Monday, February 28, 2011

Faces of Black Africa: The Enemy of the Libyan Revolts

In the absence of live television feed of the events in Libya, television shows on CNN (Anderson Cooper 360) took to getting information over the phone by anonymous Libyans. The message that was being repeated by their informant(s) was that Libyans were being targeted by “Black People” or African Mercenaries.  This means that the automatic face of the ‘enemy’ became the dark-skinned non-Arab people from Africa. Indeed there were reports of people from Sub-Saharan Africa that were raiding houses but there were also reports of Africans from Morocco, Chad and Tunisia (who may look more like Libyan) hired as mercenaries as well. It seems though that reporting of the 'sub-Saharan' enemy was most salient to report (and loop) before a proper, and thoughtful analysis could be made on the profile of the enemy. Whilst I appreciate the media outlets attempt at reporting the movement ‘as it happened’ (unlike the case with Egypt where Al Jazeera was the only station in that country from the beginning), this move proved to be problematic because it served to indiscriminately single out all the dark-skinned people  ‘the enemy’. This contributed the targeting this demographic. Libya is comprised of both dark-skinned and light skinned Libyans (See:Black Africans in Libya). It is also host to a number of Libya also hosts dark skinned and light skinned Africans from various countries in Africa. Thus social constructs of color and ethnicity can be problematic because there are no clear lines between color and ethnicity; many dark-skinned Africans can be Arabs and many light skinned Africans can be non-Arab.
Many dark-skinned Africans have been living in Libya for a long time. This consists of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) embassy workers,  students, workers from private companies and the majority that are migrant workers. The foreign migrant workers were already facing resentment in Libya due to labor competition with Libyan citizens. So when 'Black Africans' were openly and repeatedly being singled out as the enemy on major international networks, this exploited color- based divisions within Libya. Although it was not the networks reporters that were reporting this information themselves, it needs to be noted that when news media allow an avenue for people to name an ‘enemy’ (particularly ethnic minorities) they fuel an already volatile situation. There is a clear difference between informants saying on air that “people from Niger  or Chad are shooting us” and looping statements based on color like, "the Blacks are killing us"  which creates sensationalism. The former is more likely, result in Libyans making a greater effort in trying to identify who is a member of that particular group through more probing questions, the latter is more likely to result in being targeted based appearance. This can be compared to the attacks on minorities in America after September 11th where naming Arabs as ‘the enemy’ resulted in regular Americans targeting all “Brown peoples” (American and non-American alike) based on visual appearances. Americans did not distinguish between Indians, Saudis, Koreans, or other groups. They targeted all people that looked like what they thought members of the ‘the axis of evil’ looked like. This is what began to happen in Libya, we soon saw hundreds of dark-skinned Africans begin to get killed by mobs of angry Libyans that were upset that African mercenaries were hired to kill them. Most mobs under such conditions will kill first and ask, “Are you a mercenary or migrant?”, later.

In one some cases, dark-skinned  and/or African Libyan citizens were killed because people started viewing them as ‘the enemy’. It even led Gaddafi (albeit not in a position to make moral judgments) to state that Libyans are both Black Africans and Arab Africans in his speech.  In one particular case, footage of alleged mercenaries were captured and uploaded on you tube. This video depicts the bodies of ‘alleged African mercenaries’ displayed in public in front of the mob quite reminiscent of the lynching of African-Americans in the South. What is particularly problematic in this case was that bodies were that of Black Libyans mistaken for Black African non-Libyans. Furthermore, the video has been placed on many websites that link to  the You Tube footage. In an increasingly globalized world that uses social media, footage in one country is easily accessible in another country. This raises greater need for sensitivity on how the deceased bodies of African people have been historically displayed in the media, (and now using social media and user generated content). On one newspaper that reproduced this footage, somebody who actually recognized the one of the people killed and left this comment:
“Submitted by Fazzani (not verified) on Wed, 23/02/2011 - 10:28.
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....” Source: France 24
This type of images, particularly for the friends and family of the deceased, are insensitive towards people who are victims of mob injustice.  When the victims face and identity are so clear, their lives are devalued as human beings. It also raises questions whether these images would still be on YouTube (I flagged it two days ago) or the web pages of news outlets like France 24 or even ‘gone viral’ if the victims were not from Africa or the ‘global south’. It propagates the stereotypes of violent and 'savage' Africans particularity since similar violent images from the global North are often filtered or taken off line.  I have yet to see a comparable video where the deceased is a member of a non-African country on You Tube.  In another report, 70 dark-skinned African migrant workers that had been working with an international company in Libya were massacred at the site of their employment because they were dark skinned whilst all other workers were spared. These were obviously not mercenaries since they were clearly working but Sub-Saharan Africans continue to be targeted in Libya in this way. What has noticeably absent from CNN which first  eagerly aired reports on ‘Black African ‘ mercenaries, were follow up stories about dark skinned Africans (both Libyan and other African immigrants) being targeted and killed by Arab or light skinned Libyans. Perhaps if they dedicated equal time to this type of story, it may have not made all Black Africans automatic victims.  Sub-Saharan Africans are now trying to leave Libya in droves in fear of their lives but many are unable to leave. They are the most vulnerable group in Libya at the moment and face genocide.

As noted in: Africans Revolt in the Middle East: How Egypt's Revolts Won't Impact Africa , the separation of Arab and Sub-Saharan Africa is problematic for Africa as a continent.  Class divisions have lead to Arab Africans suppressing Black Africans (including Black Libyans), due to the existence of class divisions based on color. The division between North African and Sub-Saharan Africa has manifested in the violence that we have seen in the past few days. It has lead to a situation where mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, have not been able to unite around Libya’s attempt to overthrow an oppressive regime. Instead we see easy recruitment of willing mercenaries from sub-Saharan countries that may not necessarily view Libyans as Africans with common oppressions. It should also be noted that some of the mercenaries have been unwilling participants having been forcibly recruited by the Libyan regime. The future relations of Africans from the North and South will face challenges due to this incident because it will widen the divide. There needs to be greater effort for North Africans and Sub-Saharan Africans to recognize their common continental history as Africans to mitigate xenophobia between the two entities.