Kevin Frayer/AP
A Libyan militia member from the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi guards three men who they suspect to be mercenaries from Chad, after detaining them at a roadbloack near Marj in eastern Libya on Feb. 27, 2011.

Who are Libya's sub-Saharan Africans?

Libya's sub-Saharan African population has gotten a lot of attention. They're not all mercenaries and they aren't just from one or two places.

The ongoing discussion about sub-Saharan Africans in Libya often lacks precise numbers, terms, and categories. Libyans are by definition Africans, as are other North Africans who live in Libya. But bloggers and journalists have been talking about sub-Saharan Africans in Libya in different ways than they’ve been talking about North African populations there. The reason for making the distinction is that the experiences of some groups seem to in fact be distinct, and those particularities have political implications. It is good to make these distinctions, but we need to make them very carefully.

Put more concretely, who are the foreign workers in Libya? What are the experiences of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa? Migrants? Students? Refugees? The fuzziness of terms and categories on the one hand, and the scattered numerical data on the other, make talking about these issues difficult, and in some cases have helped set up distorted narratives about ruthless “African” mercenaries, “racist” Libyans, or “African” migrants. This post doesn’t tackle the terminology problem, but rather tries to help clarify the situation of sub-Saharan Africans in Libya by compiling some of the numbers floating around in the reporting. Examining the numbers will help identify trends and highlight differences.

Here are some of the key figures I’ve seen, arranged from largest to smallest. Some sources on this list are more reliable than others.

  • 2.5 million: Estimated number of foreign workers in Libya.
  • 500,000: Top estimate of Sudanese in Libya.
  • 300,000: Top estimate of Chadians in Libya.
  • 180,000: Total number of people who fled Libya between February 20 and March 3.
  • 100,000: The total number of (sub-Saharan) Africans the UN expects to flee Libya into Niger.
  • 100,000: The total number of refugees (of all nationalities) who have fled Libya into Tunisia (presumably this includes some sub-Saharan Africans).
  • 50,000: Top estimate of Nigerians in Libya.
  • 10,000: The number of Ghanaians estimated to live in Libya, “mainly artisans and construction workers.” The Ghanaian government has evacuated nearly 700 of its citizens, and over 1,000 more are waiting near the Libya-Egypt border.
  • 3,000: Rough number of Somali refugees in Tripoli and Benghazi.
  • 2,000: The number of Sudanese who have returned home so far.
  • 2,000: The total number of Nigerians that the Nigerian government hopes to repatriate from Libya.
  • 1,500: The number of citizens of Niger who have reportedly already left Libya (out of a total of “several thousand” Nigeriens living in Libya).
  • 485: Number of Senegalese living in Libya.
  • 170: Number of Ethiopians who will return home.
  • Other countries with significant expatriate populations in Libya include Mali (at least 122 factory workers repatriated so far) and Mauritania (I found no numbers) and Sierra Leone, and many African countries have a few dozen or a few hundred nationals living in Libya.

This list offers a basic (though still speculative and incomplete) look at the sub-Saharan African population in Libya. Even though many of the numbers are estimates (some perhaps wildly off the mark), the size and diversity of the sub-Saharan African community in Libya is clear: it includes people from many different nations and people who came for various reasons (work, study, and asylum, seemingly in that order according to the numbers). So writers, including me, need to talk about the “African” experience in Libya with great care – and it seems better to talk about experiences, plural.

For those wishing to gain a better sense of people’s experiences in Libya and in flight from Libya, I suggest reading here, here, and here.

As for numbers of mercenaries, both the BBC and AFP cite sources claiming the number of Tuareg mercenaries in Libya is in the hundreds. I have not yet seen a definitive estimate of the total number of mercenaries in the country.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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