Trafficking Dreams And Death, The Migrant Smugglers Of Libya

A Gambian migrant living under an boat outside Tripoli, Libya
A Gambian migrant living under an boat outside Tripoli, Libya
Francesco Semprini

SABRATHA â€" It's just past 10 p.m., and Omar, Mohammed and Isa are driving on the Mediterranean coast highway that links the Libyan capital of Tripoli with the Tunisian border. In the distance, flares of burning natural gas emanating from the Mellitah oil terminal light up the pitch black night.

The three men, all in their twenties, work in the migrant trafficking industry. They're on their way to their "jobs" in the stretch of coast between Sabratha and the city of Zawiya further to the east. This is one of the most dangerous roads in Libya, close to areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) and constantly monitored by U.S. drones overhead, ready to strike at any moment. A drone strike in Sabratha killed the local ISIS cell leader, the Tunisian-born Noureddine Chouchane, in February.

Local militias control the city but neither they nor the government in Tripoli have been able to halt the trafficking of migrants on Libya’s lawless western coast. "There’s very high demand here, many foreigners want to go to Italy," says Mohammed. Under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, the area was a free port the government used to smuggle contraband.

Today, the town of Zuwara is the only place in the 80-kilometer stretch between Tunisia and Sabratha that has been rid of human trafficking. An autonomous initiative launched by the local municipality, militias, and popular mobilization forces rooted out the practice, forcing the trade to shift eastwards towards Sabratha.

This area, the closest to Italian territory, is a perfect departure point for would-be migrants, with its relatively shallow waters no deeper than 200 meters â€" compared to the 400-meter depths and strong winds faced in journeys further east from Benghazi or Egypt.

Ruins in Sabratha, Libya â€" Photo: joepyrek

It's why people travel here from all over the continent, from neighboring states like Chad and Sudan to the south, from Mali and Nigeria in the west, and as far afield as the Horn of Africa. Syrians are no longer seen around here as they prefer crossing the Mediterranean from Egypt. Migrant trafficking operations in Libya earn around $1 million a day, and the groups involved structure their activities to protect their profits from potential defectors or competitors.

Million-dollar trip

Omar is a sentry, positioned on the road to alert the others if anyone suspicious appears. Mohammed started out providing food to the migrants, or "clients" as the traffickers call them, before they set off on their perilous voyages. Now he’s in charge of transporting the migrants from hangars where they arrive to bunkers closer to the coast, where they spend the night before embarking on their journeys.

"Profits are higher here, around 100 dinars ($73) per person," he says. "If you own a car you can make 400 ($291), which is half of a government salary, but with a small van you can make even more."

Isa is the eldest and most well-traveled of the three. "To enter this business you need to know someone who’s already in it," he explains. "You need to gain their trust to get jobs with more responsibilities. You start off with small boats and then you grow from there." Isa worked his way up from the bottom and now has his own "clients," along with a network of facilities and traffickers to run his operations.

Prices for being smuggled to Italy vary, and traffickers can make staggering profits of up to 30,000 dinars ($22,000) a month. The "base price" of an illegal boat journey across the Mediterranean is $1,000, but the traffickers offer different "packages" at varying prices. "Trips with better conditions were reserved for Syrians," says Isa, noting that many middle-class refugees from the war-torn country were willing to pay more for better treatment.

While the weather can often prevent smugglers from making journeys to Italy, there is little to no threat of being stopped by the limited reach of the small Libyan coast guard. "We fit 100-120 people on rubber dinghies made to support 40, but we can put up to 700 on a fishing boat," says Isa. "That’s a million dollars in one trip."

The smugglers never put a Libyan at the helm of the boats. "Migrants are better, especially Africans, who pay for their journeys by navigating. We give them a GPS navigator and then the sea takes care of the rest," he says.

"I'll continue doing this until something better comes along. But I can always do it part-time," says Isa. When asked if he has any regrets given the hundreds of migrant lives lost at sea, he shows no remorse. "It’s in our interest that our clients arrive safe and sound. This is the number one priority when you work at this level," he says.

The small boats, overflowing with people, grow ever more distant on the sea as the beaches empty and the sentries vanish into the night. Tomorrow, the same scenes will play over again and this tragic industry is destined to continue.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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