To understand the full extent of the impact of the civil war that has fractured the rest of the country into warring fiefdoms, it is critical to visit southern Libya. In April, I had my first chance in two years to get there. There are no commercial flights, no foreign aid missions and traveling 800km by car through a maze of militia-run checkpoints and eager kidnappers is simply not an option.
By a stroke of luck, I am offered a lift by one of the few organisations still operating in south Libya and one of the most important players there: the National Oil Corporation (NOC). Despite recurrent fighting for control of oil fields, export terminals and pipelines, the NOC sustains the north-south flight link to maintain oil fields and keep production flowing.
I check in at a now-bustling former military airfield in Metiga, in Tripoli’s eastern suburbs to join a shift of mostly northern Libyan oil workers on a 100-seat commercial jet. Since fighting in 2014 crippled the capital’s main airport, all domestic and international flights operate from here. My fellow travellers are quiet on what for them is a routine journey.
But south Libya is hardly calm. A plane from the south’s main city, Sebha, was hijacked last year, forcing the closure of that airport. Indeed, the cycles of violence can be bewildering.
Before my trip, the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, threatened to attack another Sebha airport, the Tamenhint air base, which at the time of my visit to the south was controlled by another faction, the so-called “Third Force”, originally from the northern city of Misrata. Tamenhint was subject to recurrent attacks by a militia backed by the LNA.
Shortly after my trip, the Third Force took apparent revenge by attacking Haftar’s forces in the Brak al-Shati air base, 80km north of Sebha. They killed between 80 and 130 people (numbers are still disputed), mostly LNA soldiers, but also some civilians that were on the base or driving nearby. For the northern belligerents, Sebha and the south are strategic prizes in an ongoing conflict, and neither side will easily give up control.
Luckily the NOC plane is flying me to somewhere else, the Sharara oil field, about 200km west of Sebha. All these places are deep in the Sahara Desert and are seldom visited by outsiders. Analysts like me usually focus on Libya’s long Mediterranean coastline and far more populated cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, Sirte and Misrata, which have been at the political and military core of the conflict.
When Muammar Qadhafi, the self-styled “Brotherly Leader” of Libya, was ousted in 2011, the shattering of his iron grip fractured the country into warring pieces. There are now three rival governments and parliaments, but barely any sense of a state anymore. The key players are a multitude of militias, none of which can control the whole country.
I want to find out to what extent these centrifugal forces have split the tribes and ethnic groups that live in the urban oases and arid sands of the south. And how the local economy has evolved: while the collapse of central authority has turned the region’s desert routes to the Sahel into a crossroads for smugglers, migrants heading to Europe and jihadists, the south is also home to Libya’s great riches. These include not just oil, but also deep aquifers of water and gold as well.
One Desert, Many Factions
The main political-military actors from the north vie for influence in the south, especially control of main roads and key infrastructure. Haftar’s LNA works with the eastern government and parliament, whereas Misrata’s Third Force is nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Faiez al-Serraj in Tripoli. Still others are aligned with a rival government in Tripoli headed by Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghwell. The picture is further complicated by local factions that are loosely aligned with the above-mentioned centres of power. More often than not, these factions are internally split, with some of their members supporting one political-military grouping or another.
Access to this region is so limited that few foreigners, including myself, can know with certainty what is happening on the ground. Libyan media coverage of events in the south tends to be politically charged, and often paints a distorted picture of reality.
After a 90-minute flight, we touch down in Sharara. From the small oval airplane window I can see the shiny complex around the oil field. Even the oil sector workers who travel here rarely make it out of their well-groomed compound. Frustrated local communities often complain that those operating in Libya’s lucrative oil business have no understanding of local dynamics. One consequence is that armed groups or protesters living close to the oil fields or along the pipeline that transports crude oil to the north frequently shut down production as a way to lobby for their demands, adding to strains on the already fragile Libyan economy.
At the airfield, I split off from the oil workers to follow the road less travelled. I’m with Abderrahim, my long-time driver in Tripoli, who accompanies me on my journeys. I speak Arabic and have known Libya for ten years, but his solid presence is an interface and reassurance for everyone I meet – and for me. He has a warm smile, is soft-spoken and somehow manages to get along with all Libyan interlocutors of different religious and political affiliations whom I meet across the country.
It is vital to have local contacts as well, ready to receive me wherever I go in Libya. This is Tuareg country, so I have arranged for a Tuareg acquaintance to meet and look after us on the first leg of my journey. He is a trusted and well-connected civil society activist. We have been introduced by a very respectable Tuareg sheikh I have known for years. Like anywhere else in the country, you need to know who you can trust.
What I didn’t expect is for my contact to be accompanied by three cars and several gunmen. It is not uncommon for the Tuareg to carry weapons, and many residents –not necessarily professional soldiers – are armed. The men who escort me are discrete and do not flash their weapons ostentatiously, but I notice that aside from the ubiquitous semi-automatic AK-47 rifles, they also have PK heavy machine guns with belts of bullets. My guide explains it is just a precaution against kidnapping. Two Italian engineers were seized in a nearby town last year and he alleges that a ransom was paid for their release. Many locals, especially impoverished youth, could be seeking to replicate that to secure what locally amounts to a fortune. I’m in his hands.
