The French president, Emmanuel Macron, started a four-day visit to Africa on Monday amid growing anger across the continent about politicians’ collective failure to do more to clamp down on human trafficking, and even slave auctions, in Libya.
The revelations by CNN of apparent slave auctions in Libya a fortnight ago led to widespread condemnation, but also claims that European politicians had been repeatedly warned about the dire state of Libyan migrant detention centres, including systematic abuse, amounting to slavery.
Macron has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations security council this week, saying such auction houses are a crime against humanity. The fierceness of his intervention may have been prompted by his high-profile visit to sub-Saharan Africa built around a carefully crafted theme of empowering Africa’s youth.
The contrast between empowerment and the reality of slavery in Libya has set alarm bells ringing in the Elysée, especially since critics say France, by backing the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has a key responsibility for Libya’s current state of near-anarchy.
Macron’s Africa visit, starting with a speech to young Africans in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, culminates in an appearance at the EU-Africa Union (AU) summit to be held on Wednesday and Thursday in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Burkina Faso withdrew its ambassador from Libya in protest at the revelations in the CNN documentary. The revival of slavery, already billed as “the humiliation of Africa”, is likely to top the AU’s agenda. The AU’s human rights arm has already been asked to conduct an inquiry.
Across Africa, Libyan ambassadors have been forced on to the back foot as angry Africans have protested outside their embassies.
Black music and football stars have expressed their outrage at the revelations, including Ivorian reggae singers Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly, as well as footballer Didier Drogba. Paul Pogba, the Manchester United footballer, made a ”shackles” gesture following his goal against Newcastle at the weekend.
There have also been street protests in Paris, Belgium and London. In Libya itself, Arabs have taken to social media to show their solidarity with black migrants.
In one of the most extraordinary responses, the Rwandan foreign ministry offered to provide asylum to 30,000 mainly sub-Saharan Africans trapped 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. During Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu were massacred in 100 days while most countries did little to help.
As many as 400,000 migrants are said to be trapped in Libya, but the number is rising as the EU-backed Libyan coastguard takes an ever harsher line with smugglers, leaving more of them trying to raise funds either to return home or make the risky Mediterranean crossing. Over the weekend, 31 migrants drowned, and hundreds more forced back by the coastguard.