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Words Can Be Deadly: ‘African’ is no synonym for ‘Mercenary’

18 March 2011 18 March 2011 Tags: No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

by Younes Abouyoub

Shortly after the popular uprising started in Libya, the situation quickly turned violent. At first rumors, then confirmed reports talked about mercenaries wreaking havoc in different cities in Libya. Eyewitnesses report that ‘African’ mercenaries have been killing unarmed civilians. Media outlets showed passports of alleged mercenaries coming from neighboring African countries. According to diverging reports, their numbers range from 6,000 to 30,000 armed men. Resorting to, guns for hire, mercenaries, or ‘private contractors’ in violent conflicts is not the issue here. Instead, the danger lies in equating ‘Africans’ with ‘Mercenaries’. If some mercenaries are Africans, just like Libyans are Africans, not all Africans are mercenaries. Or else, how does one refer to those reported Eastern European pilots bombing Libyan cities?

The use of mercenaries or private contractors as they are called sometimes, is not really an event. These private soldiers have been intervening in many parts of the world in most of our recent modern history and even ancient history. The phrase ‘free lance’ actually refers to these private soldiers who would put their fighting skills, or ‘lance’ at the service of the highest bidder in Medieval and renaissance Europe. The notorious ‘El Cid’, who lived in Moorish Spain, is only one among many.

If the use of private contractors in the security and military fields by Western armies has been more obvious during the last one or two decades, this phenomenon has been associated with Qaddafi’s regime from the outset.

Suspected Libya Mercenaries. Source: AP

Since the 1970s, the Pan-­‐Arab and Pan-­‐African ideology of Qaddafi’s regime justified his interventions in many parts of Africa, especially Northern Chad. The war in the Aozou strip in 1971 witnessed the intervention of these militias organized, financed, and trained by Qaddafi, who recruited fighters from many parts in Africa especially Mali, Niger, Eastern Chad and Western Sudan. The paranoia of the supreme leader pushed him to rely more and more on these mercenaries to defend his interest inside and outside of Libya. Deeming the national army unworthy of his trust, Qaddafi, while spending huge sums of money on armament procurements used in bloody regional conflicts, gutted the army and expurgated its ranks of prominent leaders who could have been a threat to his regime. Between 1993 and 1998,  Qaddafi resorted to mercenaries from former Soviet-­‐Union and ex-­‐Yugoslavia to fight the armed Libyan Islamic opposition.

The truth of the matter is that since the end of the Cold War, we witness a shift from a former European mercenaries, of people like Bob Denard, who fought against communism since 1960s in Africa, to African-­‐based militias. Many South Africans associated with the Apartheid regime intervened in various African conflicts, such as the ones in Angola and later on in ex-­‐Zaire after having been recruited by President  Mobutu against his opponent Joseph Kabila. With the multiplicity of protracted conflicts, widespread poverty, and social ills in this continent, it is not very difficult to recruit ‘rebels’ without a cause in exchange of a few thousand dollars.

This being said, the majority of African citizens living in Libya have nothing to do with this phenomenon. They are migrant workers who left their hometowns for a better future in oil-­‐rich Libya. Unfortunately, they are now caught between a nasty regime who is killing its own people and a terrorized civilian population who mistakenly associates non-­‐Libyan Africans with mercenaries.

Media reports have been talking of workers from Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria being attacked by mobs who mistake them for pro -­ Qadaffi militiamen. For the most part, these workers are exploited cheap labor, along with many illegal migrants waiting for the perfect opportunity to cross over to Europe. Life has not been kind to them neither in their countries nor in Libya. But, now with the unfolding violence things could not be worse. Some foreign nationals were lucky to have been evacuated rapidly by air, but it seems that indigent workers from poor countries are not a priority. As if the situation was not dire enough for these migrant workers, many Libyans have been using the word ‘African’ to refer to mercenaries terrorizing civilian populations. It is unfortunate that local political problems can turn unwittingly into a racial conflict fueled by rumors, stereotypes and social stigmas.

These unfortunate misconceptions can easily play into the hands of organized groups around the world who fan the spurious theory of clash of civilizations globally and locally in Africa. We have seen how some conflicts in the African continent have been simplistically, but not innocently, construed as opposing ‘Africans’ to ‘Arabs’ as if these two identities were mutually exclusive and antagonistic.

