Libya’s Rebels now control most of the country, with the exception of the rural southwest, a remote non-Arab support base for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the town of Bani Walid more than 100 miles south-by-southeast of Tripoli, and Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown on the middle of Libya’s Mediterranean coast. Rebels have largely consolidated control of Libya’s sprawling capital Tripoli, and are poised to move on Gaddafi’s 2 (aforementioned) most-strategic remaining garrison towns.
But the Rebels haven’t completely consolidated control of the capital. There isn’t much doubt (the Gaddafi clan’s continued bluster notwithstanding) that Loyalist forces have lost Tripoli for good (and permanently, too); still, this large city is now rife with rifles and full of flak–not all weapons of which are in the hands of organized Rebel units–and the Rebel units themselves consist of different tribal backgrounds which reflect somewhat-different rationales, timing, and costs for entry into the rebellion. The Libyan Transitional National Council’s representatives in Tripoli have wisely already gone about integrating Rebel soldiers into the country’s police force, as many who worked as police under the previous regime have declined to come to work, owing to either resentment or fear.
Tripoli’s new police units, and those Rebel infantry attaining formal status as the reorganized Libyan Army, have as-yet informal jurisdiction over a rapidly-growing legal and moral problem–the status of Libya’s large population of black African migrants. Yesterday the New York Times reported that hundreds of black Africans have been rounded up and imprisoned in Tripoli on suspicion of being mercenaries deployed by the Gaddafi regime to suppress the rebellion, which took 6 months of fighting and an air intervention by NATO to finally depose the Gaddafi regime to the hinterlands. The Times story reports on the latest development in a narrative that has unfolded since the early street battles in Libya: While individual soldiers and entire units of the Libyan Army defected to the rebellion and at times faced execution by their peers rather than fire upon their civilian countrymen in the early days of the civil war, African mercenaries from places like Chad and Niger who know no loyalty other than to their cash pay and plunder reportedly perpetrated massacres and other atrocities in restive neighborhoods, in some cases killing people door-to-door or sniping from rooftops, in both cases with extreme prejudice.
It’s a horrifying and entirely-plausible story. We’re also still unsure whether it’s true. Racism and xenophobia have broad influence in Libya, which was brutally colonized by Italy and has for most of its independence been ruled by 1 of the most-despotic and violence-prone leaders on Earth.
It’s well-known by now that the eccentric and tyrannical Colonel Gaddafi purposefully kept the Libyan Army small and untrained. While at 6.5 million its national population is one of the World’s smallest, Libya has the 4th-largest land area of any country in Africa, making it one of the biggest in the World. The active-duty Libyan Army was merely 25,000-strong (though there were nearly as many draft soldiers) when the uprising began as peaceful protests on or around February 16th of this year. As some Libyan Army units fired on protesters and then on their funerals in an effort to mortify the public, these outrages simply worked to make people angrier. By February 20th an order by Gaddafi calling for Libyan Army units to fire indiscriminately on crowds in the streets of Benghazi led instead to the defection of much of those units to the protesters; they declared Benghazi liberated and in about a day of skirmishes made that claim a reality. About 4 or 5 days after initially-peaceful protests, Libya–both the most-affluent and the most effectively-repressed country in Africa–was in the throes of a full-blown civil war. Neither conventional wisdom nor well-developed academic theory predicted this war–but there is a wrinkle in the narrative that helps demonstrate the rule: In spite of his own military background and his rise to power in a bloodless coup, Colonel Gaddafi had purposefully kept the Libyan Army small and unsophisticated in order to prevent the formation of an opposition power base in the chain of command that could eventually overthrow him. As it turned out, that marginalized and decentralized army found common cause with the citizens of Benghazi, an old hotbed of anti-regime activity, as defecting units quickly opened arsenals around the city to the Rebels.
Most of us have bought into the story that the Gaddafi regime has held onto power through the use of his capital reserves and air transport capacity to import African mercenaries from Chad and Niger into the country; many of these alleged mercenaries, when captured–alive–by Rebels, have claimed that they had stepped onto planes in their home countries with the intention of finding work in oil-rich Libya but once on the ground there were given assault rifles and brought to contested towns and told to go forth and kill the Rebels or die at the hands of their new bosses. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the chaos in Libya featured a terrified-looking black African captive–either a traumatized pawn of Gaddafi’s brutality or a rather brilliant actor–who was among the 1st to claim having been pushed out in front of the Rebels with a gun.
How many of those foreigners captured by the Rebels while armed were formal mercenaries and how many were…”conscripted” under false pretenses? How many of those so-conscripted and forced to fight actually killed–and why?
Surely some of these forced mercenaries killed out of fear and desperation while others–maybe a small percentage–simply accepted this as their work and hoped it would lead to better prospects. How can subsequent investigation discern the dazed from the malicious? In most cases this is probably impossible. Thus war makes a mockery of justice; thus Rebel justice will either let a lot of the war criminals who wreaked havoc on them go free or else incarcerate or even execute scores whom are simply lost victims of a mass kidnapping.
So far the Rebels–to the extent that they can be called a monolithic entity–appear to have conducted themselves fairly-honorably as regards alleged African mercenaries, incarcerating many on principle but proposing loose standards for separating civilian migrants from actual mercenaries, as the Times report shows. But given the scope of the problem, the emotions tainted with racism surrounding the narrative that foreign mercenaries–surely not Arabs!–are responsible for violence against civilians, and the limits of current Rebel capacity to control its military units (let-alone conduct hundreds of investigations), numerous episodes of both undeserved punishment and pardoning of the wicked seem virtually certain.
The Liberal Ironist has already raised the question of the alleged African mercenaries’ motives, but the Times article also suggested various motivations among native Libyans for incarceration of black Africans. Without explicitly raising the question of the moral din that this implies, the Times reported that some Libyan Rebel units and civilians appeared motivated by a desire for revenge, some by simple racism, some by a desire to find and punish mass murderers, some by a belief that these sweeps were necessary to pacify the streets, and some out of a fatalistic sense that the safest place for a black African migrant to be in Libya (at least for now) is in a guarded cell.
Libya’s Rebel movement is a ragtag assemblage of thousands of fighters with different motivations. Among those yearning for democracy are secular Liberals with legal backgrounds and Jihadists. Among military defectors are those guided by their conscience and self-seeking careerists who can sense which way the wind is blowing. Some tribal leaders who joined the rebellion may well have believed Gaddafi was evil; others probably just feel passed-over for pork projects by the old regime.
This is an early and unwelcome (but inevitable) test of both the institutional and the moral integrity of the Libyan Transitional National Council. Where motives are mysterious (always somewhat the case in politics), alliances are sure to be unpredictable. Among those in the TNC favoring mercy and due process in dealing with Libya’s many detained black Africans, some will be all-business, responding pragmatically to what they know about the human rights scruples of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Qatar, their biggest benefactors. Alternately, some will maintain an even poise and solemnly insist that all they want is justice for Gaddafi’s victims as they apply the word mercenary to all black Africans in Libya.
There is an outside risk of a very massive crime emerging during such a sensitive situation. The media and our government should watch these detentions closely.