Recent news that black Africans are being sold at an auction house in Libya sparked outrage across the globe. The existence of Libya’s slave trade harks back to age when the subjugation and overt dehumanization of Africans was commonplace. Some analysts have argued that the slave auction is the result of the power vacuum left after Gaddafi’s fall – the ensuing lawlessness paving way for a black market in which the trafficking of people became a main export. Others have focused on the failings of Obama’s foreign policy and humanitarian efforts to curb the onset of the slave market. But the anti-black sentiment that pervades the Libyan slave trade itself, and its historical context, has been given somewhat less attention.

Libyan society has been plagued by overtones of racial discrimination against black Africans for decades. In 2000, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) released a statement condemning a wave of attacks that targeted African migrants, while in 2006 (and again in 2009) Human Rights Watch documented that attacks against African migrants and asylum seekers were commonplace in Libya.

After the fall of Gaddafi, reports emerged of mass arbitrary arrests and killings of African migrants and black Libyans who were accused of being mercenaries under the dictator’s regime. Human rights groups reported that such claims were unfounded and that the attacks were racially motivated. Some proponents of the Arab spring even said that these attacks were betraying the revolutionary ethos of the coup because of the refusal to recognise black Libyans as a fixture of Libyan society. Though Libya is an African country, the ill-treatment that has been exhibited towards black Africans begets an age old tension between the Arab world and the Sub-Saharan region. The separation between the two regions, despite their close geography, is caused by a perceived difference in culture and racial superiority. It should be no surprise that such sentiments in the Arab world were entrenched through colonial rule and thought. 

The root of Libya’s anti-black sentiment lies with the colonial myth of racial superiority – the Hamitic hypothesis. The hypothesis is a genetic anthropological theory stating that anything of value in Africa was created by the Hamites, a subgroup of the Caucasian race. The theory dates back to the book of Genesis in which Noah has three sons – Ham, Japheth and Shem. It is claimed that Ham was a direct descent of the “black race”, while Japheth represented European Caucasians, and Shem’s lineage was most closely associated with Arabs or the Hamites. It was this notion that influenced colonial attitudes towards the African populace and was used to determine which ethnic group was superior – based on physical attributes that best resembled Western standards. This school of thought eventually disseminated among Arab scholars and influenced their perceptions of black Africans throughout North Africa. In the present day, the influence of the Hamitic hypothesis can be seen through the racially charged aggression towards black Africans throughout North Africa, in particular Algeria, Libya and Morocco. The reasons for the existence of the Libyan slave trade can be traced back to long before the socio-economic collapse of Libya after US intervention.

But did black Africans have it any better under Gaddafi? On paper, the racial tensions that exist in Libyan society do seem at odds with the Pan-African stance espoused by Gaddafi. He was well known for championing the rights of African migrants and had long advocated for greater African unity – even proposing a single African currency. But a deeper look into history indicates that the fallen dictator’s legacy as “Brother Leader” is mired by the very same racist and imperialist ideas he swore to oppose. Despite his calls for African solidarity, Gaddafi intervened in the domestic affairs of several African countries, in what some believed to be his attempt to wage an “Arabisation” campaign in the sub-Sahara region. In the late 1970s, he created an army of mercenary fighters called the “Islamic legion” as a means of militarily advancing his cause. Gaddafi used this legion to back several rebel movements across the continent, particularly in Sudan, Liberia, and Sudan; using immigrants from poorer Sahel countries (Niger, Chad, and Mali) to bolster his forces and fight as mercenaries in civil wars in which they had no allegiance.

The economic coercion of black migrants into modern day slavery is an echo of the military enslavement Gaddafi imposed decades ago. In addition, the rhetoric Gaddafi used in reference to black Africans who attempted to migrate to Europe speaks of the racial prejudice inherent in Libyan society. In 2010, he warned that Europe could face being overrun by an “influx of starving and ignorant Africans”, citing “we don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions”. It is therefore clear that Gaddafi’s previous calls for African solidarity were merely an appropriation of the Pan-African paradigm, which he used to mask his neo-imperialist intensions.

The existence of the modern day Libyan slave market is but a microcosm of a greater conflict that exists not only in Libya but across all of North Africa. It remains to be seen whether the world’s outrage at the slave trade’s existence will change these long-held prejudices – and improve the lives of black Africans across North Africa – or whether it will be forgotten in yesterday’s papers.