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The Libyan Slave Trade Has Shocked the World. Here’s What You Should Know



A video of men appearing to be sold at auction in Libya for $400 has shocked the world and focused international attention on the exploitation of migrants and refugees the north African country.

The footage and subsequent investigation conducted by CNN last month has rallied European and African leaders to take action to stop the abuses. On Wednesday, the leaders of Libya, France, Germany, Chad and Niger and four other countries agreed on a plan to evacuate thousands of migrants stuck in Libyan detention camps.

The grainy undercover video appears to show smugglers selling off a dozen men outside of the capital city Tripoli.

“Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig,” said an auctioneer, according to CNN. “What am I bid, what am I bid?”

The report has drawn attention to an issue that aid and migrant groups say has gone on for years.

Why is there a slave trade in Libya?

Libya is the main transit point for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. In each of the last three years, 150,000 people have made the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. For four years in a row, 3,000 refugees have died while attempting the journey, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the U.N.’s migration agency.

The Libyan Coast Guard — supported with funds and resources from the E.U. and more specifically, Italy — has cracked down on boats smuggling refugees and migrants to Europe. With estimates of 400,000 to almost one million people now bottled up Libya, detention centers are overrun and there are mounting reports of robbery, rape, and murder among migrants, according to a September report by the U.N. human rights agency. Conditions in the centers have been described as “horrific,” and among other abuses, migrants are vulnerable to being sold off as laborers in slave auctions.
“It’s a total extortion machine,” Lenard Doyle, Director of Media and Communications for the IOM in Geneva tells TIME. “Fueled by the absolute rush of migrants through Libya thinking they can get out of poverty, following a dream that doesn’t exist.”

The IOM said in April that it had documented reports of “slave markets” along the migrant routes in North Africa “tormenting hundreds of young African men bound for Libya.”

“There they become commodities to be bought, sold and discarded when they have no more value,” Doyle said in the April statement.

How is Libya handling the crisis?

According to CNN, the U.N.-backed Libyan government has launched a formal investigation into the allegations. But Libya is largely considered a failed state. Since Muammar Gaddafi, who ran the country for four decades, was ousted in 2011, the country has descended into civil war.

A transitional government failed to implement rule of law in the country, which has splintered into several factions of militias, tribes, and gangs. In lawless Libya, many see the slave trade and smuggling as a lucrative industry. Tackling the country’s humanitarian crisis will require international assistance.

On Wednesday, Libya reached a deal with E.U. and African leaders to allow the emergency repatriation of refugees and migrants facing abuse in its detention centers. The government also agreed to open a transit center for vulnerable refugees after months of negotiations, according to Reuters. The center is intended to safely house people before they are resettled or sent to a third country.

How is the international community responding?

Following the publication of the video, there was outcry from all corners of the globe, with some nations recalling their ambassadors from Libya. Protesters rallied outside Libyan embassies across Africa and in Europe.

On Wednesday, African and European leaders met at a summit in the Ivory Coast and agreed on an urgent evacuation plan that would see about 15,000 people flown out of Libya. Most of the migrants will be sent back to their home countries. Speaking at the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, called the abuse “a crime against humanity” and vowed the summit members would “launch concrete military and policing action on the ground to dismantle those networks,” according to the Guardian. The deal also included initiatives to target traffickers, including setting up a task force to dismantle trafficking networks, the BBC reports.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari expressed shock at how his compatriots were being treated “like goats.” On Wednesday, 242 Nigerian migrants were flown out of Libya back to Nigeria.

The day before, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting and said it would be “stepping up its work” to stop the abuses. However, the U.N refugee agency said it faces “dramatic” funding gaps, especially for its operations in sub-Saharan Africa. “Slavery and other such egregious abuses of human rights have no place in the 21st century,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said.

Since 2015, the IOM has repatriated 13,000 people from Libya under a voluntary program. But Doyle, the IOM spokesperson, says more needs to be done to stop migration at its core, particularly from tech companies who own online platforms where traffickers can falsely lure people into paying smugglers.

“They’re being completely misled into thinking that’s a happy future for them and being misled thorough social media,” he tells TIME.

Earlier this week, the foreign ministry of Rwanda said it would extend asylum to 30,000 mainly sub-Saharan Africans stuck in Libya. “Given our own history … we cannot remain silent when human beings are being mistreated and auctioned off like cattle,” the foreign ministry said.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley condemned the abuses, saying: “To see the pictures of these men being treated like cattle, and to hear the auctioneer describe them as, quote, ‘big strong boys for farm work,’ should shock the conscience of us all.”

“There are few greater violations of human rights and human dignity than this.”


