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Our shock will not absolve us

A letter to my son about the Libyan Slave Markets

Dear son,

I write to you from Lagos. Though the occasion for my coming home after all this time is to celebrate my little sister’s wedding (your Aunt Wendy’s), something haunts the festivity of these moments. There’s a whiff of some foul-scented stuff in the air here. Some dark foreboding leitmotif behind the lilt of the city.

Yes. Lagos has very recently come to the world’s brief notice – and this on account of its centrality in very disturbing news. Perhaps this news is on a par with other troubling revelations that are rife in this time of toxic exposures – accounts of sexual assault suffered by women in the hands of powerful men; leaked salacious tape recordings and details of evasive offshore accounts; pipeline spillages; and, inter-species promiscuities that leave us reeling in confusion, to mention a few instances. But the recent story about Libyan slave markets, trafficked migrants, and the prostituted bodies of children, women and men that look and talk like me hit close to the bone. Shortly after the news broke, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, captured the collective shock of the country when he stated his regrets that Nigerian men were treated “like goats.” We thought we had successfully climbed the colonial ladder to full personhood. Not so, it seems.

Suddenly, the popular stories we have told ourselves in churches and schools and in the flashy business success seminars that dot the Lagosian landscape…the stories we’ve shared to comfort ourselves, to get along in the exhausting business of upward mobility – that we live in a post-racial, post-slavery world where all that matters is hard work and ‘excellence’, and where black and coloured people can strive to attain visibility under the same apolitical conditions as white people – no longer feel true. At least the idea that we are now a sophisticated species, far removed from the bestiality of genocidal years when African men and women were forcibly removed from their homes and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to work the fields of other lands, feels contestable. In short, news of the death of slavery is highly exaggerated.

About two week ago, when CNN broke the story on slave auctions in Libyan cities involving migrating African people fleeing their homelands, many would have dismissed the underground tales of contemporary slave markets. The title of that piece, “People for Sale”, was less shocking than what it named – people being sold for $200 – $400 dollars by their smugglers. Those people had come from Zambia, Senegal, Nigeria, and other African nations. They were fleeing to Europe, and had worked their way to the gateway Libyan cities to catch dinghies heading for greener pastures.

Since 2015, as many as 450,000 refugees have made the arduous journey to Europe, with thousands dying along the way. Last year, this sparked a global humanitarian crisis as news media and computer screens were lit with photos of boats arriving on European shores – one of such vessels disturbing the tranquillity of Spanish beach-goers, to the amusement of the media.

Libya is the easiest route for those fleeing – but there’s nothing easy about what they go through. According to some accounts in a Nigerian magazine, one Nigerian boy, Chibuzor, 20, was given to a smuggler who promised his father that he was going to get him into Europe. The promise of a brighter future took him through the desert where he and others survived by drinking urine and fuel. Chibuzor would then be kidnapped and imprisoned with many others, placed in detention centres with thousands of other Nigerians, and then offered for sale at secret auctions. “Does anyone need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man, he’ll dig,” a salesman is heard saying in a startling video produced by covert CNN cameras in Tripoli. Under the circumstances, the ‘luckiest’ ones would then be sold to their new masters. The not-so-lucky ones end up dead, their bodies tossed at a mortuary with a single dysfunctional refrigerator surrounded by hundreds of dead bodies.

I studied the stories wide-eyed and broken, unable to fully take in the rudeness of realizing that my body was just the kind of material those auctioneers would have gladly inventoried for their lucrative business. Nor could I accept that the world your mother and I brought you out of and named you into has space for this kind of practice. But perhaps, nothing was more infuriating than reading about the various displays of outrage around the world. In the time since the story broke and the time of this writing, we’ve heard of the shock of Europe, the anger of the United Nations, the chivalry of Macron and his UN Ambassador’s suggestion of sanctions for the traffickers, the disgust of Nikki Haley, the deafening nonchalance of Mr. Trump when such matters float by the emaciated province of his Twitter feed, and the protests around the world at Libyan embassies.

