The forcible possession of Africans in Africa by Africans

By Prince Singa Edward Zhattau…

A CNN video footage visualized it all before the global audience – the heinous practices where men are being auctioned for as low as $400 to farm labourers in open slave markets in Libya. Libya has since become a popular alley through which African migrants access Europe. An estimated 150, 000 migrants and refugees have reportedly transited through Libya to Europe in recent months all in the name of seeking better livelihood in Europe. And in each of the past four (4) years, an estimated 3000 migrants have either drowned or disappeared in their bid to cross the Mediterranean Sea. This can only lend credence to one fact: the journey through Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe is both torturous and treacherous, and in some cases, suicidal.

Since the ouster of the strongman of Libyan politics – Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO backed bloody revolt in 2011 – Libya has descended into a bottomless pit of chaos, and with every ticking hand of the clock, the North African nation edges closer to grabbing the unenviable sobriquet of “a rudderless state”. With its somehow splintered government severally headquartered in Tripoli, Tobruk, Sirteand Benghazi, and with dozens of rival armed militias clashing with one another for political and resource control on a daily basis, maintaining law and order in Libya is anybody’s guess. While internal law and order is clearly out of sights in Libya, the Libyan coast guards with the help of its far more stable European neighbour, Italy, have ratcheted up the pressure against the operators of smuggling vessels on the Mediterranean Sea – constraints which usually result in serious humanitarian crisis when one considers the fact that an estimated 400, 000 to 1,000,000 migrants are reportedly trapped in Libya.

These vulnerable migrants will however be turned into the goods needed forthriving criminal businesses like human trafficking and slavery. Normally, these vulnerable migrants would soon run out of money, and in like manner, food. In their numbers, they would also begin to overflow the warehouses in which they are stashed. Clearly, the squalid conditions of these migrants would turn the heat on their smugglers who would begin getting rid of them through one dehumanizing form or the other. These migrants are clearly being subjected to robbery, rape, forced prostitution, forced labour, sale and other forms of inhumane exchange by criminal elements, who had found in an ungovernable Libya, a safe haven for their nefarious activities.

The giant of Africa is neck deep in the ongoing slave trade in Libya as quite anumber of Nigerians are either facilitators or victims of this ugly incident. Recently, a few Nigerian migrants have reportedly arrived in their hitherto deserted fatherland from Libya, besides the thousands who had been lucky to arrive in Nigeria in the past one year. Thousands of nationals of other sub-Saharan Africa nations have been victims, and as we speak, a crushing disaster is upon Africa.

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Inhumanity borrowed from another age?

Going back to antiquity, slavery was very much a part of the social fabric of ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Babylon, China, India, Arabia, Greece, Rome and even Africa. Although the degree of slavery varies from one civilization to another, all these ancient human societies can rightly be said to have engaged in one form of human exchange or the other. Although slavery can be said to be as old as human existence, the most notorious aspect of human slavery was the trans-Atlantic slave trade which thrived between the 15th and 19th centuries,whereby the Portuguese began exploring the coast of West Africa and small number of Africans were first taken away as slaves. However, the demand by the Portuguese and other Europeans would hit its heights with the founding of plantations in the newly colonized main land America and the Caribbean islands.

At the beginning of 1800, slavery was still an acceptable practice in the European society and other parts of the Western hemisphere, as practices like serfdom and forcible possession of persons after conquest were backed by laws. But not too long, things began to take a turn for the better. In 1807, Britain took the lead in banning its subjects from taking part in slave trade. America shortly followed suit, and in the 1840s, more than 20 countries most of which were Atlantic sea powers, had committed themselves and signed pacts for the abolition of slave trade. However, illegal trading in slaves continued up till the 1900, by which time slave trade had been proscribed in the whole of the Western hemisphere.

Just as the demand for more labour to help in the cultivation of plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas precipitated Europe’s insatiable demand for slaves, Britain’s iconic economic development which began in 1760 and peaked in 1840 aptly described as the ‘Industrial Revolution’ also accounted for a drastic fall in the necessity for mass human labour. This, in turn, whittled down Europe’s appetite for black slaves. That is not to say that the industrial revolution is the only factor that led to the abolition of slave trade; even more responsible for the abolition of slave trade were groups and men of conscience who had earlier been pushing for an end to trading in human beings regardless of race as epitomized by William Wilberforce, who on moral and altruistic grounds, became that audible voice of the anti slavery campaign in the British Parliament.

Even at a huge economic cost to it, the British Empire put itself up as the most outstanding anti slave trade nation. Britain did not only deploy its unrivalled naval power at the time to police the Atlantic Ocean and seize slaves carrying vessels, but also became the major instigator of most anti-slavery treaties. It’s been argued,and rightly so, that one of the most enduring legacies of the British Empire to the rest of the world was its dogged stand against the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

If humanity had to go through these turbulent times to halt the trans-Atlantic slave trade which had black Africans as victims, one will be forced to ask once again: Why are black Africans being sold by Africans to fellow Africans in Africa? As hinted earlier, the mother of all factors accounting for African migration to Europe is the poor governance and leadership style of the African ruling class.

