One of the problems of western foreign policy is that it suffers from a short attention span. Just as we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan to deal with Iraq, we are at risk of losing sight of Libya when dealing with problems in the Middle East. As Syrian rebels fight for freedom from Assad’s tyranny, we must not forget that, in the countries where the Arab spring began, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is not complete.
Britain can take great pride in its role in the liberation of Libya. But while Gaddafi has gone, the new government still has much to do. In a country which has both huge poverty and huge mineral wealth, corruption is inevitably one of the greatest threats.
At the moment the signs are not encouraging. Corruption is rife and on the rise. Shortly after the liberation of Libya, the transitional government created a fund to provide medical care to those injured while fighting to free the country – $800m was handed out to over 40,000 people, but only 10%-15% of claimants appear to be genuine.
Corruption and fraud also threaten Libya’s warriors commission, established to assimilate anti-Gaddafi fighters into the state security forces. It is thought that 100,000 rebel soldiers fought Gaddafi’s troops, yet more than 200,000 people have already applied to join the reintegration programme, perhaps to get their hands on the generous benefits it offers. No effective checks are in place to stop this happening.
Meanwhile, the security situation remains fragile. In the absence of a functioning justice system, militias are often “arresting” and detaining people at will. Progress towards uniting the security services has been slow, and there are disputes over who exactly is responsible for security. The original National Transitional Council that oversaw the fight against Gaddafi now controls the Libyan army, while the new government has created a separate “National Guard” with its own leaders.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Since Libya was liberated, oil production has steadily climbed ever closer to its prewar levels of 1.6 million barrels per day, generating monthly revenues in the billions and providing essential resources for development. The key to Libya’s immediate recovery and future prosperity lies in its proven oil reserves, at 18 billion barrels the largest in Africa.
But Libya’s natural resources present problems as well as opportunities. It is vital that the Libyan government is open about how much oil it produces and how much revenue it receives. After years of seeing oil money distributed among Gaddafi’s favourites, only total transparency will ensure ordinary citizens benefit from the resources that belong to them. Without it Libyans will start to suspect that, when it comes to oil revenues, the new Libyan government is little different from the old one.
This is where Britain can help. After investing enormous resources in liberating Libya we can now do most good by sharing some of our country’s institutional wisdom. The UK has a long tradition of scrutinising public expenditure to prevent corruption and waste, and of making every effort to ensure every penny of taxpayers’ money is accounted for. British officials are uniquely well-placed to advise the Libyan government on setting up its own equivalent of Britain’s National Audit Office and public accounts committee to monitor central government spending, and a Libyan Audit Commission to supervise local government budgets.
These institutions do vitally important work holding the government to account. In Britain they unearthed the truth about inefficient NHS computer systems, HMRC’s secret tax deals with large corporations, and terrible defence procurement policies that will leave British soldiers short of armoured vehicles for the next decade. These were just the latest activities in well over a century’s guardianship of public services, a guardianship that has given Britain one of the most honest histories of public administration in the world.
Libya’s huge potential is matched by its people’s desire for change. With this dynamism, properly functioning democratic institutions and accountable government, Libya can make a lasting success of its new-found freedom.
By David Davis, the Conservative party member of parliament for the constituency of Haltemprice and Howden and Ibrahim El Mayet, founder of Libyan Progress Initiative.