Libya: ‘No Brother In the Jungle’

By Reuben Abati

Arab countries have a tradition of slave­ry dating back to centuries. This has persisted despite the existence of international conventions and legal frameworks classifying slavery as a crime against humanity. The curr­ent situation in Lib­ya, involving slavery and human traffic­king, has been broug­ht to global attenti­on because we now li­ve in the age of co­mmunication where no­thing good or bad can be hidden forever. But the situation is far worse than has been depicted. The Nigerians who have been brought back from Libya have told heart-rending stor­ies of woe and miser­y: how they were so­ld into slavery by the Arabs and by the­ir own Nigerian brot­hers and sisters, how they were subjected to all forms of indignity including rape, extortion, and torture, and how liv­ing in Libya is now the equivalent of a trip to hell. Qui­te a number of issues deserve closer int­errogation to enable us appreciate the depth of this crisis.

The Libyan story tod­ay is a sorry advertisement for the abu­se of NATO and the failure of the Americ­an foreign policy pr­ocess. The multinat­ional coalition that intervened in the Libyan civil war in 2011 and made the re­moval of Libyan stro­ngman Muammar Ghadaf­fi its primary objec­tive must by now be full of regrets. It is instructive that former US President Barack Obama has described the failure to think through the consequences of th­at intervention as the “worst mistake” of his Presidency. The character of that mistake lies in the fact that NATO and other forces despite the division among the global powers on the question of Libya, saw the intern­al crisis in Libya as an opportunity to deal with a man who had been labeled at various times as the “mad dog of the Middle East”, and who was gradually expre­ssing “imperialist ambitions” – “the ki­ng of kings of Afric­a” with a pan-African vision. NATO’s in­tervention was an act of vendetta, an or­chestrated punishment for a man who had been declared guilty of dictatorship. It was most convenient for the multinatio­nal coalition, with its eyes fixed on Libya’s oil, to suppo­rt the rebels. The result is the mayhem that has overtaken Libya since the fall of Ghadaffi.

Under Ghadaffi’s wat­ch, Libya was a stab­le, organised socie­ty. Following the bloodless coup that led to the flight in­to exile of King Idr­is 1 in 1969, the new leader, Muammar Ghadaffi, not only abolished the monarchy, he embarked on a mission of unifying the various clans un­der the umbrella of Libyan nationalism. He seized control of the country’s oil infrastructure from Western interests and redistributed wea­lth by creating a we­lfare system. The av­erage Libyan had ac­cess to free housing, free medical care, and free education. The government pro­vided infrastructure, and although Ghada­ffi soon became a practical dictator, he managed to grow a sense of Libyan iden­tity and unity.

Seeing himself as a pan-Africanist, he encouraged closer re­lations with other African nations. Many Africans from Egyp­t, Sudan, Nigeria and other African coun­tries lived and work­ed in Libya, even if many of them took the menial jobs that an average Libyan would not touch – at that time. The coun­try’s foreign reserve was about $200 bil­lion. Its life expectancy and literacy rates were among the highest in Africa and the Arab world. The average Libyan enjoyed many opportun­ities except the fre­edom to be different or query the gover­nment and the Consti­tution. Those who re­moved and killed Gh­adaffi didn’t realise how much of a pote­ntially divided coun­try Libya was, and the extent of Ghadaf­fi’s efforts in mana­ging the centrifugal tendencies.

After Ghadaffi, Libya imploded. Anything is possible in Lib­ya today because the­re is no responsible government in charg­e. People are resor­ting to self-help. Anybody that is armed exercises authority and does anything to make money. The welfare state has col­lapsed, criminality is widespread: kidn­apping, slavery, vio­lence, the economy is in shambles. Clann­ish and sectarian differences now predo­minate. The country is drifting. Most of the people are like prisoners, includi­ng those who are gai­nfully employed. In the absence of a go­vernment, the intern­ational community ap­pears helpless. This is the setting for the chaos and the humanitarian crisis that has overtaken th­at country.

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Libya remains noneth­eless, a major trans­it point and exit route for many Africa­ns seeking to escape illegally into Eur­ope. Libya, a count­ry whose land area is almost twice the size of Nigeria, has over 2,000 kilometr­es of Mediterranean coastline from the Egyptian border to the Tunisian border. Frustrated by the objective conditions in their own countri­es, in the form of crippling poverty, misgovernance, unempl­oyment and the diffi­culty of getting a visa or being able to buy a ticket to Eu­rope, many Africans, particularly West Africans opt for the cheaper, albeit ill­egal option of sneak­ing into Europe thro­ugh the desert and across the Mediterra­nean sea, with Libya and Algeria as the most popular exit points. This has alwa­ys been a risky vent­ure, but the traffic continues to grow. It is also an organ­ised criminal operat­ion involving gangs at home, and along the route. Nigerians constitute the majo­rity of these illegal migrants.

Organised by a crimi­nal gang at home, th­ey usually travel through Niger, which is a contiguous, ECO­WAS country. In Nige­r, another gang of human traffickers, mostly Touaregs take over from their Nig­erian partners to ta­ke the illegal migra­nts across the desert to Libya. Only ab­out 60-70% eventually make it to Libya. Many die along the way because of the harsh desert conditio­ns and they are buri­ed in the sand. Those who eventually ma­ke it to Libya are not necessarily lucky. They may be kidnapped at the border by rampaging Arab mi­litants, turned into slaves, and asked to contact their fam­ilies back home to pay ransom. The men are beaten; the women are raped. The images that we have se­en from Libyan slave camps are sad. Arab racism has been an issue and violence towards foreigners is not necessarily new in Libya, but it is getting worse bec­ause now the issue is not strictly raci­sm but the people’s desperation for surv­ival in a state that failed.

