The War in Libya: Race, “Humanitarianism,” and the Media


Firing for Media Effect: Setting the “African” Agenda

“We left behind our friends from Chad.  We left behind their bodies.  We had 70 or 80 people from Chad working for our company.  They cut them dead with pruning shears and axes, attacking them, saying you’re providing troops for Gadhafi.  The Sudanese, the Chadians were massacred.  We saw it ourselves.”  (A Turkish oilfield worker who fled Libya, speaking to the BBC and quoted in NPR’s “In Libya, African Migrants Say They Face Hostility,” 25 February 2011)

“I am a worker, not a fighter.  They took me from my house and [raped] my wife,” he said, gesturing with his hands.  Before he could say much more, a pair of guards told him to shut up and hustled him through the steel doors of a cell block, which quickly slammed behind them.  Several reporters protested and the man was eventually brought back out.  He spoke in broken, heavily accented English and it was hard to hear and understand him amid the scrum of scribes pushing closer.  He said his name was Alfusainey Kambi, and again professed innocence before being confronted by an opposition official, who produced two Gambian passports.  One was old and tattered and the other new.  And for some reason, the official said the documents were proof positive that Kambi was a Kadafi operative. . . .  All I know is that the Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits prisoners of war from being paraded and questioned before cameras of any kind.  But that’s exactly what happened today.  The whole incident just gave me a really bad vibe, and thank God it finally ended . . . .  [O]ur interpreter, a Libyan national, asked [LA Times reported David] Zucchino: “So what do you think?  Should we just go ahead and kill them?”  (Luis Sinco, “Journalists Visit Prisoners Held by Rebels in Libya,” Los Angeles Times, 23 March 2011)

To what extent is the revolt in Libya a continuation of earlier race riots against the presence of migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa?  Where do members of the Gaddafi regime, some of whom were apparently responsible for setting security forces against those migrants, fit in with the current rebel leadership?  How does the calculated cultivation of racial fear and racially selective xenophobia tie in with calls for foreign military (“humanitarian”) intervention?  How might intervening powers be providing cover for another massacre, one that is color-coded and rendered invisible?  How do the mass media, social media, and government pronouncements from NATO members feed off each other?  When both sides in a war have killed civilians, by what definition of “humanitarianism” do we intercede on one side in an armed conflict?

One of the interesting and very neglected features of the current “humanitarian intervention” in Libya is the extent to which it implicitly buys into racialized nationalist myths produced on the ground in Libya, adopting them without question and thus without concern for context, with little in the way of a critical examination of the media manipulation and calculated spread of racial fear by the leadership of “the rebels.”  It is not a simple matter of the Libyan opposition showing signs of xenophobia — if that were true, it would resent the involvement of North Americans and Europeans.  Instead, this is a racially selective xenophobia, with a preferential option for Western (i.e., U.S. and European) intervention, and against the presence of “Africans” (code for Sub-Saharan, black Africans).  It reminds me of an old racial saying I learned in the Caribbean, truncated here: “If you’re white, you’re alright . . . and if you’re black, go back.”  The point here is to explore and critique an issue that thus far exists only on the margins of media coverage and human rights discourse around Libya, that being the extent to which racism, and specifically the demonization of Sub-Saharan Africans, provides the unifying logic that bridged local revolt with imperial intervention.

In a situation where we have been told so little, and so many blind spots have been calculatingly put in place, what is apparent?

First, it was right from the intended start of the national protests (that is, Feb. 17 — although protests in fact began two days earlier) that several opposition spokesmen, anonymous “Libyan” Twitter accounts, and other persons who would become associated with the insurgents’ “Transitional National Council” (TNC) produced the paradox of racial/racist hysteria and humanitarian intervention.  This was a double-barreled rhetoric: one barrel firing off accusations about foreign/black/African mercenaries engaged in “massacres” against Libyans, and the other barrel firing off demands for immediate Western intervention in the form of a no-fly zone — the latter to help protect against the former.  The two went together — that is not an adventurous conclusion, as the two came together.

This merits repetition: those Libyans who called for foreign military intervention did so weeks before any supposed “impending massacre” in Benghazi, and did so just as the protests began.  In addition, in making those calls, the black specter of African mercenaries was used as a tool to impress urgency on those who would intervene.  The no-fly zone may or may not have averted a supposed “massacre” in Benghazi — and there is good reason to dispute that one was in the works; but what it did not avert is the bloody and often lethal persecution of a whole other group of civilians, that is, African migrant workers targeted because of the color of their skin.