The ruling class in any given African country covets and personalizes the wealth of their nation. They corruptly enrich themselves at the detriment of the masses. This has got too bad that when you mention corruption in Africa (especially Nigeria), you can only get one meaning to that: stealing of public wealth by government officials! If I may borrow the language employed within the US diplomatic circles to describe the loot and looting prowess of a certain Nigerian government official under the Jonathan administration, ‘earth quaking’ sums are cornered on a daily basis by public office holders in Africa.

To give you a taste of the insanely corrupt nature of the African ruling elite, the report, “Honest Accounts: 2017” had found that: “Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, estimated in 2014 that rich Africans were holding a massive $500 billion off shore (i.e. in tax havens) – amounting to 30% of all Africa’s financial wealth.” The report added that: “Africa’s people are effectively robbed of wealth by a process that enables a tiny minority of Africans to get rich by allowing wealth to flow out of Africa.”

An earlier UN Report on DR Congo in 2002 had found that: “The elite network of Congolese and Zimbabwean political, military and commercial interests seeks to maintain its grip on the main mineral resources — diamonds, cobalt, copper germanium — of the government-controlled area. The network has transferred ownership of at least $5 billion of assets from the state-mining sector to private companies under its control in the past three years, with no compensation or benefit for the State treasury of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

In Nigeria, no sooner had the former Central Bank Governor and now Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, informed Nigerians that some $20 billion dollars had gone missing from the NNPC account than he was relieved of his job.

Still using DR Congo as a marker, Kieron Monks, while penning an article for theCNN on the book: The Looting Machine, authored by Tim Burgis who is a Time Magazine investigative journalist had this to say of the evil orchestration of the ruling class in Africa: “The combination of staggering wealth, rampant violence, and abject poverty in DR Congo is no coincidence, but part of a pattern causing devastation across Africa.”

The Eyademas have held hostage, for too long, the people and treasury of Benin Republic. The Bongos have always been the possessors of the vaults of the state of Gabon. The Dos Santos family in Angola may not have heard of the word“poverty”. The Nguemas in Equatorial Guinea have bought for themselves swathes of territories in France with state wealth. Even our Papa Mugabe who sat on the treasury of Zimbabwe for close to four decades had spurned all offers made to him to step down amidst a coup until some “graceful exit” strategy was put on the table: $10 million severance package, the allure of which he found irresistible. South Africa’s Zuma has unashamedly remained a friend of the Guptas in what has been underscored as an unhealthy political cum business relationship; and as we speak, the office of the Public Protector in South Africa has just released a report that over $22 million was misappropriated during the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a man that was a paragon of excellent leadership and good governance. Not long agoin Nigeria, while innocent citizens including men and women were being butchered on a daily basis in the North East, politicians were busy sharing billions of dollars disguisedly appropriated for the procurement of arms for the nation’s armed forces; and more recently yet, one of the nation’s most reputable magazines(TELL) has indicted the head of Nigeria’s secret service of horrendous corruption in a report, that is the product of some bold investigative journalism. The list of “earth-quaking” looting on the continent is endless!

The African ruling class would refuse to invest in infrastructure, agriculture, power, education, health sector etc thereby creating torridly harsh conditions for their citizens. In most countries, these choking economic conditions have given rise to criminal gangs and armed militias. People are actually forced to flee their countries as refugees in the case of war, while in another breath, Africans are piqued by the harsh economic conditions created by mal governance to leave for the highly storied lands of Europe that “flow with milk and honey”.

There is also the grandiose thinking among lazy African youths that Europe is a paradise that is akin to the biblical Garden of Eden where one can eat virtually from every tree without actually having to labour. Some young persons in Africa would therefore get lulled into embarking on the foolhardy journey to Europe by transiting through the hellish Sahara Desert and rudderless Libya, and across the tidally dangerous Mediterranean. Intense reorientation should be embarked upon by the government, civil society groups, NGOs and the media to redirect the current perception of young Africans of Europe as the perfect Eldorado.

Can Libya be held to account?

The Nuremberg trials in which Nazi war criminals were prosecuted after World War II are often considered as the watershed moment in so far as the prosecution of international human rights violations is concerned. This is however not necessarily the case, as a century earlier, slavery had been cognizable as crime against humanity, and judicial mechanisms bearing international character were actually established for the prosecution of the crime of slavery following the adoption of the slavery abolition laws by nations who were hitherto key actors in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Referred to as “Mixed Commissions”, these tribunals were set up in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Havana (Cuba), Suriname (a former Dutch colony in the Americas), Sierra Leone, Luanda (Angola), Boa Vista (Cape Verde Islands), Jamaica, Cape Town (South Africa), New York (United States). Aided in no small measure by Britain’s sophisticated gunboat diplomacy, these quasi-judicial bodies were able to record some remarkable successes in the anti-slavery enforcement process. Thus, the historical episode of prosecuting slavers marked the first most successful cradle of prosecuting international human rights violations.

From that moment, anti slavery sentiments had gathered the needed momentum under international law and never seemed to wane. This is evident in the myriad number of international instruments that criminalize enslavement and slaveryunder our now properly developed international law.