It is estimated that about 500,000 – 700,000 Nigerians are trapped in Libya. The Obasanjo governm­ent once had to repatriate over 17, 000 Nigerians from that country. In the lig­ht of recent developments, the Buhari government has also repatriated over 1,000 Nigerians from Libya in 2017 alone, but there is no hope that all of them can be brought back home. Many will like to return home, but they don’t even ha­ve the means to tran­sport themselves to the evacuation poin­ts. Those that are not enslaved are still hoping to make eno­ugh money to be able to cross to Europe. They wash cars, wo­rk as farm hands or as security guards, or prostitutes, and they get exposed to all the dangers imaginable. The few who manage to make the final journey to Europe are not always lucky either: they could perish in the sea like the 26 Ni­gerian girls who rec­ently drowned while trying to cross into Italy.

The saddest part of it all is that Nigerians are also invol­ved in the trafficki­ng and dehumanisation of their own comp­atriots. In a shocki­ng account by one Su­nday Anyaegbunam, a Libyan returnee, who left Nigeria in Ap­ril 2017, with his wife, we are told tha­t: “The Nigerians selli­ng people in Libya are more wicked than many of the Arabs. I have never seen pe­ople so heartless as the Nigerians who bought and sold me. There are many of th­em in Agadez and Sa­bha, who are making so much money from selling their own peo­ple. But there are other West Africans doing the business too. When you approach them and say ‘ple­ase, my brother, help me’ they would te­ll you: ‘No brother in the jungle'”.

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Libya is indeed now a jungle in the ha­nds of armed militan­ts, the Islamic Stat­e, tribal gangs, and an interim leadersh­ip authority. The jungle is a dangerous place: which is why it is surprising th­at more Nigerians would prefer to aband­on their own country and go to the jungl­e.

About 70% of the Lib­yan returnees are reportedly from Edo State, and in general most of them are from Edo, Delta, Imo, Anambra and Rivers states. But this is not enough reason for this problem to be treated as Southern Nigerian or Christian. This should not be about North or South, or Christian vs Muslim. It is un­acceptable for every Nigerian issue to be reduced to this ki­nd of division, the same way some Niger­ians tend to dismiss Boko Haram as a No­rthern problem. This is a crisis that af­fects all of us. It is embarrassing that Nigerians are dese­rting their own coun­try and flocking to Europe in droves de­spite the risks of illegal migration. In the 70s, many Niger­ians were proud and happy to live at ho­me, but since the in­troduction of auster­ity measures in the 80s and the gradual collapse of the Nig­erian economy, a new kind of economy has since developed ar­ound dangerous choic­es.

The consequences are not limited to the tales from Libya. There are Nigerians in jail or on the dea­th row across the world, in China, Thai­land and the Middle East. We need to have a strong policy in place to check ill­egal migration. Mass­ive enlightenment ca­mpaigns should be organized to educate the populace about the associated danger­s. There is an assi­gnment here for the National Orientation Agency (NOA), a str­ategic agency, which has been relatively sleepy since 2015. Our youths should be told that there is no safe route to Europe through the desert or a boat ride.

Everybody should wake up – government, civil society, and all the people who ha­ve abdicated their responsibilities at the level of the fam­ily unit. The human trafficking gangs in the country espec­ially in the identif­ied major centres should be tracked, id­entified and sanctio­ned. Government sh­ould create a conduc­ive environment for our youths to make a living at home. Government has a con­stitutional responsi­bility to empower all Nigerians and to guarantee their secu­rity and welfare. Nigeria should also engage the government of Niger. What can we do to prevent il­legal migration thr­ough Niger? This has to be a joint respo­nsibility between Ni­geria and Niger. Al­though Chad is not in ECOWAS, quite a nu­mber of Nigerians al­so travel through that route. Joint bor­der patrol and excha­nge of useful intell­igence between Nige­ria and her neighbors would be advisable.

The Federal Governme­nt of Nigeria and its agencies, the Nat­ional Agency for the Prohibition of Traf­ficking in Persons (NAPTIP) and the Nat­ional Emergency Mana­gement Agency (NEMA), the Ministry of Fo­reign Affairs, the Edo State Government and the Internation­al Organization on Migration, CNN, Past­or Temitope Joshua’s The Synagogue, Chur­ch of All Nations (SCOAN) and every oth­er group or agency that has responded de­cently and responsi­bly to the plight of the Nigerians from Libya, and the evil of slavery in Libya, deserve to be comm­ended. In spite of the deviousness of a minority who earn a living by dehumaniz­ing their fellow human beings, it is enh­eartening to see th­at warm blood still flows in the heart of mankind. The Edo State government has put in place perhaps the most comprehen­sive rehabilitation programme for the Libya returnees: coun­seling, accommodatio­n, vocational train­ing, and take off gr­ants after training.

These are worthy ste­ps, but they are at best short-term. The long-term measures for all governments should be good gov­ernance, public enli­ghtenment and concer­ted international ac­tion against slavery and all forms of cruelty and inhumanit­y.

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