The conflicts in South Sudan and Darfur are a perfect illustration of essentializing attempts to pit closed and rigid identities against each other, as if these conflicts existed outside any historical and political contexts. Libyan citizens who are Africans just like their sisters and brothers from Niger, Chad, Mali, Sudan and elsewhere in the African continent, are victims of a dire situation imposed on them by a Machiavellian authoritarian regime. Likewise, African migrant workers in Libya are doubly victims. Indeed, they are victims of the victims.

The situation is dangerous enough to have a racial element added to it. Let us all be cautious with the words we use. Words can be deadly!

Younes Abouyoub, Ph.D. Research scholar at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University.
Words  Can  Be  Deadly:
‘African’  is  no  synonym  to  ‘Mercenary’
Younes  Abouyoub,  Ph.D.
Research  scholar  at  the  Department  of
Middle  Eastern,  South  Asian,
and  African  Studies,  Columbia  University.

 

Shortly   after   the   popular   uprising   started   in   Libya,   the   situation   quickly   turned
violent.    At  first  rumors,  then  confirmed  reports  talked  about  mercenaries  wreaking
havoc   in   different   cities   in   Libya.  Eyewitnesses   report   that   ‘African’   mercenaries
have   been   killing   unarmed   civilians.   Media   outlets   showed   passports   of   alleged
mercenaries   coming   from   neighboring   African   countries.   According   to   diverging
reports,  their  numbers  range  from  6,000  to  30,000  armed  men.  Resorting  to,  guns
for   hire,   mercenaries,   or   ‘private   contractors’   in   violent   conflicts   is   not   the   issue
here.   Instead,   the   danger   lies   in   equating   ‘Africans’   with   ‘Mercenaries’.   If   some
mercenaries   are   Africans,   just   like   Libyans   are   Africans,   not   all   Africans   are
mercenaries.  Or  else,  how  does  one  refer  to  those  reported  Eastern  European  pilots
bombing  Libyan  cities?

The  use  of  mercenaries  or  private  contractors  as  they  are  called  sometimes,  is  not
really  an  event.  These  private  soldiers  have  been  intervening  in  many  parts  of  the
world  in  most  of  our  recent  modern  history  and  even  ancient  history.  The  phrase
‘free  lance’  actually  refers  to  these  private  soldiers  who  would  put  their  fighting
skills,  or  ‘lance’  at  the  service  of  the  highest  bidder  in  Medieval  and  renaissance
Europe.  The  notorious  ‘El  Cid’,  who  lived  in  Moorish  Spain,  is  only  one  among  many.
If  the  use  of  private  contractors  in  the  security  and  military  fields  by  Western  armies
has  been  more  obvious  during  the  last  one  or  two  decades,  this  phenomenon  has
been  associated  with  Qaddafi’s  regime  from  the  outset.

Since  the  1970s,  the  Pan-­‐Arab  and  Pan-­‐African  ideology  of  Qaddafi’s  regime  justified
his  interventions  in  many  parts  of  Africa,  especially  Northern  Chad.  The  war  in  the
Aozou  strip  in  1971  witnessed  the  intervention  of  these  militias  organized,  financed,
and  trained  by  Qaddafi,  who  recruited  fighters  from  many  parts  in  Africa  especially
Mali,  Niger,  Eastern  Chad  and  Western  Sudan.  The  paranoia  of  the  supreme  leader
pushed   him   to   rely   more   and   more   on   these   mercenaries   to   defend   his   interest
inside   and   outside   of   Libya.   Deeming   the   national   army   unworthy   of   his   trust,
Qaddafi,  while  spending  huge  sums  of  money  on  armament  procurements  used  in
bloody  regional  conflicts,  gutted  the  army  and  expurgated  its  ranks  of  prominent
leaders   who   could   have   been   a   threat   to   his   regime.   Between   1993   and   1998,
Qaddafi   resorted   to   mercenaries   from   former   Soviet-­‐Union   and   ex-­‐Yugoslavia   to
fight  the  armed  Libyan  Islamic  opposition.