Second, the myth of the African mercenary, as it has been played out, suggests that Gaddafi is totally isolated: it is just him, versus all of the “united” Libyans.  Nationalist drama requires a useful myth: “the people united against the dictator.”  In this case, “Gaddafi is going to kill all the Libyan people” or “the whole of Benghazi” is among the statements that were seized upon by those who would then invoke the “responsibility to protect” (R2P).  The sometimes explicitly stated premise is that “no Libyans could do this” (suppress a Libyan revolt with such ferocity).  That too is a myth: no dictatorial regime, not even that which you might consider to be the worst in history, has ever lacked a core of support, with supporters often continuing to exist long past the end of the regime itself, sometimes acting to restore it in one form or another.  Of course Libyans can “do this,” and the only available evidence is that they are.  The wider point is that “the nation,” in a deeply divided society, is being reinvented around unity, a unity that excludes Gaddafi and “his Africans.”

It also bears repeating, and will be substantiated below: no incontrovertible evidence exists that “African mercenaries” have conducted any kind of mass slaughter in Libya, or that they have played any role in the suppression of protests.  But evidence does exist of racially-motivated crimes against humanity committed by the insurgents and their supporters against African migrant workers, which thus far have been held beyond the call for investigation and accountability by the “international community.”  One has to wonder how the results might have been different, had all Libyans been black, and the targeted foreign workers white.

Race Riots in Libya, Pre-2011, a Split in the Regime, and a Preview of the Present Crisis

PLANELOADS of bodies, dead and alive, flew back to West Africa from Tripoli this week. . . .  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 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. . . .  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. . . .  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. . . .  In their rampage on migrant workers, the Libyan mob spared Arabs, including the 750,000 Egyptians.  (The Economist, “Pogrom,” 14 October 2000)

“It was not easy, because being a black man [in Libya], you can’t live there simply,” said George Auther, 26, who returned here in October after spending two years in the predominantly Arab nation as a builder’s apprentice.  “You can’t move around freely.  The problem is, the Libyans don’t like blacks.”  (Ann Simmons, “Migrant Workers from Ghana Who Fled Libya Cite Racism,” Los Angeles Times, 16 December 2000).

What is lacking in much of what passes for “informed commentary” on Libya is historical depth and context.  Everything seems structured to explain the events of the day, without relation to previous days, let alone previous years, and the wider social and economic context.  In 2000 violence against migrant workers from sub-Saharan African nations broke out across Libya, after the government ordered a crackdown against illegal immigrants.  Violence that scapegoats Africans and blames them for all of the most important local problems is not new in Libya, and there is little justification for treating the post-February 15 violence as some sort of aberration.

As reported in the New African (“Who’s Spoiling Gaddafi’s Dream?” November 2000, p. 12), Gaddafi addressed then Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings about “hidden hostile hands” behind the attacks on Africans in Libya, in a radio broadcast apologizing for the violence against the migrants.  Rawlings himself flew to Libya to personally rescue a few hundred of the thousands of Ghanaians caught up in the violence.  Gaddafi fired two of his ministers, including the justice minister.  Gaddafi said that internal enemies were trying to thwart his plans for Libya’s deeper integration with the African continent.  That article claimed that 2.5 million African immigrants lived in Libya and that, of its population of 5.4 million, 1.4 million were Libyan blacks, according to the then deputy information secretary, Boukari Houda.

Suggestive of an early split in the regime, there is evidence of proclamations by Gaddafi, and actions by others, that do not correspond.  Gaddafi “attempted to distance himself from the ethnic attacks.  He blamed the violence on enemies of African unity determined to scuttle his project to create ‘the Union of African States’, citing ‘hidden hands,’ presumably from the West” — but we need not presume that, as Gaddafi never mentioned the West.  We were told that in interviews “those fleeing the ethnic attacks say that they were carried out by gangs of youths with the complicity if not direct involvement of state forces,” so that at least one segment of the regime was actively engaged in the violence.  Is it the same segment that would later defect from the regime during this year’s protests, and join to form the opposition Transitional National Council?

At the time of the race riots, the then Minister of Economy, Trade, and Investment — one Ali Abd-al-Aziz al-Isawi — stated about the African presence: “it is a burden”; and then he added this: “They are a burden on health care, they spread disease, crime.  They are illegal.”

Racial Scapegoating: The Leadership of the “Transitional National Council of Libya” (TNC)

Re-enter Ali Abd-al-Aziz al-Isawi who previously served as Secretary of the General People’s Committee of Libya (GPCO) for Economy, Trade, and Investment — now responsible for “foreign affairs” and “international liaison” as the third-ranked member of the TNC.  Now he has been sending the media, in his new role, a similar message that denigrates and scapegoats black Africans:

“They [the mercenaries] are from Africa, and speak French and other languages.”  He said their presence had prompted some army troops to switch sides to the opposition.  “They are Libyans and they cannot see foreigners killing Libyans so they moved beside the people.”  In a separate interview, Essawi told al-Jazeera: “People say they are black Africans and they don’t speak Arabic.  They are doing terrible things, going to houses and killing women and children.”