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Why do I feel such despair at these responses? It is not that they are inadequate or misplaced. The particular constraints of our time will often condition us to make hasty reductionisms, seeking to coax a convenient ‘enemy’ from the complex web of entanglements and relations that blur the line between friend and foe. What these giant institutions, protests, talking heads and news commentaries have focused their indignation on are the secret networks and enablers that permitted this cruel regime of death…this necropolis of marked bodies and expensive hope. As I write, the blogosphere is awash with news reports detailing the ordeal of returning Nigerians, all of whom touched down in Lagos before being sent to their homes across the nation. In this chain reaction of manicured outrage, of press releases, of angry protests and soft capitulations to white messianism, it is very easy to lose sight of the big picture. What is the big picture? The big picture is that we are all complicit in this phenomenon; that the enemy is not those Libyan smugglers and auctioneers in Tripoli and Zawiyah; and, that different capacities are needed to hold space for a difficult conversation about what is happening.

Where to begin? Just now, as I read news about thousands of Nigerians still stranded in Libyan detention centres, my eye drifts to the side of the webpage where an ad encourages readers to “Start Shopping.” Below the words are a litany of consumer items, their prices boldly displayed. These enticements are so expected and part of the infrastructure of our experiences that they are invisible. We do not notice the historical pressures at work, the contours of the conditions that rope in the innocence of today’s consumerism with the hyper-toxicity of environmental degradation – and how these in turn are linked to the rapid displacements leading to migrating subjects like Chibuzor.

After World War II, as economies started to recover, they turned to the ideal of consumerism offered by the US. Peacetime needed a motif, and that motif was that the good life constituted of more and more goods. Never-ending consumption. The militaristic production values of wartime had generated standardized goods on an industrial scale, all of which needed new homes. The world turned to ‘propaganda’ (which was fashionably renamed ‘public relations’ by Edward Bernays on account of the derogatory implications of the word) to engineer the citizenry that would buy endlessly and usher in an age of economic buoyancy. Bernays, often called the ‘father of public relations’, and a nephew of Sigmund Freud, would change the way businesses sold their goods. He had implied in his work during the 1920s that the manufacture of public consent was vital to capitalist prosperity. He had demonstrated his philosophies in various ways – for instance, making cigarettes and women smoking fashionable – and was instrumental in the PR campaigns of large companies like Procter & Gamble, American Tobacco and General Motors.

Soon, as was the prediction of Bernays, the post-war world began to enjoy economic prosperity. Mass markets for standardized goods sprang up. Advertisements became less about the products they were publicizing, and even far less about real needs, but more about creating threads of desirability between the product and the consumer. Banks offered credit policies to their burgeoning customer base, encouraging everyone to own the flashiest, latest appliances. Industrialists dialled back the longevity and shelf life of their products, making them obsolete in relatively short periods so that people came back for more stuff. ‘Innovation’ named the sustained quest for the ever ‘new’, and development and progress described global commitments to big neoliberal futures that promised even more stuff. And as the dust swept under the carpet swelled into toxic heaps of garbage, resisting containment, becoming too expensive to manage under recycling protocols, the world turned its sights to its favourite ‘Outside’: Africa.

By postponing the implications of its deleterious systems, the industrial world converted an entire continent into its refuse bin. In 1988, the New York Times reported that “officials in Guinea-Bissau signed a five-year contract to bury 15 million tons of toxic wastes from European tanneries and pharmaceutical companies. In return, Guinea-Bissau would receive a yearly payment of $120 million – slightly less than the country’s gross national product of $150 million.” And in Congo, “Government officials signed a contract to store a million tons of chemical waste from northern Europe in return for $84 million.” A report in 2014 noted that 41 million tonnes of waste – including broken computers, microwaves, keyboards and old fridges – had been dumped in West Africa, creating a necropolis of toxic wastelands.