The  truth  of  the  matter  is  that  since  the  end  of  the  Cold  War,  we  witness  a  shift  from
a  former  European  mercenariness,  of  people  like  Bob  Denard,  who  fought  against
communism  since  1960s  in  Africa,  to  African-­‐based  militias.  Many  South  Africans
associated  with  the  Apartheid  regime  intervened  in  various  African  conflicts,  such  as
the  ones  in  Angola  and  later  on  in  ex-­‐Zaire  after  having  been  recruited  by  President
Page 2

2
Mobutu   against   his   opponent   Joseph   Kabila.   With   the   multiplicity   of   protracted
conflicts,  widespread  poverty,  and  social  ills  in  this  continent,  it  is  not  very  difficult
to  recruit  ‘rebels’  without  a  cause  in  exchange  of  a  few  thousand  dollars.

This  being  said,  the  majority  of  African  citizens  living  in  Libya  have  nothing  to  do
with  this  phenomenon.  They  are  migrant  workers  who  left  their  hometowns  for  a
better  future  in  oil-­‐rich  Libya.  Unfortunately,  they  are  now  caught  between  a  nasty
regime   who   is   killing   its   own   people   and   a   terrorized   civilian   population   who
mistakenly   associates   non-­‐Libyan   Africans   with   mercenaries.   Media   reports   have
been   talking   of   workers   from   Egypt,   Sudan,   Chad,  and  Nigeria  being  attacked   by
mobs   who   mistake   them   for   pro-­‐Qadaffi   militiamen.   For   the   most   part,   these
workers  are  exploited  cheap  labor,  along  with  many  illegal  migrants  waiting  for  the
perfect  opportunity  to  cross  over  to  Europe.  Life  has  not  been  kind  to  them  neither
in  their  countries  nor  in  Libya.  But,  now  with  the  unfolding  violence  things  could  not
be  worse.  Some  foreign  nationals  were  lucky  to  have  been  evacuated  rapidly  by  air,
but  it  seems  that  indigent  workers  from  poor  countries  are  not  a  priority.  As  if  the
situation  was  not  dire  enough  for  these  migrant  workers,  many  Libyans  have  been
using  the  word  ‘African’  to  refer  to  mercenaries  terrorizing  civilian  populations.  It  is
unfortunate  that  local  political  problems  can  turn  unwittingly  into  a  racial  conflict
fueled  by  rumors,  stereotypes  and  social  stigmas.

These   unfortunate   misconceptions   can   easily   play   into   the   hands   of   organized
groups   around   the   world   who   fan   the   spurious   theory   of   clash   of   civilizations
globally   and   locally   in   Africa.   We   have   seen   how   some   conflicts   in   the   African
continent   have   been   simplistically,   but   not   innocently,   construed   as   opposing
‘Africans’   to   ‘Arabs’   as   if   these   two   identities   were   mutually   exclusive   and
antagonistic.  The  conflicts  in  South  Sudan  and  Darfur  are  a  perfect  illustration  of
essentializing   attempts   to   pit   closed   and   rigid   identities  against  each  other,   as   if
these  conflicts  existed  outside  any  historical  and  political  contexts.  Libyan  citizens
who  are  Africans  just  like  their  sisters  and  brothers  from  Niger,  Chad,  Mali,  Sudan
and  elsewhere  in  the  African  continent,  are  victims  of  a  dire  situation  imposed  on
them  by  a  Machiavellian  authoritarian  regime.  Likewise,  African  migrant  workers  in
Libya  are  doubly  victims.  Indeed,  they  are  victims  of  the  victims.

The  situation  is  dangerous  enough  to  have  a  racial  element  added  to  it.  Let  us  all  be
cautious  with  the  words  we  use.  Words  can  be  deadly!Words Can Be Deadly:

‘African’ is no synonym to ‘Mercenary’

Younes Abouyoub, Ph.D.

Research scholar at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian,

and African Studies, Columbia University.

 

Shortly after the popular uprising started in Libya, the situation quickly turned

violent. At first rumors, then confirmed reports talked about mercenaries wreaking

havoc in different cities in Libya. Eyewitnesses report that ‘African’ mercenaries

have been killing unarmed civilians. Media outlets showed passports of alleged

mercenaries coming from neighboring African countries. According to diverging

reports, their numbers range from 6,000 to 30,000 armed men. Resorting to, guns

for hire, mercenaries, or ‘private contractors’ in violent conflicts is not the issue

here. Instead, the danger lies in equating ‘Africans’ with ‘Mercenaries’. If some

mercenaries are Africans, just like Libyans are Africans, not all Africans are

mercenaries. Or else, how does one refer to those reported Eastern European pilots

bombing Libyan cities?