Was al-Isawi one of Gaddafi’s “hostile hidden hands” in the attacks on migrant workers back in 2000?  While Gaddafi denounced the violence in 2000, members of the state’s own security forces reportedly took part in some of the attacks.  The UN also noted that over the years members of the state security forces have been complicit in attacking African migrants.  One would like to know if they did so, spontaneously, on their own initiative, or were ordered to do so from higher ups.  We should note that the former Libyan Interior Minister, and a former Minister of Public Security, Abdul Fatah Younis, is now a rebel military commander.

Top officials in the Libyan TNC are thus on the record, both now and when they served in the regime, for producing various accusations against black Africans.  For those of us who have studied nationalism, both the instrumental objectification of otherness and the primordialism of racial belonging can be powerful strategies and resources used by ethnic elites in mobilizing supporters.  That there may be this deeper agenda of scraping off the stain of “Black Africa” seems convincing; the copy-and-paste manifesto of the rebels’ commitment to liberal democracy, not so much.

Racial Fear and Airports:
The Opposition’s Calls for Foreign Military Intervention

Racial fear and xenophobia lie at the very crux of the first public emergence of calls for Western intervention, and the first utterance of “no-fly zone.”  Those in the West who backed the interventionist impulse (for many more reasons of their own) latched onto these calls.  The former Libyan deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, alleged that Gaddafi was employing “African mercenaries” to protect the regime.  This is how TIME supports his claims: “The nationalities of the soldiers are not known, though some unconfirmed reports indicate some soldiers may be French-speaking.  The numbers of soldiers is also unknown, although witnesses in Libya claim to have seen several planes land at different airports across the country and disgorge hundreds of fighters — an intervention of sufficient size to suggest a foreign government’s complicity in their departure for Libya, if not actual support” (emphases added).  Right there we see the link between racial fear and airports, and hence the calls for a no-fly zone, which were originally tied to “protecting” Libya from incoming black mercenaries.  Only subsequently were justifications for a NFZ widened to include suppression of Gaddafi’s air force and targeting his ground forces.

The coupling of fear of African (read “black”) mercenaries and the use of airports was affirmed by others in the mainstream Western media.  Abdel Bari Zouay told the media:

“We call on the United Nations and all those who have a conscience to help the city Ajdabiya.  The regime has sent African forces into the city but we are here waiting in the square of the martyrs.  Everyone here is ready to defend the city against the mercenaries.  We’ve discovered that these African mercenaries are going to land at Zouitina airport.  I can assure you that everybody here is ready to fight against these traitors and African mercenaries.”

While a spokesman for the TNC alleged that a whole army of 3,500 fighters from Chad was responsible for the slaughter of “thousands” of opposition fighters and their withdrawal from frontline cities between Benghazi and Tripoli, actual footage obtained from Al Jazeera, showing government forces moving through one such frontline area, shows absolutely no evidence of this Chadian army or of any apparent mercenaries.  As far as I know, TNC spokespersons have remained silent on this.

Issaka Souare, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, commenting on the allegations that target Sub-Saharan Africans, noted: “There seems to be this idea that if people are supporting Qaddafi, it must be mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, because it could not be the work of Libyans.  It must be these savage Africans.”

In response to a recent delegation from the African Union, seeking to pursue a peaceful resolution that would end the violence, we are told this by TIME magazine, reaffirming the role of anti-African sentiment: “Benghazi residents are equally suspicious of the Union, having watched Gaddafi hand over their oil wealth to their poorer neighbors rather than invest it in modernizing their country.  ‘All these countries are good for is taking our money,’ lamented Khalid al-Atti, 28.”

Social Media Folklore:
Creating the Legend of “African Mercenaries”

One of the most fertile sites for the international production of myths of savage African mercenaries has been Twitter, among other social network sites, in ways that bring back to mind the manner in which Twitter was used to spread misinformation at the time of the June 2009 Iran election protests.  The problem is not that the site is an outlet for creative imaginations, but that some of the mainstream media source Twitter for their reports, in the absence of correspondents on the ground.  The Independent’s Michael Mumisa observed that “foreign media outlets have had to rely mostly on unverified reports posted on social network websites and on phone calls from Libyans terrified of Gaddafi’s ‘savage African mercenaries who are going door-to-door raping our women and attacking our children’,” and he speaks of “a Twitter user based in Saudi Arabia,” who “wrote how Gaddafi is ‘ordering african (sic) mercenaries to break into homes in Benghazi to RAPE (sic) Libyan women in order to detract (sic) men protesters!'”  The New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick, in one of the few sober pieces analyzing the Libyan opposition, noted that “like the chiefs of the Libyan state news media, the rebels feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda, claiming nonexistent battlefield victories, asserting they were still fighting in a key city days after it fell to Qaddafi forces, and making vastly inflated claims of his barbaric behavior.”