Here in Lagos, I grew up in the shadows of rising mountains of debris that never ceased burning. Columns of smoke embroidered the skies in our desperate attempts to hold off the tsunamis of peacetime abundance. We didn’t know what to do with all the waste. Soon enough, those bits and pieces of development rolled onto our roads, out of the exhausted bins that could take no more, into the playgrounds where children had already learned to play on the toxic heaps, and – inexorably – into our homes and bellies. But we were too enamoured with development to listen to what the land was telling us. So we held the garbage away from our brand new television sets long enough to hear the news about foreign aid, about new developmental policies, or the latest models of phones that meant our recently purchased ones were already less shiny.

And so home was no longer homey. The same benighted dynamics that had chased us away from our villages to the cities would whisper to us that Lagos was surely less impressive than Rome or Berlin. And the same developmental discourse – the catch-up imperative that assured us of our backwardness, of our savagery, of our big-lipped ignorance about the way the world works, would become part of the condition for the resurgence of the trafficking of black bodies and the painful depersonalization of our lives.

Do you understand, son? Who wouldn’t want to get away? If your own government is a department in the Ministry of Let-Us-Ape-the-West, and your police a bully framework for disciplining outrage and monetizing despair, you would want to flee too. Chibuzor and the other Nigerians flying back home – their cheeks hollow, their dignity blotted out in the ease of a 400 dollar transaction – are ethical subjects of a neoliberal excavatory apparatus that privileges certain bodies to the exclusion of other bodies. In the same way that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of 1945 created the Hibakusha – the surviving victims of those explosions – the explosion of progress and its capital-mediated lurch for disembodiment marks our bodies with ignominy. And like Cain of old, wherever we wander, we are one decibel away from becoming fodder for someone else’s enrichment.

In short, in one mangle, slavery never really left. It was just enfolded back into the rub of things, its ghosts haunting the normal, mocking our claims to enlightenment. The conditions that make the Libya debacle possible are the very same ones that give meaning to our lives today. The UN could snuff out those trafficking networks; Macron and Merkel could save the day, while Trump combs his hair; sanctions could be imposed on the offenders, and the rest of the African continent could even become as industrially sophisticated as the so-called ‘West’ – all without addressing the racializing effects of progress. Somehow, the ghosts will sprout new forms, mocking our ‘solutions’, dancing wildly in the closing distance. It’s all connected.

Am I blaming white people or the West for Chibuzor’s plight? No. The intersectionality of power I point to means that power is complicated and neither victimhood nor villainy is absolute or independent. If I have not made this explicit enough, we are all complicit in creating wastelands of death. Perhaps sitting with the trouble of our complicity might be a good place to begin to untie this Gordian knot that resists heroes and foes.

One thing seems certain: the dust always wins, and no amount of sweeping under the carpet could purge us of the demons we unleashed when we named the world ‘dead’. The migrants that storm Spanish beaches are prophecies of the toxic futures we might all have to learn to live in. The real shock here is not that slavery is extant, but that toxic Africa – in a cruel twist of fate and plot – might very well be the future of the West…home meeting itself as if for the first time.

In a series of letters I wrote your sister (in a book called ‘These Wilds Beyond our Fences’), I tell a story of a home sought and the promise of coming down to earth and to the messiness of our entanglements with place and the nonhuman world around us. I imagine that Chibuzor is all too pleased to find the tearful embrace of his father again – after his sojourn in the stern swirl of the desert and in the glazed gaze of his would-be buyers. Such homecomings are perhaps figures of the larger kinds of homecomings we can collectively make at this time – the kind that is often occluded in our attempts to fix the situation and neutralize the enemy.

It is my prayer that your world will know a different logic and will not know the horrors my generation is experiencing. It is my prayer that when the surprised faces fade, a different vocation will possess us, and bring us to notice the more troubling questions Libya raises about our complicity in colonial regimes – for our shock might preserve our claims to righteousness, but it will not absolve us.