Libya and Africa
Oct 12th 2000
Sad, and wiser, Nigerians on the way home EPA
PLANELOADS of bodies, dead and alive, flew back to West Africa from Tripoli this week, after Libya’s worst outbreak of anti-foreigner violence since the expulsion of Italians and Jews in Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969. Survivors told of pogroms.
Emeka Nwanko, a 26-year-old Nigerian welder, was one of hundreds of thousands of black victims of the Libyan mob. He fled as gangs trashed his workshop. His friend was blinded, as Libyan gangs wielding machetes roamed the African townships. Bodies were hacked and dumped on motorways. A Chadian diplomat was lynched and Niger’s embassy put to the torch. Some Nigerians attacked their own embassy after it refused refuge to nationals without proper papers—the vast majority.
Libyans sheltering Africans were warned that their homes would be next. Some of Libya’s indigenous 1m black citizens were mistaken for migrants, and dragged from taxis. In parts of Benghazi, blacks were barred from public transport and hospitals. Pitched battles erupted in Zawiya, a town near Tripoli that is ringed with migrant shantytowns. Diplomats said that at least 150 people were killed, 16 of them Libyans. The all-powerful security forces intervened by shooting into the air.
African migrants, unfairly blamed for the disaster, were detained en masse. They once numbered over 1m but diplomats say that they have now mostly disappeared from the streets, and are in hiding or in camps pending expulsion. Over the past fortnight, hundreds of thousands of black migrants have been herded into trucks and buses, driven in convoy towards the border with Niger and Chad, 1,600km (1,000 miles) south of Tripoli, and dumped in the desert.
Migrants from countries without land links to Libya, including 5,000 Nigerians and nearly the same number of Ghanaians, are being airlifted out. Hundreds more are languishing in three scrubland camps ringing Tripoli airport waiting for flights. There is no medical care for the black Africans, many of whom have broken limbs or stab wounds.
Anti-black violence had been simmering for months, fired by an economic crisis. Colonel Qaddafi heads Africa’s richest state in terms of income per person. This year oil will earn him $11 billion. But Libyans, feeding their families on monthly salaries of $170, see the money squandered on foreign adventures, the latest of which is the colonel’s pan-Africa policy. As billions flowed out in aid, and visa-less migrants flowed in, Libyans feared they were being turned into a minority in their own land. Church attendance soared in this Muslim state. So did crime, drugs, prostitution and reports of AIDS.
A history of racism fanned the flames. Libyans were slave-trading until the 1930s and, under Italian colonial rule, they saw themselves as Mediterranean, calling Africans chocalatinos. Black-bashing has become a popular afternoon sport for Libya’s unemployed youths. The rumour that a Nigerian had raped a Libyan girl in Zawiya was enough to spark a spree of ethnic cleansing.
Some African governments—the benefactors of the colonel’s pan-Africa policy—have kept their criticism mute, amid allegations that ministers have pocketed Libya’s offers of compensation. Nigeria’s minister for co-operation, Dapo Sarumi, has described the deportees as “an embarrassment”. Chad and Sudan have made robust protests. But President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana was alone in taking action. He flew to Tripoli on October 7th and brought 250 Ghanaian workers home the next day.
Libyans will be hoping that they have not just ousted the migrants, but have also ousted Colonel Qaddafi’s hated pan-Africa policy. Only last month, in front of 11 African leaders, he was preaching open borders and a single currency. The United States of Africa was due to be declared in his home-town of Sirte next March. It is now hard to see African heads of state rushing back to Libya.
Observers detect yet another U-turn in the offing. As his Africa policy unravels, Colonel Qaddafi is back befriending the Arabs, with visits this week to Jordan, Syria and even his old foe, Saudi Arabia. In their rampage on migrant workers, the Libyan mob spared Arabs, including the 750,000 Egyptians. Now that the UN’s sanctions have gone, the African states who dared break the air boycott have served their purpose. The more lily-livered Arab states, who shunned Libya, can now perhaps be forgiven, under the latest banner, Arab-African unity.