The slave auctions in Libya have generated a great deal of outrage among African leaders, but how did we get to this pass in the first instance? What drives young people to migrate at such risk – for such supposed rewards? We should start looking inwards for the answers. By Onyekachi Wambu
African anger over the Libyan slave auctions has been palpable. Governments have called in Libyan government representatives to rebuke them, and the AU has fulminated on the matter.
All this seems a little too late. The auctioning off of migrants as slaves is simply the latest manifestation of horrors that have been taking place along the North African coast as Africans try to make it to the “promised land” of the EU. Thousands have died, the most recent being 26 young Nigerian girls in November, without drawing the outraged response from Africans that the slave market did. Why?
Before that is addressed, it is worth reflecting that the reason all this is happening in the first place is the chaos unleashed after NATO (principally the UK, France and Barack Obama) overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. Disgracefully, they were able to do this through UN Security Council resolution 1973, with votes from Nigeria, South Africa and Gabon.
Ironically, a black US president and the two most powerful black nations in the world, delivered a foreign policy outcome that reintroduced public slave markets on the African continent. Think about that for a minute.
So why has this issue triggered such a heated and emotional response, with Rwanda even offering to take 30,000 stranded victims? It is because deep down all are acutely aware that this reflects terribly on all black Africans. Despite the etymology of the word deriving from the Slavs, for hundreds of years, black Africans became synonymous with slavery.
What has, however, been remarkable is how little we have publicly reflected on this experience or even embedded red lines around the issue in our institutions. Slavery has arguably been the biggest event to impact Africans, with millions tortured and killed, and others scattered around the world. Yet in most African countries, and especially at AU level, there are no eternal flames, no annual days to reflect on the issue, no awareness-raising amongst ourselves (and with our Arab African colleagues) about internalising a zero tolerance attitude to slavery. Millions die, and nothing.
It has been left to civil society, with its limited means, to fill this gap. For instance, the author co-launched African Remembrance Day (ARD) in 1995 in the UK to commemorate the victims of slavery in the Americas, the Middle/Far East as well as on the African continent itself. The day sought to remember and understand what happened, and why – because those who forget are doomed to repeat or reproduce the same conditions.
How different are the conditions today which cause people to risk death, crossing the Sahara and Mediterranean? Before people were kidnapped and enslaved – now the alienation is such that they pay up to $5,000 to traffickers (or new enslavers according to France’s Macron) to board rickety boats, undergo humiliating processes, to reach Europe or work in the Middle East as domestics/virtual slaves.
For them these servile and undignified conditions are better than staying at home. African leaders are unable to convince their people to sacrifice, remain at home and work hard to turn things around through their own means, because they know that their own corruption means ordinary Africans are aware that not everybody is making the same sacrifices.
These leaders may think that their corruption provides a glided existence that puts them above the rest of us, but actually in the eyes of the world they are judged the same as us. When the world reimagines the African as a slave, these leaders are not exempt from critical opinion. Recall the old adage – even if you live in a huge mansion, if your mother is in rags and lives in a hovel, that’s how people will inevitably see you. At stake here is ultimately the indivisibility of the African – how we conceive ourselves and our brothers and sisters. How we see ourselves and how others see us.
Strongly held attitudes towards human inequality and status (for instance, how domestic servants are treated) exist beneath the surface, sanctioned by our religions and cultures. They bubble up, raw and unvarnished, when order collapses, as it did in Libya. The AU needs to project a common conception of the African human, which it will defend in all its territories. It needs to enact rituals to affirm and protect that humanity. Only then will our people conceive of Africa itself as a “promised land”. NA