 

The use of mercenaries or private contractors as they are called sometimes, is not

really an event. These private soldiers have been intervening in many parts of the

world in most of our recent modern history and even ancient history. The phrase

‘free lance’ actually refers to these private soldiers who would put their fighting

skills, or ‘lance’ at the service of the highest bidder in Medieval and renaissance

Europe. The notorious ‘El Cid’, who lived in Moorish Spain, is only one among many.

If the use of private contractors in the security and military fields by Western armies

has been more obvious during the last one or two decades, this phenomenon has

been associated with Qaddafi’s regime from the outset.

 

Since the 1970s, the Pan-­‐Arab and Pan-­‐African ideology of Qaddafi’s regime justified

his interventions in many parts of Africa, especially Northern Chad. The war in the

Aozou strip in 1971 witnessed the intervention of these militias organized, financed,

and trained by Qaddafi, who recruited fighters from many parts in Africa especially

Mali, Niger, Eastern Chad and Western Sudan. The paranoia of the supreme leader

pushed him to rely more and more on these mercenaries to defend his interest

inside and outside of Libya. Deeming the national army unworthy of his trust,

Qaddafi, while spending huge sums of money on armament procurements used in

bloody regional conflicts, gutted the army and expurgated its ranks of prominent

leaders who could have been a threat to his regime. Between 1993 and 1998,

Qaddafi resorted to mercenaries from former Soviet-­‐Union and ex-­‐Yugoslavia to

fight the armed Libyan Islamic opposition.

 

The truth of the matter is that since the end of the Cold War, we witness a shift from

a former European mercenariness, of people like Bob Denard, who fought against

communism since 1960s in Africa, to African-­‐based militias. Many South Africans

associated with the Apartheid regime intervened in various African conflicts, such as

the ones in Angola and later on in ex-­‐Zaire after having been recruited by President

Page 2

 

2

Mobutu against his opponent Joseph Kabila. With the multiplicity of protracted

conflicts, widespread poverty, and social ills in this continent, it is not very difficult

to recruit ‘rebels’ without a cause in exchange of a few thousand dollars.

 

This being said, the majority of African citizens living in Libya have nothing to do

with this phenomenon. They are migrant workers who left their hometowns for a

better future in oil-­‐rich Libya. Unfortunately, they are now caught between a nasty

regime who is killing its own people and a terrorized civilian population who

mistakenly associates non-­‐Libyan Africans with mercenaries. Media reports have

been talking of workers from Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria being attacked by

mobs who mistake them for pro-­‐Qadaffi militiamen. For the most part, these

workers are exploited cheap labor, along with many illegal migrants waiting for the

perfect opportunity to cross over to Europe. Life has not been kind to them neither

in their countries nor in Libya. But, now with the unfolding violence things could not

be worse. Some foreign nationals were lucky to have been evacuated rapidly by air,

but it seems that indigent workers from poor countries are not a priority. As if the

situation was not dire enough for these migrant workers, many Libyans have been

using the word ‘African’ to refer to mercenaries terrorizing civilian populations. It is

unfortunate that local political problems can turn unwittingly into a racial conflict

fueled by rumors, stereotypes and social stigmas.

 

These unfortunate misconceptions can easily play into the hands of organized

groups around the world who fan the spurious theory of clash of civilizations

globally and locally in Africa. We have seen how some conflicts in the African

continent have been simplistically, but not innocently, construed as opposing

‘Africans’ to ‘Arabs’ as if these two identities were mutually exclusive and

antagonistic. The conflicts in South Sudan and Darfur are a perfect illustration of

essentializing attempts to pit closed and rigid identities against each other, as if

these conflicts existed outside any historical and political contexts. Libyan citizens

who are Africans just like their sisters and brothers from Niger, Chad, Mali, Sudan

and elsewhere in the African continent, are victims of a dire situation imposed on

them by a Machiavellian authoritarian regime. Likewise, African migrant workers in

Libya are doubly victims. Indeed, they are victims of the victims.

 

The situation is dangerous enough to have a racial element added to it. Let us all be

cautious with the words we use. Words can be deadly!

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