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Libyan Slavery Shock: Reminisces Of The Forgotten Roles Of Arabs And Islam In The Enslavement Of Black Africans

Last week, the American media giant, Cable News Network (CNN) released highly investigative and shocking footage from Libya showing hundreds of young men from sub-Saharan Africa being auctioned as farm workers. This horrifying spectacle had received condemnation from across the world, especially from the diasporic people of African descents. Africans in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) also condemned this modern day act of slavery in Libya. On 25 November 2017 at Sergels torg in Stockholm, Sweden, large multi-racial protestors attended a demonstration against slavery in Libya.

But visibly lost in the condemnation at the earliest stages of the breaking of the story were the voices of the continent’s leaders, sub-regional politico-economics groups and the continent`s own powerful body, the African Union (AU). However, in Ghana, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo swiftly deployed his social media account to condemn the slave auctions, saying they make a mockery of African unity. Many high ranking members of the Ghanaian society also used the traditional and the social media to condemn the situation in Libya.

For instance, Mr. Ace Kojo Anan Ankomah, private legal practitioner and a law lecturer at the Ghana School of Law has even advocated for the suspension of the celebration of the AU holiday until the body stands up and do something about the unfortunate happenings in Libya. A civil society group, “The Future Group”, moved further to petition the AU to investigate reports of a supposed modern day slave trade in Libya.

In the Zambia, the influential newspaper, Zambian Times, carried a front-page story titled, “Slavery in Libya: Where is the AU?” in which the paper criticised the AU for its loud silence over the slavery markets in Libya.

The repugnant scene of how African migrants were shackled and sold as slaves in Libya was first documented by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) first documented in April 2017, but the world did how migrants were being sold as slaves in Libya. After footage was recently aired by CNN, the international community has come out in numbers to denounce the practice. The footage casted shadow over the two-day African Union and European Union summit which took place last Wednesday in the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan.

As if the AU, sub-regional politico-economic bodies and African leaders had listened to the attacks against them by their citizens for not condemning the Libyan slavery issue or they had just been briefed by their intelligence officers, President Jacob Zuma of the Republic Of South Africa took an opportunity to use his speech at the 5th African Union-European Union Summit, which comprises a large contingent of world leaders, to speedily condemned the “scourge of modern day slavery” in Libya and urged his colleagues to do the same. Zuma continued, “”As we gather here, we are also haunted by images of many of our continent’s citizens plunged in the watery grave of the Mediterranean and the scenes of a slave trade continuing on this very continent.”

On last Saturday, Dr Admore Kambudzi, Acting Director for AU Peace and Security Department finally confirmed that the AU has sent a delegation to Libya to ascertain the situation on the ground regarding human trafficking and purported slave trade in order to address the concerns.

The Mohammedan or Arab Slave Trade

When the issue of medieval, Trans-Atlantic and modern day slavery is raised very little discussion goes into the roles played by the Arabs and Islam as a religion. However, myriads of scholarship in the academia show that both the Arabs as people and Islam as religion engaged in massive slave trading in Africa to traffic Africans overseas just as Europeans and Christianity also played similar roles in slave trade. The silence on Arabs and Islams` role is as a result of serious attentions paid to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST) and the visible profit made by the European and American capitalists and trans-national corporations.

In historical context, Arabs or Mohammedans have played significant role in trafficking Africans to the Middle East (Levants, Ottoman Empire, Iraq etc.). In the medieval and colonial times, Arab slavery was conducted via Trans-Saharan and East African (Indian Ocean) slavery. Historian John Wright posits in his 2007 ground breaking book, “Trans-Sahara Slave Trade,” that Arabian (Mohammedan) incursion to Sub-Saharan Africa occurred “during the early Arab conquest of North Africa in 46AH (666–7AD ),  Okba bin Nafi occupied Waddan, one of the Giofra oases where the central  Saharan road enters Fezzan, and imposed a tribute of 360 slaves on the place.”

Medieval and Colonial Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

Nafi, the Arabian warrior, proceeded to the Fezzanese capital, Germa, demanding the same levy, and  after taking all the Fezzanese settlements, he finally (according to the ninth-century Egyptian historian Ibn Abd-al-Hakam) penetrated as far south as the oases of Kawar, two-thirds of the way to Lake Chad, and again imposed  the standard tribute of 360 slaves. The Arabs spread their slave trading activities into the precolonial Old Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Kanem Borno and Sudan Empires. Thus opening up the medieval Trans-Saharan slave trade long before the Europeans came to Africa to launch their lucrative Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The emergence of the Saharan slave trade, positioned West Africa as the main source of supply for much wider slaving enterprise in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish (Ottoman Empire) merchants used Tripoli as one of their trading posts (ports) as point of embarkation to traffic slaves from West Africa. Slaves were bought in various African Empires, they were shackled and made to walk in the scorching desert lands of the Sahara to the North Africa.

From North Africa, the enslaved black West Africans were sent by sea, on a Mediterranean ‘middle passage`, to their final points of sale. Historian Wright elucidates that “A few might instead be sent overland into Egypt, and from Egypt some slaves could be taken across Sinai to the Levant. But shipping them to markets in the Balkans, the Aegean, Anatolia or the Levantwas a much easier and cheaper option.”