Congressman Says Africa Next ‘Hot Spot’ for Islamic State



PENTAGON — The chair of the House Homeland Security Committee says Africa will be the next “hot spot” for Islamic extremism, amid growing concern about Islamic State migration and recruitment after U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Syria reclaimed the group’s so-called caliphate in the Middle East.

“They seek ungoverned territories and safe havens,” Republican Congressman Michael Thomas McCaul Sr. of Texas said Wednesday. “Africa is going to be the spot, it’s going to be the hot spot.”

Speaking at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said keeping track of where Islamic State fighters are fleeing is a priority for his department.

“We are very focused on where those terrorist fighters that are leaving the caliphate, what’s left of it and there isn’t much in Syria and Iraq, where they’re going,” he said.

He added that part of the African continent, especially northeastern Nigeria and Libya, have appeared to be a landing place for IS militants. He stressed, however, that Africa’s extremism problem cannot be solved by military action alone, emphasizing that good governance is important to help fulfill the needs of people across the continent.

Congressman Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said Wednesday that African nations, with young populations and high unemployment, have become the “prime recruiting pool for terrorist groups.”

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, a U.S. Army team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Ga., Oct. 5, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Wright was killed in an ambush in Niger by dozens of Islamic extremists.

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, a U.S. Army team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Ga., Oct. 5, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Wright was killed in an ambush in Niger by dozens of Islamic extremists.

The U.S. focus on extremism in Africa continues to grow since four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and a Nigerien interpreter were killed in an October attack by Islamic State militants in Niger.

For the first time, a Pentagon official Wednesday publicly identified the two American soldiers wounded in Niger during a deadly ambush earlier this year.

Captain Michael Perozeni and Sgt. First Class Brent Bartels were wounded near the village of Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4, according to Acting Defense Undersecretary for Policy David Trachtenberg, who wished the two a speedy recovery during his testimony in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A formal investigation into the deadly ambush in Niger is not expected to be completed until January, according to the U.S. military.


Pockets of Islamic State fighters have also launched attacks in Somalia and Libya, a country Sullivan said was perhaps the “greatest counterterrorism challenge in Africa.” In the past couple of years, Libya’s ungoverned areas have produced droves of local extremists and foreign fighters.

Sullivan said the United States has focused on land-and-sea border security for Tunisia, Libya’s neighbor, while working alongside the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to help rid the country of terrorists.

“What we don’t want is a place where, as there was in Sudan in the 1990s or Afghanistan in the late ’90s early 2000s, places where terrorist organizations can plant root, flourish, plan attacks against the United States,” Sullivan said.

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A borderless Africa? Some countries open doors, raise hopes



AP — For years African leaders have toyed with the idea of free movement by citizens across the continent, even raising the possibility of a single African passport.

Now some African countries are taking bold steps to encourage borderless travel that could spur trade and economic growth on a continent in desperate need of both.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced during his inauguration last week that the East African commercial hub will now give visas on arrival to all Africans. That follows similar measures by nations including Benin and Rwanda.

“The freer we are to travel and live with one another, the more integrated and appreciative of our diversity we will become,” Kenyatta said.

The African Union has cheered such steps, calling it the direction the 54-nation continent needs to take. “I urge all African states that have not yet done so to take similar measures,” AU Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat said on Twitter after Kenya’s announcement.

Trade among African countries is at just 16 percent, while trade among European Union states is at 70 percent, Mahamat told AU trade ministers on Friday.

For a continent whose leaders often speak fondly of “African brotherhood” and once pondered the idea of a United States of Africa, the visa policies of many countries for many years suggested little progress in implementing the continent-wide, visa-free ideal advocated by the AU.

Africans can get a visa on arrival in 24 percent of African countries, yet North Americans, for example, have easier access on the continent, according to a 2017 report on visa openness by the African Development Bank. African Union figures show Africans need visas to travel to 54 percent of the continent.

Free migration of people across the continent would help in talent exchange as well as trade, said Ali Abdi, the Uganda chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration. Countries may have to invest more in border patrols but “the benefits far outweigh the costs, in my view.”

Kenya’s decision is a “good move and it’s progressive,” said Godber Tumushabe with the Uganda-based Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies. “It should have been done a long time ago.”

Change is coming, and not just in East Africa. While visiting Rwanda last year, Benin’s President Patrice Talon said his West African country would no longer require visas for other Africans. He said he was inspired by Rwanda, whose government started issuing visas on arrival to Africans in 2013 and recently announced that in 2018 citizens of all countries will benefit from the policy.
“We are happy that other African countries are opening their borders up for Africans to increase foreign investments,” said Olivier Nduhungirehe, a deputy foreign minister in Rwanda in charge of regional integration. Opening borders will spur economic prosperity for the entire continent, he said.

