The story of slavery in Africa, like slavery in so many other parts of the world, is a painful chronicle whose origins go back centuries. It’s not a new phenomenon. But the issue got a rush of new attention recently, when video of an apparently open-air slave market in Libya appeared on CNN.
Human trafficking and slavery in Libya and other parts of the continent can be traced to a number of factors. Chief among them are the legacies of Western colonialism and the ravages of war, escalating poverty, and climate change, which destabilized many countries and rendered wide swathes of the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa almost uninhabitable. Anti-black racism has played a role as well.
But the emergence of slave auctions in Libya has a more immediate basis as well: a catastrophic Western military intervention.
It began back in 2011, when the initially nonviolent Arab Spring uprising against the erratic and often despotic Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was attacked by government forces. Many soldiers defected from the military and joined the rebels, forming a military opposition.
But when the U.S. and its NATO allies intervened on the rebels’ behalf soon after, the original political opposition was quickly sidelined.
Despite the unease of countries like Brazil, Germany, India, Russia, and China, the United Nations Security Council authorized a military intervention, ostensibly for the limited goal of protecting civilians from the Libyan military’s attacks. However, the “protection” operation quickly morphed into a regime change assault on the oil-rich country. Qaddafi was soon overthrown and tortured to death by U.S.- and NATO-backed rebels.
A hodgepodge of anti-government militias emerged during the war, reflecting a wide array of regional, religious, and ethnic interests. Even then, some reporters noted a troubling racist current in some of the factions.
For instance, the Wall Street Journal‘s Sam Dagher reported seeing a rebel slogan calling for “purging slaves and black skin,” in Misrata, a rebel stronghold he described as dominated by “tightly knit white merchant families.” Backed by U.S.-NATO airstrikes, rebels there attacked and captured Tawergha, which Dagher reported as “a town inhabited mostly by black Libyans, a legacy of its 19th-century origins as a transit town in the slave trade.” The town’s black population was largely expelled in the military assault.
The Western bombing campaign left behind a lawless country, unimaginably over-armed and under-democratized, with a dispossessed population struggling to survive in conditions of civil war and violent chaos.
Governance has been replaced by three competing ragged regimes backed by assorted militias in different parts of the country, each claiming legitimacy as the national government. Public services and basic security have virtually collapsed. Qaddafi’s network of arms caches were raided by marauding militias and terrorist forces, with much of their contents now fueling Libya’s civil war and being trafficked across Africa and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the country’s borders were left almost entirely unguarded as streams of migrants from poorer countries flowed into Libya, hoping to reach safety, security, and jobs across the Mediterranean in Europe. It’s been a field day for ruthless people-smugglers and traffickers, Libyan and otherwise.
And now with both Libyan and European naval forces patrolling the Mediterranean to turn back the flimsy boats heading out from Libya, desperate migrants face even greater dangers. Smugglers collaborate with militias and quasi-governmental forces in Libya to imprison thousands of would-be refugees from all over Africa in horrific conditions—including, apparently, a new system of slavery.
As even the New York Times editorial board has acknowledged, “None of this would be possible if not for … the involvement of a NATO coalition that included the United States.” As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lesson of Libya is that regime change through military intervention can have catastrophic consequences. That lesson should be taken far more seriously.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.