Libya is losing Africa’s sympathy
Ten years ago, most African countries felt sympathy and gratitude for Libya. Regardless of the Qaddafi regime’s nature and behaviour, Libya was seen as a standard bearer in opposing the legacy of European colonisation, even if it was mostly political posturing.
Today, however, as greedy politicians and belligerent militias continue to tear Libya apart, the country stands to lose whatever sympathy it has left among its African admirers. Foreign and local parties have turned the country into a lawless, chaotic territory where organised crime thrives.
Perhaps the most shocking contradiction is Libya’s transformation from a former safe haven for Africans to a slave market where sub-Saharan migrants are bought and sold in scenes reminiscent of the transatlantic slave trade.
Scenes of Libyan slave markets shared by international media outlets are a stab in the back to Africa. They revive old wounds from the days of European slave traders and their pillaging vessels and conjure up painful images of slaves working in cotton plantations in the American south or in the feudal white-owned plantations of Latin America. Such practices were thought to have been part of the past, but Libya has sadly redefined itself as the new land for such shameful actions.
Responsibility for Libya’s tragic decline belongs to the country’s warring factions. Not only have they let go of a golden opportunity to rebuild their country and turn it into a strong, well-developed state, they have chosen to mire it deeper in the mud with constant internal bickering and squabbles. They have turned Libya into a den of vipers and rendered it a source of insecurity for the entire region. By doing so, they have victimised the Libyan people and all Africans at the same time.
UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame is finding it very difficult to move all the warring factions in the country towards a comprehensive political solution. The proliferation of weapons and criminal gangs in Libya has pushed that objective out of reach.
Political and economic failure is turning life into a suffocating nightmare for most Libyans. What is worse is that the shameful practices of the armed militias and slave-trading gangs will undermine much of the international enthusiasm to save Libya. Such practices might also legitimise tougher measures by the international community.
The self-declared governments in east and west Libya should have been aware that deliberately delaying the establishment of unified, legitimate institutions in Libya would simply lead to more security problems. As criminal gangs gain in territory and power, the political transition becomes more difficult to implement and any eventual political settlement risks becoming meaningless and non-viable.
The world, and Africa in particular, is angry at what is happening in Libya. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has gone so far as to threaten to bring the case of African migrants in Libya to the International Criminal Court. If Africa and the world choose to go ahead with that, the scandal could tarnish some European partners that allegedly made secret deals with local militias in Libya to stop illegal migration towards Europe from Libyan shores at all costs.
Such migration has reportedly gone down 70% since 2016. European authorities could have displayed a bit of curiosity about the fate of the thousands of Africans who were stranded in Libya as a result. The same is true for those detained in miserable conditions in holding camps.
It is only fair to shed some light on Europe’s responsibility in turning Libya into Africa’s Guantanamo. African leaders intend to put this burning file on the agenda for the coming African-European Summit. The gesture will be loaded with symbolism as such questions, along with calls for Europe to pay reparations to former African colonies, were among Muammar Qaddafi’s litanies at every summit with the Europeans.
An investigation into slavery practices in the Libyan capital is hardly sufficient. What Libya really needs is a shared awareness of the risks involved in letting the country slip into a militia state. There is international fear, particularly among Libya’s neighbours, that if left unchecked, the Libyan crisis might reach a point of no-return. In that case, Libya would not be the only loser in the region.