Twitter is useful, however, not as a source of incontestable information about Gaddafi’s atrocities, but as a guide to how the opposition prepared the narrative cover for attacking Sub-Saharan Africans.  The mass of passive repeaters (retweeters), comprising diverse individuals and some journalists, helped from early on to inseminate the fear of African terror: “Afro-mercs” landing at the nearest airport and fanning out to murder Libyans.  The myth was useful to the opposition, possessing a structure that made it cohere and appeal on a very basic level: 1) all vs. one — the Libyan people united against the dictator; 2) male vs. female — African mercenaries specifically targeting Libyan women; and, 3) local vs. foreign — proud nationals combating savage intruders.  Some of the tweeted statements are classics of colonial racial propaganda, especially when they revolve around protecting local Libyan women, a useful trope also in both classic and contemporary imperial narratives linking the status of native women with progress and liberation.

Let’s look at some of the tweets that gained early notice, and let’s pay attention to the ideas and images that they combine as well as the sheer misinformation, while we also note that some are recycled by journalists, such as Mona El-Tahaway, omnipresent TV pundit of the Arab revolutions and supporter of U.S./NATO air strikes against Libya, and Al Jazeera’s Dima Khatib.  The dates are also important.  (Note, I myself retweeted these so that they would appear in my Twitter feed, where I first began this discussion.)  Key elements of the messages appear in bold font:

LibyanThinker  URGENT!!!  From contact in the Army: So far, 1300African Mercenaries have arrived in #Libya to date.  Cant’ the World hear our cries???  Sat Feb 19 2011 23:21:00 (Eastern Standard Time) via TweetDeck Retweeted by you and 84 others

monaeltahawy  2 mercenaries caught Bayda.  From Chad, claimed 2 b part of Khamees [Qaddafi’s son] Military Unit.  Said were promised $12,000/ #Libyan killed.  Sat Feb 19 2011 20:32:50 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 100+ others

Tripolitanian  I URGE THE LIBYAN ARMY TO SIDE WITH THE LIBYAN PEOPLE – don’t let these African mercs kill your family!  #Libya #Feb17  Sat Feb 19 2011 20:23:04 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 54 others

Dima_Khatib  Witness tells a plane full of mercenaries leaves Harare Airport in Zimbabwe headed to #Libya #feb17  Sat Feb 19 2011 20:15:06 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 100+ others [later proved to be entirely false]

LibyanThinker  NEW!  #Gaddafi has given the African Mercenaries full freedom in raping Libyan women.  #Libya  Sat Feb 19 2011 19:57:04 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 20 others

LibyanThinker @streamsWL they were attacked earlier by the khmis battalion and Afro-Mercs are still moving around the city.  Sat Feb 19 2011 07:46:24 (Eastern Standard Time) via TweetDeck in reply to streamsWL Retweeted by you

LibyanThinker  URGENT!!!!  African Mercenaries are massacring the people of #Bayda #Libya  Sat Feb 19 2011 04:45:01 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 3 others

LibyanThinker  RT: A massacre against the civilians is going on in #Libya  The international community & UN must intervene to stop the massacre @AJEnglish  Fri Feb 18 2011 01:42:14 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 4 others [this message was directed to all readers of #Libya news, and Al Jazeera English, merely three days after the protest had begun, and long before any alleged threat of a final massacre in Benghazi late in March]

LibyanThinker  URGENT!!!  African Mercenaries danced around and desecrated the bodies of #Benghazi martyrs according to witnesses.  #Libya #feb17  Thu Feb 17 2011 20:44:45 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 34 others [a story is made to sound true if one adds “according to witnesses” — a key ingredient to all folklore is the tool, “some people say” — adding “urgent” and “confirmed” is meant to impress that this is “a true story”]

LibyanThinker  Mercenaries operating in #Libya have been confirmed to be #French speaking Africans from CHAD.  #feb17#Tripoli #Benghazi  Thu Feb 17 2011 18:53:19 (Eastern Standard Time) via webRetweeted by you and 26 others

[Incidentally, LibyanThinker’s Twitter account does not go back further than February 16, meaning that it was created, by an anonymous person — claiming to be in Canada — just to produce tweets that spread the opposition’s media message.]

AliLePointe  100% CONFIRMED: MERCENARIES IN BADYHAMASSACRING PEOPLE!  @AJELive @andersoncooper @CNNBRK@CNN @Cyrenaican #feb17 #libya  Sat Feb 19 2011 04:42:41 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 35 others [note the distribution list: all readers of #Libya and #Feb17 news, and CNN and Al Jazeera]

AliLePointe  CONFIRMED: QADDAFI’S PAID AFRICAN MERCENARIES ARE IN BENGHAZI ATTEMPTING TO KILL EVERYBODY.  #libya #feb17   Fri Feb 18 2011 19:33:30 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 28 others [note what is “confirmed,” an outrageous allegation that the total annihilation of Benghazi was in progress, and the sole culprits were Africans]

IbnOmar2005  People of #Libya to #Gaddafi: leave!  leave to (subsaharan) Africa since you love them so much!  (referring to mercenaries killing libyans)  Fri Feb 18 2011 18:54:27 (Eastern Standard Time) via TweetDeck Retweeted by you and 8 others

