In November, CNN released footage of Africans being sold into slavery at an auction in Libya, shocking and angering many around the world. The outlet reported witnessing “a dozen men being sold like commodities — some auctioned off for as little as $400.” However, though the auction has been portrayed as part of a recent phenomenon, the disaster that is enslavement is not new at all, even in the modern world. Though the conditions that enable such markets have grown increasingly bad in Libya amid instability after a US-backed NATO intervention, the enslavement of Africans — particularly in the Middle East and North Africa — has gone on for much longer than some care to remember.
In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, many people were ecstatic about the prospects of new governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The revolutionary rebellions throughout the affected countries happened quickly, one after another, following the initial uprising in Tunisia. Many — not only in the countries undergoing change, but throughout the world — were happy about what they felt was an opportunity within the grasp of many self-determined people calling for new governments. Still, there was also hesitancy among critical onlookers abroad and protesters alike regarding how much of the Arab Spring uprisings were playing out organically, wholly separate from the machinations of meddling Western nations. No matter where anyone stood, much of the world was watching intently.
Per usual, the United States and many other Western actors had chimed in on these happenings and deemed that they were largely positive developments for the prospects of new democracy. Despite the fact that the US and the Western world sponsored and directly inflicted much of the repression people were rising up against, these imperialist governments and former colonizers positioned themselves, in general, as supportive of the uprisings. They framed the movement as something in line with the supposed Western values of equality and the freedom to protest. Parts of the movements in support of revolution in some countries were strategically co-opted by the US and Western forces, and the devastating lessons of what happened are present with us today. We can see these insights very clearly when we begin to examine the state of Libya.
Understanding how Libya went from rule under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to a country marked by clashing brigades and markets trafficking enslaved Africans requires us to examine Western influence in recent years. We must acknowledge, first of all, that the human trafficking we’re now seeing was also happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa (including Libya) during or prior to Gaddafi’s reign. However, its intensification in the years since is no accident. It should be an uncontroversial statement to say that the international politics of the West rely heavily on the manipulation of political events. Situations that are both favorable and unfavorable to the West (and specifically the US) are hidden behind the sealed lips and political speeches of state theatrics. When the Arab Spring became a threat to the government of US-backed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the US waited and temporarily backed away without engaging in an all-out war intervention. However, the situation in Libya did not seem to warrant any restraint for US officials. Preexisting tensions with Gaddafi revolving around regional differences and conflicts between different groups in the country were ultimately exacerbated by the Western intervention. “We hope he can be captured or killed soon,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2011, referring to Col. Gaddafi, although he had been regularly cooperating with the West, notably Britain’s MI6, as well as agreeing to give up his nuclear arms in 2003. However, he was ultimately murdered during a NATO-backed intervention, despite his disarmament cooperation.
“We came, we saw, he died,” Clinton stated infamously, laughing and clapping her hands together in celebration afterward. Prior to her chilling glee at Gaddafi’s murder, she had welcomed his son in 2009 on a visit to Washington, saying, “We deeply value the relationship between the United States and Libya,” and then stating she was looking forward to “building on the relationship” with Libya. It was only two years later that she would persuade President Obama to join other nations in bombing Libya to prevent Gaddafi from suppressing the Arab Spring protests. The war effort was bipartisan. A crucial observation we can gain here is the fickleness of politicians and how deadly and misleading appearances can be. Regardless of what one thinks about the brutal killing of Gaddafi — who was assassinated while begging for his life — we can observe that this extrajudicial action is a contradiction to the values the West claims to invest in abroad.
Gaddafi’s murder plunged Libya in a fight between warring factions. Power, as well as cultural and economic differences, fueled new conflict amid the confusion. While the transitional government attempted to maintain order, the problems extended beyond that government’s reach. Brigades controlling former military weapons and tools began clashing and running rampant. Those who many of us would describe as “Black people” in Libya (both living there and passing through as migrants) became targets by default, accused of supposedly being Gaddafi “mercenaries” and “loyalists,” often solely based on their appearance. This much wasn’t an accident or a mistake, but an opportunity to seize upon those who were already discriminated against and vulnerable in the midst of turmoil. Though reports of “Black Africans” being targeted by anti-Gaddafi forces were widespread in 2011, the US and NATO coalition went through with its intervention. The targeting and displacement of Tawerghans and the detaining of sub-Saharan migrants were opportunities that were seized upon by anti-Gaddafi forces during the conflict, and which still have repercussions today.
The migrant crisis worsened as much of the Arab Spring came to an unfortunate end, and many residents of the involved countries began to flee their homes. Empowered brigades and vigilantes took advantage of the vacuum created by Western intervention in Libya. What some thought would be new progress turned into new despots, instability and more repression. While countless people fled Syria, Iraq and other countries where other Western interventions had made life dangerous, Libya — which was a hub for many passing through on the way to Europe — was destabilized. Even now, many migrants who make it onto boats fleeing Western-engineered crises in the Middle East and North Africa are regularly at risk of robbery, abuse, drowning (forced or accidental), kidnapping, murder and rape by human traffickers. People on the boats are often given preferential treatment based on lighter skin tone. Even now, the West is more concerned with the desire to police migration (which it also negotiated with Gaddafi) and militarize the tragic situation it’s worsened. Ideas like reception centers, migrant patrols and even private police have been floated while Western accountability has been neglected.
None of this is new. The enslavement of Africans throughout the Middle East and North Africa is an age-old practice that has unfortunately carried on into this century. There is no mistake about why Black people are being targeted in the Middle East and North Africa; this is a standard rooted in the history of Arab enslavement of Africans. Enslavement and human trafficking of Africans is happening in Sudan and Egypt; Mauritania (a country with an active movement to end slavery); Kuwait; Qatar; Saudi Arabia; the United Arab Emirates; and many more. Even in Western countries like the UK and the United States, people are trafficked to be slaves. The Arabic word “abd” (plural: “abeed”) meaning “slave,” maintains its presence in all of the aforementioned places and elsewhere as a slur hurled at African and African-descended people.
It’s not surprising that the enslavement happening in Libya has drawn international attention throughout the African diaspora around the world. Black people abroad (and many celebrities in the US) have been enraged at a recent reminder that slavery, upon which the US was built, is not just in the past, but is actively happening today. The failure of the UN and African Union to alleviate the migrant crisis and halt the continuation of slave markets exposes the fact that when it comes to protecting and defending the most marginalized people, these organizations are often symbolic.
Tragedies like the current enslavement crisis have been worsened by the intervention, exploitation and the ruthless excess of the West. While some people living in Western nations like the US may show concern, the politicians we elect and the very foundation of the lives we live are based on the plunder and destruction of other countries. President Obama naively recalls Libya as the “worst mistake” of his presidency — as if US interventions ever have sincere motivations — and Hillary Clinton has made it clear she doesn’t share Obama’s sentiments. These “mistakes” that happen at the expense of millions of people’s lives and wellbeing become merely talking points and debate topics for the privileged few inside of empire. After all, crisis abroad helps build and maintain empires like the United States. No matter how concerned some of us may be in the West, we can help prevent these problems from growing worse by working to end imperial interventionism itself. Our lives are not more important than those who reside in the places that empire regularly uproots and destabilizes to exploit for surplus.
What is perhaps most unfortunate is that the US and other Western nations could possibly attempt to co-opt the current outrage to intervene on their own behalf anywhere in the Middle East or North Africa all over again. We must not let that happen. The only Western intervention needed is the one that should take place inside of the West: a movement of people demanding an end to the violence of empire itself. That intervention would benefit the whole world.