As clashes in major Libyan cities between the rebels and loyalists to Muammar Gaddafi worsen, migrant laborers from sub-Saharan Africa are under threat due to the widespread belief that Gaddafi has hired them as mercenary fighters.

Videos from Libya of captured Africans who are alleged to be mercenary fighters are flooding the internet, and debate continues as to whether militants from neighboring African nations — from Niger, Mali and Chad — are in fact aiding Gaddafi’s forces. But many experts on North Africa say the attacks and accusations point to an entrenched racism towards dark-skinned Africans that is present in many parts of Libya.

Before the uprising the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were 2.5 million migrants in Libya, many from sub-Saharan Africa. The West African nation of Ghana has repatriated close to 700 of its estimated 10,000 workers in Libya. Many of the Ghanaian workers who moved to cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi in search of a better life have returned with stories of looting, threats and beatings.

Ibrahim Zachariah, a 22-year-old steel fixer from Tamale, a city situated in the poor northern region of Ghana, had been living in Benghazi for two years before the uprising began in February. Zachariah worked for a construction company, making three times more than he would in Ghana and hoped to save for a house. He said that as the conflict worsened the company management ran and left the workers behind without paying them their wages.

Zachariah and the other employees lived within the compound as gunshots fired outside.

“Day in and out we couldn’t sleep,” he said. “We wore our shoes when we slept because we knew anything could happen at any time.”

Zachariah said protestors broke into the company compound where there were many African migrant workers, stole their money, burned their clothes and the machines. “This is all I brought to Ghana,” he said pointing to his clothing. “I lost my everything.”

Zachariah and his friend paid for a seat in a car to the Egyptian border and traveled with two Chadians. Zachariah said the Chadians were forced to get out of the car by opposition forces at a roadblock and he and his friend were allowed to continue on to the border because they were Ghanaian. Gaddafi has a known history of using the nation’s wealth to build connections with leaders in neighboring Chad, but has no such history in Ghana.

Hussein Zachariah, a welder from Tamale, worked for a Turkish construction company in Benghazi for three years before the conflict began. He said that although his working conditions were normal, he was often verbally abused on the street and had stones thrown at him.

“They say a lot of things about you,” said Hussein. “They call you a slave.” He claims his friend was accused of being a mercenary fighter and he witnessed him being severely beaten by protesters on the street.

Na’eem Jeenah, executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg, says the information from protesters and other sources in Libya coupled with Gaddafi’s history of using mercenaries from countries such as Chad, Nigeria and Niger, confirms that there would be a least a few hundred mercenaries fighting within Libya. And David Styan, politics lecturer at Birkbeck University of London and specialist Horn of Africa and Chad, says it’s possible Chadian militants have been paid and recruited but there’s no solid evidence.

Jeenah also suggests it could be possible that some of the mercenaries are in fact Libyans, dark-skinned Libyans from the south and the nomadic Tuaregs that live in Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Libya: “Gaddafi’s bodyguards, many of those people are actually from the south of Libya, partly because Gaddafi trusts them more than he would trust people from the north for various tribal and other reasons.”

Most scholars are not ruling out the possibility that there could be mercenary fighters in Libya from sub-Saharan African countries, but many agree this widespread belief amongst opposition forces has lead to overt xenophobia and victimisation of Africans from outside of Libya. Issaka Souare, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, suggests the widespread belief that Gaddafi has hired mercenary forces points to an unwillingness to accept that other Libyans could support the dictator.

“There seems to be this idea that if people are supporting Gaddafi, it must be mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa because it could not be the work of Libyans, then it must be these savage Africans,” said Souare.

Racism toward migrant laborers in sub-Saharan Africa is not a new phenomenon in Libya. In 2000 the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions condemned attacks and alleged killings of migrant workers from Ghana, Cameroon, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria. The attacks were allegedly committed by young Libyans targeting black migrants, particularly in the East of the country, after the government ordered a crackdown on illegal migrant workers. According to a statement made in 2000 by the ICFTU the attacks “were provoked by news portraying African migrants as being involved in drug-trafficking or dealing in alcohol”.

Human Rights Watch also documented racist attacks on migrant workers and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan in Libya in 2006 and 2009. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has long put pressure on Libya to address the issue of racial discrimination against black African migrants, with it being raised more recently at the United Nations Human Rights Council in February of 2010.

“I think that there are levels of racism within Libyan society that are quite problematic,” said Jeenah. “But racism is not just against other Africans, meaning non-Libyan Africans, but also within Libya itself.” Like other scholars Jeenah suggests that racism has complex historical and cultural roots that are in partly connected to Gaddafi’s ‘Pan-Africanism’ and rule within Libya.

“When Gaddafi changed his tack from looking to the Arab world to looking to Africa, it coincided with sanctions against Libya,” said Jeenah, referring to the UN sanctions against Libya that were implemented by the security council in 1992 as a result of Libya’s involvement in the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie in 1988.

“Unemployment is a very serious issue, and when you compare the current situation to the pre-sanction period, Libya had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, virtually every Libyan had a job, and they had a very good social welfare net, despite the fact it might have been a political dictatorship.”

Souare also thinks the resentment towards dark skinned Africans is connected to Gaddafi’s tribal allegiances and his perceived favoritism of the south as well as his “Pan-Africanism”. He said: “People who are close to Gaddafi, from his tribe and his region in the south and now in the north are better off than the people in the east.”

He adds that Gaddafi’s involvement in conflicts, such as in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and his funding of liberation groups that had a destabilising effect throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, has also led to a great deal of resentment amongst economically deprived Libyans.

“After this he became a kind of peace broker somehow and a development partner providing funding to many other countries,” said Souare. Jeenah agrees that Gaddafi sending money to other African nations led to resentment and compounded an underlying racism that already existed.

As the conflict continues, groups such as Human Rights Watch continue to stress the urgent need for sub-Saharan African migrant workers to be evacuated from Libya and Ghanaian migrant workers like Ibrahim Zachariah continue to express concern for their “brothers” in Libya.

*Clair MacDougall is a journalist who is currently living in Accra, Ghana. She blogs about Ghana and West Africa at North of Nowhere

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