AliLePointe  Mercenaries in #Benghazi #Libya going in homes and attacking women while men are in the streets Spread the word PROTECT OUR WOMEN! #feb17  Fri Feb 18 2011 18:45:22 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 20 others

ShababLibya  more messages being received now of mercenaries entering homes in benghazi… intimidating women while men out guarding #Libya #Feb17  Fri Feb 18 2011 18:38:04 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 43 others

ShababLibya again from fellow tweeter: mercenaries are entering homes of libyans while males are out #Libya #Feb17 (as expected city is now lawlessFri Feb 18 2011 17:48:39 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 50 others

ShababLibya  A fellow tweeter contacts his family: benghaziwomen(protests)said to be in trouble, mercenaries still in the city #Libya #Feb17  Fri Feb 18 2011 17:46:26 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 35 others

AliLePointe  Contact in Jdabiya: the mercenaries we didnt kick out we killed Dont be scared for us, we did the same in #Benghazi #Libya #feb17 mash’Allah  Fri Feb 18 2011 17:13:12 (Eastern Standard Time) via Twitter for iPhone Retweeted by you and 6 others [an interesting admission to the mass slaughter of Africans, but which “we” are intended to celebrate as heroism]

ShababLibya according to @almanaralibya confirmed African Mercenaries in Western Libya also, the world must investigate this immediately #Libya #Feb17  Thu Feb 17 2011 18:07:46 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 20 others

ShababLibya  Confirmed, Mercenaries killing protesters across Libya DO NOT speak Libyan, and are from subsaharan Africa speaking french #Libya #Feb17  Thu Feb 17 2011 18:03:32 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 84 others

AlmanaraMedia  Latest News – All People Of Bayda have gone out to support the Protesters after they heard foreign mercenaries are in the city  Thu Feb 17 2011 14:08:13 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 2 others

AlmanaraMedia  URGENT: Gaddafi uses African mercenaries to kill the demonstrators from the sons of the Libyan people  Thu Feb 17 2011 13:46:11 (Eastern Standard Time) via web Retweeted by you and 10 others

AliLePointe  African mercenaries now in #Benghazi #Libya sources in Libya say they’re chasing and killing people with knives and swords.  We only fear God  Thu Feb 17 2011 10:26:32 (Eastern Standard Time) via Twitter for iPhone Retweeted by you and 43 others

ShababLibya  Abdallah: yes there are pro gaddafi protests: but they are not Libyan, they are Africans they are killing everybody #Libya #Feb17  Thu Feb 17 2011 10:24:02 (Eastern Standard Time) via webRetweeted by you and 26 others

AliLePointe  @saminauk because in #Libya those who dont speak Arabic are few and far btwn and, in these times, the only one who dont are mercenariesSat Feb 19 2011 10:41:03 (Eastern Standard Time) via Twitter for iPhone in reply to saminauk [note the “standard of proof” here: if you do not speak Arabic, you are a mercenary]

Afro-mercs, desecrating bodies, wildly dancing, raping women, breaking into homes, the only supporters of Gaddafi, just landed at a nearby airport, they don’t speak Arabic so they are mercs, the international community needs to act — what a gruesome set of tales have been spun and accepted by most of the mainstream media and used by political leaders in NATO states.  To think that calls for “humanitarian intervention” and invocations of the “responsibility to protect” were premised in part on such drivel, it ought to make those people turn red with shame.

But it is not just tweets.  We also have those widely reproduced photos such as these: 1) some of the Libyan soldiers have black faces — assumption: they must be mercenaries, as if there were no black Libyans or naturalized immigrants in the military; 2) a darkened photo taken from a distance — assumption: it’s dark because the soldiers must be dark, hence African, hence mercenaries; 3) a foreign ID document, from the Republic of Guinea — assumption: citizen of a Sub-Saharan nation, therefore must be a mercenary; 4) another African ID, must also be a merc, except that this one first appeared on Flickr, where we are told it was taken on January 9, 2006, and which one site suggests may have been altered.

Regarding one of the videos made by the opposition to show the capture of a supposed “foreign African mercenary,” a black Libyan viewer recognized one of the captives, as a fellow Libyan: “I am very sorry to see these clips.  One of the guys in the seen is black Libyan ‘not from other African countries’  His family lives in EL Mansoura village in Elwadi shatty district.  about 200 KM from Borack Ashhati.  ( Borack AL Shatty is about 700KM south of Tripoli).  I have not got permission to put his name here.  Hope his family will see this and they will clarify.”

While the New York Times spoke of supposed “African mercenaries” appearing in yellow construction helmets — not, as far as I know, the internationally recognized uniform for mercenaries, but rather, for construction workers — it conceded that, yes, many appeared to be foreign workers.  Indeed, these “mercenaries” in safety hats appeared in one video to be wielding nothing more than pieces of wood.  But, for the UK’s Mirror newspaper, that is damning enough: “In bizarre scenes, plain-clothed security men — wearing bright yellow construction helmets so they could identify each other — charged demonstrators.”  The scenes are not what were bizarre here: what is bizarre is the Mirror producing such a ridiculous account — these Africans needed the yellow helmets to recognize each other.  However, some might say, this was all captured on video.  Was it?

