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