The Slavery Convention of 1926, for instance, defines slave trade in Article 1 (2) as including “…all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves.” Going by these constitutive elements of the crime of slave trade as enunciated in the Convention, the auction of migrants to farm owners and the forced labour they are subjected to in Libya clearly constitute slavery. It is argued further that Libya being a party to the Slavery Convention is under obligation to take steps to prevent, suppress and halt all acts of slavery that are currently thriving within its territory. Article 2 of the Convention is germane: “The High Contracting Parties undertake, each in respect of the territories placed under its sovereignty, jurisdiction, protection, suzerainty or tutelage, so far as they have not already taken the necessary steps: (a) To prevent and suppress the slave trade; (b) To bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.” The Convention in Article 4 also places an obligatory duty on the High Contracting Parties to the Convention (which as a matter of fact encompasses all member states of the United Nations) to assist one another in abolishing slavery and slave trade.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 places a mandatory obligation on member-states to proscribe and penalize slavery; it provides as follows: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be punished in all their forms.”

The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights to which Libya is a party has criminalized slavery in its Articles 2, 3, 5, 6 and 12. Article 5, for instance,succinctly provides as follows: “All forms of exploitation and degradation of man particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be punished.”

On the strength of the foregoing, Libya is under an obligation to bring to an immediate end the horrendous auction of black migrants that is on the wax within its territorial sphere by activating its national criminal justice system against theperpetrators of slavery. At the moment, Libya as a state is either unwilling or does not have the capacity to prosecute the perpetrators of these egregious crimes, with the latter reason appearing to be more probable due to the splintered nature of its government. Thus, the International Criminal Court (ICC) can safely step in under its well known “Principle of Complementarity” to save the day in Libya. The “Principle of Complementarity” as provided for under Article 17 of the Rome Statute presupposes that the ICC can only investigate and prosecute international crimes when national jurisdictions are unable or unwilling to prosecute any such crimes themselves. Article 7 (1) (c) of the Rome Statute provides for enslavement as an international crime; sub article (2) (c) of the said Article 7 defines enslavement as: “The exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children.”

Clearly, Libya can be held to account under international law!

What about the global response?

More than 80 African and European leaders recently met in Abidjan, Cote d’ Ivoirefor the annual AU-EU Summit. The summit which lasted between the 29 and 30 September was dominated by migration, mobility and security issues. There was a flurry of calls by leaders from both continents for an end to the ongoing insanity in Libya. For example, President Buhari of Nigeria described the exchange of sub Saharan Africans in Libya as appalling, while Alpha Conde of Guinea-Conakry described it as “despicable” and from “another age”. The world of celebrities is not left out as Naomi Campbell has protested profusely even to the extent of using a 2011 photo to underscore the ongoing scourge in Libya. An online petition started by Constance Mbassi Manga has been signed onto by Puff Daddy, Maya Jama, Stefflon Don etc., While celebrating his goal against Newcastle United at Old Trafford on 18 November, 2017, Paul Pogba (who was himself born to Guinean migrant parents in France) raised his crossed wrists aloft, in mimicry of a man in chains – a gesture that has succeeded in raising more global awareness to the Libyan tragedy.

It is commendable that the world has roundly condemned the current acts of slavery, but the global response has still left much to be desired. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has, as far back as April 2017, informed the world of the acts of slavery that had been ongoing in Libya. Why did it take 7 months for these global calls to gather momentum? Is it because of the prevailingdisdainful conception of African migrants in Europe that, all the while, the “advanced” world opted to turn a blind eye to this humanitarian disaster? Libyan officials have reportedly denounced the slave trade itself, but had called for more global support in ending the menace. This is an indication of the multilateral approach needed to solve the migrant crisis in Libya.

The global approach to confronting the challenges in Libya must, however, go beyond embellished diplomatic rhetoric! African leaders cannot tell us they are genuinely committed to “Investing in Youth for a Sustainable Future” which was the theme of the AU-EU Summit while they gobble every penny in the treasury of their respective nations. The world must take decisive action of whatever nature to halt the ongoing brutishness in Libya. The world, especially African leaders, must address those factors that are responsible for the irregular migration of Africans to Europe. While African leaders must address the poor governance issues bedeviling the country (especially, the stealing of their people’s wealth), the West on the other hand will have to assist with funding, training, education and technical assistance in a show of genuine commitment to rebuilding Libya – a country it played no mean role in plunging into bloody chaos in 2011.


The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was not abolished by accident, but by design. It wasthrough the conscious efforts of the British Empire and other like-mind nations that illegal transaction in human beings was abolished. However, any time we fail to pay the supreme price of freedom, which is VIGILANCE, we are bound to lose our freedom. Lovette Jallow, is an author and founder of the online makeup platform for black people and people of colour known as ‘Black Vogue’; and while speaking at a protest she organized against the slavery in Libya which was attended by about 4,000 protestors in the Swedish capital Stockholm, she warned sternly against complacency: “Open your eyes, seek information, don’t be naïve, thinking this is happening to them and not to us, we know very well slavery never ended”. Yes, slavery never ended! Wake up!



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