In this instant classic of cable news media, posted on YouTube, we see some of these “yellow hat” mercenaries at work (except that we also see uniformed security forces, and that did not receive any comment).  Why is this video so effective and why was it replayed on the major cable news networks?  Because it is highly suggestive and has certain dramatic effects, such as incessant and very shrill screams from the women who move their cell phone cameras around rapidly, creating a sense of extreme chaos and alarm.  What are the problems? 1) It is very short: there is no context — no before, no after, no sense of what led to what we see.  What if I said these African workers were trying to defend themselves, and security forces came to their rescue?  Note how the video cannot disprove that, just as it cannot prove anything else; 2) Another woman’s hand and cell phone often intrude in the view, blocking scenes of the action — we never got to see her video on YouTube, just the one from the camera she blocked; 3) Where is the massacre?  Indeed, where are the protesters here?  Did you hear any gunfire?  No, but the women screaming . . . that tells you it is something “important” and that you ought to feel their fear, at the mere sight of these Africans, who kill no one in the video.  In short, the video is garbage.

We also have video recordings of supposed “mercenaries” put on display (against international humanitarian law), and the only thing showing is their skin color — see this one for example.  In another, we are shown a black man, dead and mutilated, wearing a soldier’s uniform, casually handled and put on display for us.  This site claims to show a video of “African mercenaries” firing on civilians, and shows nobody doing any firing, just protesters running, and the original video on YouTube makes no reference to mercenaries at all.

Remember we are being shown these, because we are the intended audience, not the Libyans, most of whom find access to the Internet blocked and only 5% of whom use Twitter.  And those producing these allegations share both their racial fears with us, but also assume that we will understand them: that we will naturally recoil at the sight of a black man.

He’s Got a Yellow Hat!  Quick, Kill Him!

More about those yellow hats.  In a very unique first-hand report, published by the Los Angeles Times, we are shown this confrontation, involving a Ghanaian construction worker held captive in Benghazi and paraded for the cameras (a violation of the Geneva Convention) — he was not supposed to talk, but did:

One young man from Ghana bolted from the prisoners queue.  He shouted in English at an American reporter: “I’m not a soldier!  I work for a construction company in Benghazi!  They took me from my house . . .”  A guard shoved the prisoner back toward the cells.  “Go back inside!” he ordered.  The guard turned to the reporter and said: “He lies.  He’s a mercenary.”

A mercenary indeed: he’s black, and he probably had a yellow safety hat in his possession.

But mercenaries can be tricky, because they never admit to being mercenaries, which probably means that anyone who denies being a mercenary probably is one:

“These are the people who came to kill us,” said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman for the council, gazing on the detainees with contempt.

Asked whether some of the accused might indeed be foreign construction workers, Bani replied: “We are not in paradise here.  Do you think they’re going to admit they are mercenaries?  We know they are, of course.”

The rebels have captive an unspecified number of such men from sub-Saharan Africa, and we do not know what becomes of them.  Human Rights Watch has also described “a concerted campaign in which thousands of men have been driven from their homes in eastern Libya and beaten or arrested.”  Indeed, after research conducted in eastern Libya, Human Rights Watch concluded that there was no evidence of mercenaries.  Nonetheless, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of HRW, has spoken out in support of foreign military intervention.

The Role of Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Other Mass Media

Amidst the high emotions of the horrifying violence meted out by Gaddafi’s loyalists against demonstrators, the desire on the part of social media and social network groups to claim yet another dictator’s scalp, and the haste by traditional media to be the first to break a story, the vilification of black Africans in Libya has proliferated unchecked.  We can only imagine the impact that this will have on Libya’s own black African tribes and other minorities after the dust has settled.  Surely we are not ready for another Darfur.  (Michael Mumisa, “Is Al-Jazeera TV Complicit in the Latest Vilification of Libya’s Blacks?” The Independent, 24 February 2011)

“Unconfirmed” quickly becomes “confirmed”; “according to an eyewitness”; “some people say” — these are the methods by which “news” about Libya is often made.  Yet, as media anthropologist Elizabeth Bird warns, this is what makes news almost analytically indistinguishable from folklore.  One of the anonymous “Feb17” websites that has become a steady presence in distributing opposition propaganda first sends an allegation to the mass media, and then when it is repeated by the media the website in turn recirculates what was originally its own allegation, as if it were now “confirmed,” simply by virtue of media repetition.  One example of this is the allegation of 4,000 African mercenaries arriving in Libya on February 14.

