The uprising in Libya, and Col. Qadhafi’s violent response, led some to ponder yesterday what role a post-Qadhafi Libya might play in Africa. Others noted the role of sub-Saharan African mercenaries in Qadhafi’s crackdown. The Libyan protests, then, are offering new insights into Libya’s relationships with the Sahel and the Horn, even as those relationships seem poised to change in unpredictable ways.
Libya’s influence in the Sahel, the Horn, and elsewhere in Africa arises from Libyan wealth and from Qadhafi’s role as a mediator in conflicts in countries like Mali. As this map shows, Qadhafi supports (both financially and rhetorically) a variety of African governments (Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic) and political institutions and peacekeeping operations (in Darfur and Somalia, for example). His exit could reshape the political map in parts of West and East Africa.
Libya’s close relations with countries in the Sahel and the Horn have also affected the situation inside Libya. For one thing, numerous reports allege that Sahelian mercenaries are aiding in the crackdown. A Libyan diplomat told Reuters that French-speaking black African soldiers were helping to repress Libyan protesters. A Malian journalist informed the BBC that Nigerien, Chadian, and Malian troops were fighting for Qadhafi. Libyan witnesses also said Sahelian mercenaries are operating in their country.
As several analysts quoted by The Guardian point out, by employing mercenaries Qadhafi can use money and foreign influence to ensure the loyalty of his security forces:
Experts suggest that Gaddafi has plenty of options in the region. “He has traditionally had a network of skilled soldiers from all over west Africa,” said Adam Roberts, author of The Wonga Coup, the story of a failed attempt by Simon Mann and other mercenaries to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. “There are lots of Africans, particularly from west Africa or Sudan, who go to Libya because it’s wealthier.”
Roberts added: “Gaddafi and other dictators tend to surround themselves with fighters who will be loyal to them rather than to a local faction. Foreign mercenaries are likely to be less squeamish about shooting at local people.
“They are likely to better trained – a small unit that can be relied upon. They might also have experience of fighting battles and therefore be more capable if push comes to shove.”
The view was echoed by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to get your own people to shoot your own people,” he said. “In this kind of situation, you can see why mercenaries would be an advantage because it’s easier to get foreigners to shoot at Libyans than to get Libyans to shoot at Libyans.”
Gaddafi can offer mercenaries what they want more than anything: money. Sabelo Gumedze, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa, said: “Mercenaries are purely driven by profit. As long as they make money, they’re going to do it, and leaders like Gaddafi have money at their disposal.”
Of course, violence between Sahelians and Libyans can go both ways. Some observers fear that sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya will become targets, or be left stranded, if protesters or the next government turn on them.
Libya’s relationship with the rest of Africa is a complicated one, but these protests are showing sides of the relationship that I at least had not considered before. Qadhafi has over four decades decisively influenced politics, conflicts, and regional dynamics across Africa, and especially in the Sahel and the Horn. Qadhafi’s actions abroad are now influencing the course of the protests against him. What has happened in Egypt and Tunisia has altered the political conservation in many sub-Saharan African communities and will continue to have ramifications for the whole continent, but events in Libya could prove even more important to the future of the Sahel, the Horn, and the continent as a whole.