By Olusegun Obasanjo
Sometime in September 2000, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Ghaddafi called me and brought to my attention the presence in Libya of thousands of Nigerian illegal immigrants attempting to make their way to Europe.
These illegal immigrants, almost entirely consisting of young men and women, who were prevented from using the facilities of Libya to sail to Europe, had constituted themselves into a menace. Some of them were involved in crimes and anti-social activities such as credit card fraud, burglary, drug trafficking and even violent crimes such as armed robbery. There was tension between the illegal immigrants and local Libyan communities resulting in the immigrants often being subjected to violent attacks.
I agreed with Ghaddafi on the need to take immediate action to repatriate the immigrants to Nigeria. In this regard, I instructed the National Security Adviser to raise a team of officials from the Security Agencies to proceed to Libya to document all the illegal immigrants from Nigeria. I also approved funds for an aircraft to be chartered to evacuate them to Nigeria.
The team worked assiduously over a period of two months with the cooperation of their Libyan colleagues. They travelled all over Libya and brought out to safety and provided protection to Nigerians who were in hiding for fear of attacks from local Libyan gangs. A camp was provided by the Libyan authorities where the illegal immigrants were accommodated, provided with basic necessities and documented. I also spoke to other West African leaders whose citizens had found their way to Libya and encouraged them to accept responsibility for the repatriation of their citizens back from Libya.
Those who lacked the capacity to effect the repatriation were assisted by Libya and Nigeria – Libya by providing additional aircrafts and Nigeria by accepting the return to Nigeria of citizens of ECOWAS countries, who I then arranged to be transported to their countries from Lagos. I had instructed our special team in Libya to extend support, documentation and protection for our ECOWAS brothers.
This process resulted in the return of over 17,000 Nigerians back from Libya. Considerable numbers of illegal immigrants were also repatriated back to other countries by air and by road. According to reports I received, Ghana evacuated 5,000 of its citizens and Sudan 3,000.
With the cooperation of the Nigerien and Libyan authorities, our security agencies acquired the necessary intelligence on which action was taken to dismantle several human trafficking rings operating in Lagos, Benin City, Sokoto, and Kano in Nigeria, Agadez, Maradi, Dogondoutchie and Niamey in the Republic of Niger and Gatroun and Sabha in Libya.
It is thus a matter of considerable sadness for me when I witness the current wave of desperate youths risking their lives to travel to Europe and the futile efforts of European countries to deal with those who have already set sail or have even reached shores of the European continent.
Although there are strenuous efforts to deny it, it is undeniable that the vacuum created by the lack of effective governance in Libya precipitated by the direct action of Western powers is responsible for the current anarchy in that country. The current inflow of African refugees into Europe from Libya is a direct consequence. The government in Libya which in 2000 acted humanely and responsibly to stem the outflow of illegal migrants to Europe has been replaced by unconscionable bandits and terrorists who have forcibly seized the instruments of state to facilitate human trafficking and illegal migration for their own material benefit.
It is time for the international community and particularly African leaders to take a good look at the factors responsible for the death and destruction with the Mediterranean by illegal migration of youths from Africa and address the causes in an honest, responsible, humane and holistic manner, rather than the current futile attempt to half-heartedly deal with the symptoms rather than the cause.
The sure way of prevention is the elimination of conflict and abject poverty and creation of employment in the countries where migrants originate. In the meantime, let the African Union (AU) form a bulwark to stem the spate of migrants from Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe. It can be done.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is a former President of Nigeria.