Starting on February 17 itself, Al Jazeera picked up and ran with many of the allegations that “African mercenaries” were at work in “massacring” Libyans.  On February 18 Al Jazeera broadcast this report, featuring someone in Benghazi speaking by telephone, who asserted (without any actual evidence provided) that African invaders were killing civilians.  In addition, that speaker asked in an impassioned voice: “Where is Obama?  Where is the rest of the world?”  The marriage between rumor, racial scapegoating, media, and foreign intervention was thus hastily conceived.

It would not be true to say that Al Jazeera has spoken only about “African mercenaries,” and completely neglected how opposition forces have targeted African migrants, living and working as unarmed, noncombatant civilians.  In one report, we hear Jacky Rowland: “What we are looking at here, is the ugly face of the revolution” — but as Monthly Review‘s Yoshie Furuhashi says: “Al Jazeera reports on this ‘ugly face’ as if the channel had nothing to do with its emergence, chalking it up to ‘racism’ that ‘when law and order break down . . . can rise to the surface’.   However, it is none other than Al Jazeera (together with Western corporate media) that, by conveying Libyan rebel testimonies without independently verifying their accuracy, has been spreading the very rumors that it now pretends to deplore.”  As Furuhashi adds, “if Al Jazeera now sees an ugly face in Libya, it is only looking at the face of a monster for whose birth it served as chief midwife.”

On occasion, some interesting facts creep through.  Though meant to shore up rebel claims about African “mercenaries,” if we understand that many of those “mercenaries” are in fact innocent civilians, it should sound alarm bells to encounter passages such as the following.  As quoted by the Guardian, Amer Saad, a political activist from Derna, told Al Jazeera:

The protesters in al-Bayda have been able to seize control of the military airbase in the city and have executed 50 African mercenaries and two Libyan conspirators.  Even in Derna today, a number of conspirators were executed.  They were locked up in the holding cells of a police station because they resisted, and some died burning inside the building.

In the same article, dealing with Gaddafi’s supposed genocide, in contrast to the 50 Africans massacred by the opposition, we are told that Human Rights Watch estimated a grand total of 24 protesters killed in the first three days of the protests.

For the most part, however, we see Al Jazeera at work circulating rumor as if it were fact, as in its Libya Live Blog for February 17.  Here are some sample entries dealing with “African mercenaries” coupled again with very early calls for U.S. intervention:

12:01am: Online reports say Darnah city now under attack from “mercenaries”.

10:25pm: More on the resignation of the two diplomats from the embassy in Washington DC.  Counsels Saleh Ali Al Majbari and Jumaa Faris denounced Gaddafi, saying he “bears responsibility for genocide against the Libyan people in which he has used mercenaries”.

They said they had nothing to do with the events and they no longer represent Gaddafi’s regime — but that they represent the Libyan people.  The pair also called on Barack Obama to “work urgently with the international community to press for an immediate cessation of the massacres of the Libyan people”, and they are asking the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone imposed on Libya to prevent the arrival of mercenaries to Libya.

9:46pm: Confirmed — Ali al-Essawi, ambassador to India, has resigned.  He has accused the government of deploying foreign mercenaries against Libyan citizens.  We’re hoping to get him live on Al Jazeera English.  You can watch our TV feed by clicking here.

10:00 pm: As fresh violence grips Libya — there are claims that some of those cracking down on anti-government demonstrators are foreign mercenaries.

Like Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya has produced much the same.  In a report posted on February 19, “Gaddafi Recruits ‘African Mercenaries’ to Quell Protests,” it states in a matter-of-fact manner:

Libya recruited hundreds of mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa . . . [a] witness told Al Arabiya from the eastern city of Benghazi on Sunday.  The witnesses said protesters in Benghazi caught some “African mercenaries” who spoke French and who admitted that they were ordered by Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Khamis Gaddafi, to fire live ammunition at demonstrators.  The witnesses, who refused to be named for security reasons, added that they saw four airplanes carrying “African mercenaries” land in Benina International Airport near the city of Benghazi, the second largest city in the country.

The report then quotes, not a source on the ground, but “UK-based Libyan website (Libya’s generation)” and says that it “reported” that “a number of airplanes carrying ‘African mercenaries’ had landed in Mitiga military airport, 11 km east of the capital Tripoli, and they were dressed in Libyan army uniform.”

Airports, blacks, mercenaries — repeated over and over again, just as the very first calls for a no-fly zone were made.

TIME magazine, for its part, breathlessly recited almost all of the allegations stemming from racial hysteria in one swift paragraph, whose primary source is “YouTube and other websites.”  Wildest of them all, The Telegraph “reported” scores of civilians jumping from bridges in Benghazi, fleeing “battle-hardened mercenaries” and quoted local officials regarding “tanks full of mercenaries” firing heavy weapons at protesters.  UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, picking up on the story, dutifully denounces the reported violence as “horrifying.”  Mission accomplished.  Even when expressing some doubts about unconfirmed speculation, the Guardian did its own heavy lifting in circulating the rumors and accusations, by dressing them with expert opinion that is merely suggestive of the possibility of “African mercenaries” being used to quell protests.

