How do you prove that you are just an immigrant not a mercenary? It’s a question I have been pondering on the week and it’s a situation that thousands of Africans stuck in the Libya uprising have to deal with, that is if they are given chance.
Sub Saharan Africans had not surfaced much in the story of the protests and revolutions that have swept across North Africa until Libyans decided to take on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, their leader for the last four decades.
Protests first broke out in Libya on 15 February 2011 and a few days after that the international media got its juicy story of foreign fighters working for Gaddafi. It wasn’t long the term ‘African mercenaries’ came into full use.
To me it was like I was aback to one of my secondary school history classes about events in the 19th or 20th century and stories of African men taken to the fight in “world wars” where they had no idea.
Before the African mercenaries term was coined, there had been the African the migrant. The ‘possible mass migration’ of Africans to Europe was one of the very first stories about Africans and the Libya protests to hit the international scene. It was about the fear European countries had that Libya, one of the main routes for African immigrants, could pose them a problem if it plunged in state of lawlessness.
Gaddafi who had been helpful in significantly reducing the numbers of African immigrants crossing to Europe through pacts with EU members, then rushed to use this as a bargaining chip as the protests spread. And the African the migrant at this point became both a weapon and a threat. Actually the BBC reporter based in Nairobi said “The fear with Libya is that sub-Saharan Africans will try to leave and there are more of them.”
Out of a population of about seven million people in Libya, about one million are believed to be from sub-Saharan African countries. There are no concrete figures. Reports claimed that about three quarters of these Africans are sort of on a waiting list to try by any means to cross to Europe.
After the story of the African -the immigrant, came the African -the mercenary as Gaddafi became increasingly violent and killing hundreds of Libyans. Social networks and twitter were abuzz with words African mercenaries, some with outright racial undertones. Some tweets suggested Gaddafi had “brought Africans to break into their homes and rape their women.”
I thought ok, recent African civil wars which have been characterised by rape used as weapon of war have not helped perceptions about the continent that often people want to project! This rape aspect has been repeated in many tweets although we are yet to see reports on actual cases of rape in the international media.
Today I watched Al Jazeera showing a tweet from Redafayr linking mercenaries to 20 African countries where Tamoil, a Libyan petroleum company operates. Today Reuters reported that the rebel National Libyan Council in Benghazi, the insurgent capital said it believed Niger, Mali and Kenya were sending troops to support Gaddafi, who is now directing his forces from Tripoli.
These kinds of statements can only further fuel anger among those opposed to Gaddafi and puts more lives of immigrants held up in houses and other hiding places in Libya at great danger. We have seen reports that indicate dozens of immigrants have so far been killed. These are not deaths inflicted on the ‘Gaddafi’s African mercenaries’ but on African immigrants that have nothing to do with the parties in the conflict.
We have seen slow reaction and attention on international scene and on the part of the African Union and African countries on the mercenary issue. We have not seen bold statements against these xenophobic attacks.
In Uganda we have instead seen a national broadcaster sack two journalists over broadcasting of events in Libya and we don’t expect much from government to try and tell the nation that there is no Ugandan Libya as a mercenary. In Zimbabwe, Bob is busy charging anyone who mentions anything close to Libya with treason. It’s important that these countries come out and tell the world what is happening.
Kenya has done a lot to evacuate its citizens and others from the East African region. I know that an MP last week called on the country to investigate if young Kenyans who had gone to Islamic schools in Libya might be among the said mercenaries but yet to hear progress. Nigeria is continuing to evacuate its citizens from Libya but many other immigrants from other African countries are still stuck and governments are simply not doing much. I was shocked to see a Ugandan embassy employee saying if it hadn’t been for Kenya she would have died in Libya.
U.N. officials have warned that the latest charges from the council in Benghazi could escalate attacks on African migrants in rebel-held areas. We are yet to see the full coverage of the story of the African ‘the mercenary’ in Libya. We have seen a few pictures that came from protesters but the story is one of the hard ones to get and it will probably take as long as the uprising itself to know the entire story.
While there have been reports of many kind Libyans volunteering to watch over those immigrants that made it to camps, generally many on the continent fear that the impact of racial discrimination not only against immigrants but also black Libyans will continue to be manifested alongside the story of the African mercenary.
We will take long to see a positive story for instance on what African immigrants have contributed to the Libyan economy and how their absence could be felt in either post Gaddafi or post protests Libya. Ultimately the absence of a sub Saharan media will continue to put the African story to hands of foreign media whose plates are often to full too do it justice.