The medieval Trans-Saharan slave trade went on until North Africa received diplomatic and trading relationship with the European powers in the 1400s and during the period of the continent`s colonisation in the 1880s. During this period of colonial slave trade or Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Arab wave of Islamic conquests as one of the major mechanisms for securing slaves in a form of war captives, gave way to commercial slave trading. This time victims of slave raiding and captives of war from ethnic wars as a result of state formations became the main source of slave supply. At the centre of what fuelled the Trans-Saharan slave trade was the high demand of unique horses by the West African tribal heads from the North Africa.

Geographer Leo Africanus, wrote in the mid-sixteenth century, concerning a community in the Moroccan Sahara that was involved in selling horses purchased from the kingdom of Fez into Black Africa. These horses were used to form the cavalry to fight against their opponents. This culminated in raiding of enemy territories to capture people and sell them into slavery to purchase horses or exchange human beings for horse.

Historian James Webb, Jnr., wrote in his article, “The Horseman and Slave Trade Between the Western Sahara and Senegambia” rightly confirmed that rulers required their subject populations to pay tribute in horses, and it also underlines the fact that there were multiple routes of supply from the desert into the savanna. In the Senegambia areas of the desert, Fernandes and Duarte Pacheco Pereira, the Buur ba Jolof had a cavalry of either 8,000 or 100,000 horse, although these figures may refer to the larger Wolof region, including Waalo, territories lost to desert forces in the Gibla of the south-western Sahara, Kajoor, Bawol and Jolof.

Some of the slaves raided also found their ways to the southern coasts of West Africa and became part of the statistics of the TAST. This southward overreaching tentacles of the Trans-Saharan slave trade also explains why some people of African descents in the North, South and Central America and the Caribbean trace their ancestry to the North West African ethnic groups such as Madinka (Mandingo), Soninke, Wolof, Fulani, and Hausa among others.

Arabs and East African (Indian Ocean) slave trade in Medieval and colonial times

Historian Yusuf Hasan in his 1977 work, “Some Aspects of the Arab Slave Trade from the Sudan, 7th-19th Centuries” contends that the East African slave trade had been continuous and massive since antiquity, led by the “Arabs” who settled on the coast and began trading in the interior. As far back as 331 AD, Arab traveller Ibn Battuta saw trading of slaves in precolonial African kingdom of Kilwa in East Africa. Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, who wrote around 950 AD, also stated that Zanj slaves were caught or purchased in the area between Sofala and Zanzibar to be sold in Oman.

The Arabs from Ottoman Empire and Yemen moved to the East African Kingdoms to purchase slaves to the Middle East for both domestic and military purposes. Historians often cite the famous Zanj rebellion in Iraq (869–883) to explain the antiquity and importance of the slave trade and its decline after the uprising by the Arabs. Some notorious fighters in the Zanj rebellion were slaves imported from the Swahili coast in East Africa. The Arabs continued to establish slave trade routes in East Africa to capture people via raids or buy the slaves at commercial slave market to the Middle East. Indeed, the port town of Zayla, in present day Somaliland, became the coastal terminus of major slave routes from the Ethiopian highland. Slaves, including eunuchs, were then shipped to Aden on small ships

The Arab slave trade in East Africa continued from the medieval times to the period of colonialism in Africa. This time Turkish, Yemeni, Hadrami and later Omani merchants entered the slave trade to compete with the European slave trading companies in East Africa to traffic Africans. Slaves, in this period, were increasingly acquired through commercial as opposed to military methods. Two types of slaves were in great demand in the slave markets of the Islamic empire. The first were of Turkish origin and were used primarily as soldiers known as mamluks; the second were the Sudan or the blacks who were primarily used as servants, soldiers and labourers.

Most of the African slaves (Sudan) in East Africa were obtained from the eastern Bilad al-Sudan (‘the land of the Blacks’, signifying all sub-Saharan Africa extending from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean). When Omani came to dominate the slave trading enterprise in the Swahili shore, they put garrisons and factories in Kilwa, Zanzibar, Pemba, Mombasa, and Pate. The slave trade, centered on Zanzibar, developed on an unparalleled scale in Eastern Africa, and an actual slave mode of production became widespread on the coast. During this time the French from the Mascarene Islands developed an intense slave trade with the Swahili coast, mostly from the port towns of Kilwa and Zanzibar, giving new momentum to the slave trade in East Africa.

In the same period the Omani imposed their sovereignty on Zanzibar and progressively took over the entire coast. They controlled more and more of the trading networks and encouraged new trends to the slave trade. Most captives came from north-western Madagascar and were destined to fill demands for servile labor in Arabia, the Persian Gulf, the Swahili city states, and the Omani. In Mozambique slave port of Massailly an estimated records of 40,000-150,000 slaves were trafficked to Arabian countries.