Humanitarian Disaster: Averted or Cloaked?

Hein de Haas asks, “Who cares about African migrants in Libya? . . . [W]hy is nobody concerned about the plight of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya?”  Is it accurate to say that nobody cares, or is it that only we nobodies care?  He says that “there is a huge danger that there will soon be a day of reckoning for African migrants, and the arbitrary violence has possibly started already.”  In fact, apart from exceptions in the Western media such as the Los Angeles Times, one has to go to African news sites to get a different perspective, not necessarily a more reliable one, but certainly one that should compel us to ask some basic questions.  An Ethiopian news site states that most Ethiopians living in eastern Libya, the insurgent stronghold, are “hiding in their houses because it is dangerous for blacks to come out because they are considered by most Libyans as mercenaries” and speaks of those “dragged from their apartments beaten up and showed to the world as mercenaries.  We also heard many Ethiopians killed by angry mob in Benghazi.”  An article in the Somaliland Press tells us that, “in areas where forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has been forced out, many angry mobs are targeting black Africans after reports that the government was using ‘African mercenaries’ to repress the revolt was transmitted by Western media.”  In that same report, the chief spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Refugees reveals: “One journalist passed information to us from Somalis in Tripoli who said they were being hunted on suspicion of being mercenaries.”  The UNHCR’s only concern here was that people seeking to leave Libya should not face any obstacles in doing so.  Only recently has it produced a mild statement of concern for the fate of migrant workers in Libya, from sub-Saharan African nations, without any calls for active intervention.

Saad Jabbar (Deputy Director, North Africa Center at Cambridge University) told NPR: “I tell you, these people, because of their skin, they will be slaughtered in Libya,” fearing that what will come is “a genocide against anyone who has black skin and who doesn’t speak perfect Arabic.”  Other experts interviewed have also suggested that “a violent backlash by anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya who link black skin with the regime could lead to a massive genocide once the long-time leader is ousted.”

Heightening alarm among those not simply content to follow along with the mainstream reporting are events such as these: on both February 18 in Al Bayda, and February 23 in Darna, mobs attacked and lynched “darker-skinned” soldiers, and Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, spoke of public mass executions by the opposition.  In fact, “darker-skinned” soldiers, taken captive, are treated very differently from their “lighter-skinned” counterparts, according to local doctors, speaking of reprisal killings that began as early February 17, at the start of the protests.

The government of Chad has publicly complained that dozens of Chadians in rebel-controlled areas had been accused of being mercenaries and executed.  In an official statement, the Chadian government said it “is calling on international coalition forces involved in Libya and international human rights organization to stop these abuses against Chadians and other migrant Africa workers.”  Whether Western “humanitarian interventionists” ever hear such pleas is very doubtful, or if they do, they have developed “defense” mechanisms for blocking out information that is inconsistent with their preconceptions, which in some cases attest to an unspoken racial bias.  When Hillary Clinton, and others in the U.S. government, speak of “private security contractors,” they mean what the rest of us call mercenaries.  They tend to be white and American.  When Clinton finally uses the word “mercenaries” she is, consciously or not, speaking in racial code: she means black Africans.

“The Liberal Democratic Ideal” of R2P?

The liberal democratic ideal of R2P can be so easily raped by cynical manipulations that it has become pregnant with irony after irony, resulting in miscarriage.  This is the Libyan war’s biggest ideological victim.  It will be impossible for R2P advocates, who labored to produce stories of “genocide” in Libya, while turning a blind eye to reports of atrocities against civilians from Sub-Saharan Africa, to ever again invoke their doctrine without facing even greater hostility from those who will learn the lessons of the current debacle.  As 24 “human rights groups” jointly invoked R2P and called for foreign intervention, not one of them mentioned, even once, the plight of African migrant workers targeted and killed by the Libyan opposition.  Even if one rejects every single other argument made against “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, this fact alone, this racial blindness that effectively places Africans beyond the scope of “human rights,” is a damning enough indictment by itself.

We have been repeatedly instructed that the opposition leadership consists of “academics, lawyers, businessmen, professionals” and because of this list of members of an elite class it seems that the assumption is that “we” not only actually know something about what these people stand for, but because merely of their membership in a professional club “we” should sympathize with them.  Yet, it is also a way of getting us to think white — these are not “rag tag” black migrants and mercenaries, these are the respectable people, the forces of progress, deserving of human rights . . . as much as they deny them to others, as much as we ignore these others except as bearers of evil.

Maximilian Forte is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, specializing in political anthropology, media ethnographies, and the new imperialism.  This article was first published in a Salon blog on 18 April 2011; it is reproduced here with the author’s permission.  See, also, other articles by Forte: “The Libyan Revolution is Dead: Notes for an Autopsy”; “The Humanitarian-Militarist Project and the Production of Empire in Libya”; and “Libya: What Revolution? Whose Revolution?”

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