Some African countries are going visa-free by region first. Weeks ago, the Central African Economic and Monetary Community removed visa requirements for citizens of its six members.

Many African countries rely heavily on tourism for foreign currency. Kenya’s new visa policy was welcomed in a country where the threat by Islamic extremists based in neighboring Somalia has deterred some international travelers.

Offering visas on arrival to all Africans could attract the continent’s small but growing middle class.

“Visa-free travel for Africans into Kenya is a great move by the president and a strategic one for the tourism industry,” said Bobby Kamani, who runs the popular Diani Reef Beach Resort and Spa in the second-largest city, Mombasa. “The president’s bold move couldn’t have come at a better time when the tourism sector has experienced uncertainty and is now on recovery mode.”

Conflict and sharp income disparities in many countries are among other factors slowing the adoption of visa-free policies. Even the African Union passport, launched in July 2016 and given to some heads of state, is yet to be offered to citizens.

Some North African countries, notably Libya, struggle with a flow of impoverished African migrants trying to make their way to Europe. South Africa, one of the continent’s top economies, has seen a sometimes violent backlash against African immigrants amid fears about crime and the taking of jobs. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and another of its strongest economies, maintains visa requirements before arrival for many nations across the continent.

Still, many are hopeful for a borderless Africa and urge those regional leaders to follow Kenya’s lead.

“Is a new wind blowing across #Africa?” Wolfgang Thome, a tourism consultant who once led the Uganda Tourism Association, tweeted. “When will the last walls fall? #Nigeria we are waiting!”

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The Alarming Decline of Democracy in East Africa



Following months of political drama, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will be sworn in for his second term in office tomorrow, November 28. Citing procedural failures, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified results from the first round of presidential elections in August, a decision hailed as a sign of Kenya’s growing democratic maturity. The narrative changed, however, when opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted the subsequent election by announcing the withdrawal of his candidacy. Kenyatta won the second-round election with 98 percent of the vote amid low turnout and threats to the judiciary and civil societyKenya now stands at a precarious juncture, with the possibility of a deep political rift further fragmenting the country.

What makes Kenya’s backsliding particularly worrisome is that it’s part of a disturbing regional trend. Democratic progress across Africa has been mixed—Central Africa has always struggled, but in East and West Africa, there have been important gains in recent years. Although West Africa appears to be consolidating those gains, East Africa is in the midst of a democratic decline that is reversible in its early stages but threatens to gather momentum.

Political and media space in parts of East Africa is closing as presidents and prime ministers flaunt their security credentials. Several leaders, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, are altering their constitutions in order to prolong already lengthy terms in office. No country in East Africa is rated “free” in U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House’s most recent rankings, and only two are deemed “partly free.” Many are in fact electoral authoritarian regimes that superficially adhere to democratic rules of the game but in reality employ authoritarian tactics. There is little precedent for change through the ballot box: outside of Somalia, no leader in East Africa has ever left office by losing an election.


The democratic decline is gripping a region of genuine strategic importance. East Africa can be an engine of continental economic growth, has made important gains in regional economic integration, and is rich in natural resources, including substantial oil and gas reserves. Extremist groups affiliated with both al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS) are active in Somalia and occasionally cross into neighboring countries. The United States’ largest military presence in Africa is in Djibouti, with China and several other countries operating military bases nearby. Tiny, authoritarian Eritrea is the top African source of active asylum seekers in Libya. The region borders the Red Sea, a key part of maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia.

The region’s retreat from democracy threatens all these interests. Its strongman leaders may offer short-term stability, but their authoritarian practices and resistance to building democratic institutions weaken the underpinnings of the state and make the inevitable leadership transitions more likely to be volatile. As seen in Somalia, failed governance and weak state structures create conditions in which extremists thrive. Inconsistent rule of law and tolerance for corruption make for a less desirable destination for foreign investment.

The democratic decline is most pronounced in Uganda and Tanzania.

Uganda’s 2016 elections were deeply flawed, with Museveni’s government repeatedly arresting his main political rival, Kizza Besigye, detaining him for weeks at a time, and eventually charging him with treason. Social media was shut down ahead of the elections, and more than a dozen journalists were arrested in 2016. That year, Museveni signed into law a bill to regulate NGOs, giving the government wide latitude to shut them down and restrict their ability to employ foreigners. In April, prominent academic and activist Stella Nyanzi was arrested for insulting Museveni on Facebook.

