Libyan Arab nationalists from concluding the genocide they started against them. Gaddafi was not a racist by any measure, and this was among the sins that the average Libyan Arab nationalist held against him!
There are two categories of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya; those whose destination is Libya, i.e. Nigerienne, Malians and Burkinabe citizens; and those for whom Libya is only a transit country, i.e. Nigerians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Cameroonians, etc. The former settle in Libya and work on the farms of the highly subsidised Libyan farmers. Their condition of work has always been horrible – call it “Modern Day Slavery” – if you wish! The final destination of 99% of the Nigerians in Libya is Europe through Lampedusa Island in Italy. There have never been an accurate figure of Nigerians in Libya, but our Embassy in Tripoli used the conservative estimate of 15,000. For all the period I was Nigeria’s Ambassador to Libya (2004-2008) not more than 200 Nigerians had registered with the Embassy, but at one point, there were about 1,500 in prisons alone, more than the number of Libyans in their country’s prisons! With regard to those on the death row, more than 40% were our citizens. Among the condemned inmates were those whose trials and convictions were done in Arabic and had no legal representation. Most times, the staff of our mission in Tripoli were not even allowed to witness the trial!

Nigerians from all works of life have since the CNN slavery report, joined the rest of the world in expressing their outrage for the Libyan slave trade, because from the clips many of the slaves appeared to be Nigerians. When I watched the report, the first thing that came to my mind was, had CNN not carried out this investigative reporting, how long would it have taken Nigeria to find out that hundreds of her citizens are going to spend a good part of their lives as slaves in Libya? The other question on my mind was what should Nigeria do in the circumstances?

Considering how sickening the international community found the incident, I thought Nigeria would seize the moment by getting ECOWAS to impress on the UN and EU to intervene with a view to not only stopping the auction, but also rescuing those already sold as slaves. Instead, the nation was fed on the balderdash – “Nigerians were warned against going to deadly and dangerous Libya” – forgetting that there are at least four other routes to Europe for the migrants: the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla in Spain and Malta. So, telling Nigerian irregular migrants to avoid going to Libya is just like informing them that there are other routes for their mission!

For me what the CNN report exposed most was the cruel and degrading commoditisation of human beings, as well as the sophisticated network of mafias involved in this business. Early this year, overwhelmed by the inflow of the migrants and disappointed by the efforts of Libya to stem the tide, the Italian government decided to send its naval ships into the Libyan waters in order to stop the boats carrying the migrants from entering into Italy.
This violation of Libya’s sovereignty attracted a very strong response from Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the military strongman in control of the east and south of the oil-rich country. The Marshall gave orders to his forces to hit any foreign ship inside Libya’s territorial waters.

As a result of this strong response the Italian government was left with no other option other than to mellow down and do business with Marshall Haftar. In a quid pro qua action, the Italians agreed to give money and arms to Haftar in return for his men stopping the inflow of the African migrants trying to enter Italy from the side controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA). A similar agreement was signed with the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, and the effect was a near total blockade of all the routes into Italy, as well as into Libya usually taken by human traffickers. As a consequence, thousands of the migrants were trapped inside Libya, some in various detention camps set up by Libya and financed by the EU. The timing of the blockade coincided with the peak of demand for laborers by Libyan farmers. In the absence of their traditional Malian, Burkinabe and Nigerienne seasonal workers, the Libyan farmers engaged any able-bodied migrant to work for them.

On the other hand, the traffickers – Nigerians, Libyans and Maltese – who could no longer ferry their trafficked victims across the Mediterranean to Italy, at the cost of between $2000 and $3000, had the opportunity to cut their loses by selling off the migrants. Slave trade is like any other economic transaction; there is demand, supply and price. With the glut in the market, the price of the slaves plummeted from $1000 per person to about $300. Apparently, Nigerians, Ghanaians and Senegalese were the most affected. The slaves will continue to work on farms until they are able to redeem themselves for $3000 – $4000, about ten times the price they were bought. In this deal, you can say, “Everybody is Happy”! It’s a very lucrative business, which cannot be stopped by moral situation alone. And, as far as the Europeans are concerned stopping the inflow of the migrants is the most important thing to them; the end justifies the means.

At least four of these markets are in areas controlled by Marshall Haftar. Being outside the control of the Tripoli-based government, poses huge difficulty for Nigeria to arrange the evacuation of her citizens, without having talks with the Marshall, or his secret protégé, the Italians. The promise made by President Buhari to repatriate and rehabilitate “all the Nigerians stranded in Libya and other parts of the world”, is very encouraging but how realistic is it, when Nigerian illegal migrants litter every country on the earth?

Also, should relieving the self-inflicted pains of the migrants be given priority over the 2 million IDPs in various parts of the country, who are yet to be rehabilitated in spite of a similar promise? In the last ten years not less than 100 repatriation missions of Nigerian migrants in Libya had been carried out – some of which I was involved in – but sadly, majority of the returnees re-embarked on the same treacherous journey a few months later.
I am, therefore, not sanguine if the on-going repatriation would yield a different result unless the government decides to take a hard look at the socio-economic factors that push our youth to risk their lives in crossing the desert, the Sea, and facing the possibility of being sold as slaves, all for the dream of a better life in Europe! Lakhdar Brahimi, the iconic UN and Algerian diplomat said, “Our Youths are not running to Europe; we are pushing them”! At Nigeria’s current population growth rate, unless urgent action is taken to control it, by 2050 Nigeria could end up with at least 250 million restive youth. At that stage even the ECOWAS free movement protocol could collapse!
–––Amb. M.K. Ibrahim is former Nigerian Ambassador to Libya.

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