Abolition of Slave Trade and Libya`s Continuous Stay in the Business

The Scandinavian countries in Europe were the first to ban slave trade. The major player in the trade, Britain, effectively banned slave trade in 1807, following the unanimous parliamentary approval by both Houses. Attempted effective abolitionist pressure were put on Turkey, Tripoli, Egypt and other slave-dealing and slave-owning societies. Despite the abolitionist moves, it took long time to stop domestic slavery in certain African countries under British jurisdiction. The Arabian or Mohammedan countries requested for gradualist approach in the abolition of slavery because rushing it “would injure [the ruler] in the eyes of [Muslims] in every part.”

Thus, in Libya, for instance, the British could not enforce their international ban on slave trade in the country. The continuous proliferation of slave trade in Libya caused the worried Lord Palmerston to write to Sir Warrington, the British Consul in Libya in October 1840 to “take steps as you think will be most likely to induce the Moorish Chiefs themselves to give up, and prevent other persons from continuing, the practice of procuring slaves for exportation from Tripoli to the Levant.”

The Arab Lords in Libya disregard the global ban on slavery and continued to engage in human trafficking out of Tripoli by sea at night, or were picked up at isolated spots along the coast by Levant-bound ships. Historian Wright discloses that in 1863, the British Consul, Herman reported the embarkation of 15 slaves one night ‘within a mile of the town gates’ of Tripoli, whilst as late as 1879 the Vice Consul in Benghazi also reported an incidence of slave shipments from there to Tripoli. Indeed, the slave businessmen Benghazi continued quietly to export slaves brought by the Sanusi-controlled road through Kufra and Augila from the Sultanate of Wadai.

Report by a British Traveller, Silva White, in 1898 records that there was contraband slave trade which flourished in the oasis of Siwa and in the Western Desert, where boys were supplied from Wadai for the Egyptian and Constantinople markets. This illegal slave market in Libya was still in effect when a German traveller, Ewald Falls passed the Western Desert in 1906. Falls found that the Turkish market was being supplied with ‘the finest slaves’ smuggled by night from Cyrenaica. In that same year, the Swiss Hanns Vischer, who crossed the Sahara from Tripoli to Bornu with a caravan that included numbers of freed, home-bound slaves, discovered that the traders had at last stopped using the ancient and relatively easy main slaving road from Lake Chad, but were still carrying on an illegal, clandestine business by little-used tracks and the remoter oases. Vishcer wrote: “Slave caravans have now quite vanished on the road from Bornu to Tripoli [but] small numbers of slaves . . . no doubt frequently find their way through.”

The Libyans continued to engage in slave trafficking on some sections of the Wadai–Benghazi road well after Wadai’s occupation by the French in 1909 and the Italian invasion of Cyrenaica in 1911. The activities of slavery went down during these periods as a result of French and Italian presence in Libya. The French occupation and finally installation in Tibesti in 1929 and the Italian occupation of Fezzan in 1930 and Kufra in 1931 also checked slave trade in Libya. However, historical evidence suggests that right under the noses of the French and Italians, the Libyans engaged in smuggling of slaves. Rosita Forbes, the first British traveller to reach Kufra, records that on reaching Jalo (Augila) near Kufra in Libya she witnessed a scene of ‘smuggled slave boys and girls of eight to ten years . . . solemn little beings with chubby black  faces peering out of the pointed hood of minute camel’s-hair burnouses’.

In 1923, Ahmed Hassane, an Egyptian in Bey discovered at Kufra that one could buy a slave girl for between £30 and £40 Sterling. The travelling Danish Muslim, Knud Holmboe, who crossed Italian Libya in 1930, also reported about endemic slavery in Kufra and went on to record that “a good slave girl could be bought for the equivalent of £15 Sterling at the big slave market held there every Thursday.” This revelations contradicts the Italian regime`s averment that they ended slavery during their occupation of Libya.

Post-Muamer Gadhafi slavery

In Africa, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is also vilified as a country where the most notorious survival of slavery on a national scale was still in vogue by 1980. It has been argued that in countries such as Mauritania ‘the mental state of slavery’ persisted in their societal hierarchy as well as in the ‘arrogance on the part of the former masters . . . and subservience on the part of the . . . slaves and manumitted slaves.’ This could also be the situation in Libya, which was why the mixed Libyans of black and Arab blood were discriminated against by their Arabs colleagues in the country.

Slavery in open market may have been stopped by the Italians, but black domestic slaves were still an undisguised feature of the wealthier Libyan households even in Benghazi and Tripoli. The practice of domestic slavery continued after the Italians left Libya, but because very little attention has been paid over the years to the domestic affairs of Libya, especially under the reign of the long-time charismatic military leader, late Muamar Gadhafi, the world thought Libya had ended its internal slavery market.

Well, this recent video footage shows that slavery never ended at all in Libya, and that black Africans in Libya can still fall as preys to the evils of slave trade. This video footage also offers evidence of the role of Arabs and Islam in the evils of the global slave trade in the medieval, colonial (trans-atlantic) and modern slavery. The international communities, the world body, United Nations (UN) and the AU must delve deep into this slave market issues to bring the perpetrators into book. Libya, today, maybe a failed state ruled by factions of tribal heads, but the crime was committed in a place under a tribal head and his administration. The long arm of the law must be able to grab him and other perpetrators of this heinous crimes against humanity and fellow Africans.


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