In office for 31 years, Museveni is an increasingly autocratic ruler, with power concentrated in a small circle around him. But he now faces a dilemma: Uganda’s constitution places an age limit on presidential candidates, which he will exceed in the next election. So Ugandan parliamentarians, with Museveni’s clear support, are working to revise the constitution to remove the age limit, with each parliamentarian paid $8,000 to “consult” with their constituencies on the change.

Tanzania has fallen even further. Elections in 2015 brought little-known John Magufuli to power. He immediately embarked on a popular anti-corruption campaign but has also shown a strong authoritarian streak, enthusiastically supporting efforts by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Party—the longest-ruling political party in sub-Saharan Africa—to close political space. In one particularly egregious act of electoral malfeasance, the Zanzibar electoral commission simply canceled an election on the semi-autonomous archipelago that CCM was poised to lose and ran it again. This prompted the opposition candidate to boycott and led the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation to suspend a $472 million development compact that was on the verge of being signed.

Magufuli’s government is also restricting freedom of the press—including through repressive new cybercrimes legislationcracking down on political parties, and limiting freedom of assembly. “CCM has overseen a raft of laws and regulations that go unusually far in shrinking political space and constricting the opposition,” according to the academic Dan Paget. “Increasingly, the new CCM administration presents not only the promise of development, but also the threat of dictatorship.”

Democratic backsliding is also evident elsewhere. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza was willing to throw the country into chaos to gain a third term in office; violence triggered by the announcement that he would run again has forced more than 400,000 people to flee across borders. In neighboring Rwanda, President Kagame, who wields unquestioned authority and has been in office since 2000, recently oversaw a constitutional amendment that will allow him to remain in power until 2034.

South Sudan, ravaged by civil war, is led by a president, Salva Kiir, who has never been elected to that office. (He was elected to lead the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan prior to independence, but a vote scheduled for 2015 was abandoned because of the war.) Journalists and civil society leaders operating in the country face harrowing risks, as they do in neighboring Sudan, ruled by Omar al-Bashir since 1989. Authoritarian Eritrea doesn’t bother with the pretense of elections and competes with Ethiopia for the distinction of jailing the most journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.

Considered together, these cases show an anti-democratic momentum building among regional leaders, with strong spillover and modeling effects at work. Unlike in West Africa, there is no peer pressure among leaders to conform to democratic norms. Repressive tactics are mimicked across borders, such as the efforts to pass legislation restricting NGO activities. East Africa’s regional organizations, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East African Community, show minimal interest in promoting democracy, again in contrast to their more active West African counterpart, the Economic Community of West African States.


What can be done to reverse the trend? The political impasse in Kenya and effort to change the constitution in Uganda are bellwethers that can halt the democratic slide or accelerate it, depending on their outcomes. Kenyan and Ugandan democratic activists won’t be able to confront these challenges alone. Given the regional organizations’ impotence, the African Union should become directly involved and depart from its practice of “subsidiarity,” or letting the regional organizations take the lead. East Africa’s democratic decline is a concern for the entire continent—politically, economically, and for security—and calls for a continental response.

Encouragingly, citizens are broadly supportive of democratic governance: Afrobarometer polling finds that among the continent’s regions, demand for democracy is highest in East Africa. Domestic civil society organizations should seek ways to highlight this demand and harness popular sentiment that opposes strongman rule. They will need external support, including robust and flexible funding and the political cover that outsiders can provide.

The United States needs to balance multiple strands of engagement with East Africa without excessively privileging counterterrorism, recognizing that repression and failed governance are among the direct causes of extremism. During the Barack Obama administration, some regional strongmen enjoyed too much leniency from Washington on democracy and human rights. In the case of Museveni, U.S. engagement was often externally focused—particularly on maintaining Uganda’s participation in counterterrorism efforts in Somalia—leading him to conclude that there would be little scrutiny of his domestic actions. That message is magnified under the Donald Trump administration, given its reluctance to defend democratic norms as evidenced by the absence of relevant senior officials, such as an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

The United States has policy options if its leaders recognize that American interests are threatened by East Africa’s democratic decline. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is right to argue that “authorities who ignore the rule of law and change their constitutions for personal gain are all obstacles to the development of prosperous, free societies.” When those constitutional changes are pushed through to benefit the incumbent, the United States should respond by automatically reviewing all foreign assistance and reconsidering programs that may be advantageous to the executive. Washington should also adopt a region-wide, rather than country-by-country, strategy to promote democracy and good governance given the spillover effects at work. Finally, the United States should increase support to the African Union’s Department of Political Affairs, the arm of the organization charged with advancing democratic governance but which is often lacking in staff and resources. The onus is on Africa to reverse the democratic decline, which threatens not just individual freedoms but stability and prosperity as well, but the United States can certainly help.

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