Given our arsenal, it’s not surprising that these men would not be comfortable going through checkpoints manned by members of other tribes. All of the checkpoints between Sharara and Obari, where we are headed, are under the control of Tuareg in military fatigues who say they take orders from a Qadhafi-era Tuareg commander, Ali Kana. So as long as I stay in this area, I am able to move around easily with my escort.
We reach my first stop, the town of Obari. Under Qadhafi, Obari was a hub for any traveller seeking to experience desert life in the Sahara. I myself had been here back in 2008, part of an archaeological mission from Oxford University researching rock art. Now there are battle-damaged buildings, the hotels are all closed and I am the closest thing to a tourist anybody has seen since a handful of journalists came here in 2016 to report on battles that broke out in the town. After I’m welcomed into a private home, I set out to find the Tuareg guides who took care of me during that two-week long mission in the desert plateau behind Obari. There is so little for anyone to do now, it’s not hard to track them down.
They and others gradually fill me in on the downward spiral of commercial collapse, the gradual shutting down of links with the outside world and two years of war between two groups: the Tebu, a dark-skinned people who live in Sudan, Chad, Niger and Libya; and the Tuareg, a historically nomadic Berber people who straddle the borderlands of the Sahara across Niger, southern Algeria and Mali. In 2014, the Tuareg accused the Tebu of attempting to impose themselves militarily on Obari, which the Tuareg consider historically their territory. For their part, the Tebu claim that they had to attack Obari, where some Tebu also live, because it had become a hotbed for jihadists. The war ended in the summer of 2016 with a ceasefire but without a clear winner.
On the surface at least, life seems normal. But the town is falling through the cracks of post-revolutionary Libya. Municipal services like electricity, water or schools barely function. Under Qadhafi, most Libyan Tuaregs served as a military force, paid for by the central state. But he didn’t give them official citizenship, and after the revolution their salaries were abruptly cut off. Unlike the Tuaregs of popular imagination, in their everyday life the Obari Tuaregs don’t wear mysterious wrappings of indigo-dyed desert robes or habitually ride camels. Some don military uniforms, reflecting the reality that most inhabitants align with one militia or the other simply in order to get paid. My friends wear tight jeans and sandals, and feel abandoned.
The irony, though, is clear. There is great wealth in the southern oil fields, but it is funnelled to the north, helped by those same NOC flights that lift workers far above deprived locals’ heads.
After two days in Obari, my contact passes me over to my next helper. My new guide is from a respected southern Arab tribe and is able to travel between Tuareg-controlled Obari and Sebha, which is mainly controlled by other factions. We set off on what is still a good asphalt road. The occasional checkpoints wave through ordinary cars, but trucks are getting stopped and their drivers have to pay tolls for their loads. This is the illicit economy in action.
The Cracked Jewel of the South
Sebha is not suffering from active conflict during my visit, but it looks battered after experiencing five rounds of local war between Arab tribes like the Qadhadhfa (Qadhafi’s tribe), the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebu. There are burned-out cars on the streets. The former main hotel sits lifeless and derelict. Migrants can be seen passing through, crowded onto the back of pickup trucks. Small wonder, perhaps, that on the road in from Obari I see green flags painted on the gates of some homes, showing occasional nostalgia for the old Qadhafi regime.
There are no central government security forces. Fuel is being sold on the black market on many street corners. The city is carved up into neighbourhoods, with makeshift barriers serving as de facto border demarcations between various militias. No single faction is fully in command. Very few international organisations are now present in Sebha, just one or two offices stripped back to a nominal local presence.
Despite the divisions and uncertainties, there is a kind of normality too. I am able to rent a flat for our stay. In my light veil and long clothes, I move about most parts of the city to meet the various factions and commanders. I don’t meet the people traffickers themselves, but speak to others who know what’s going on. I’m free to ask as many questions as I like about all aspects of the huge rise in the smuggling economy. Sebha’s residents know that in theory smuggling – including of people – is illicit, but most consider it legitimate, normal and profitable. These are just jobs, indeed the only way to make ends meet now that Libya’s economy is in ruins and cash is hard to obtain.
A municipal council operates in an imposing building in downtown Sebha, but tensions among councillors are so high that some prefer to meet me in a more informal setting. Other friends arrange for me to pass into the shanty town dwellings of their poor quarter of Tuyuri, divided into one section where Tebu live and another with Tuareg. Others again are keen to show me Sebha’s old city, now uninhabited but once the heart of this oasis town. They even show me where the Italian school was in the 1930s.
When there is no fighting, like now, schools and the local university are functioning. Electricity comes and goes (at times for more than 12 hours), but while I am there power seems steady. Drinking water still flows to many houses thanks to Qadhafi’s “Great Man-made River”, connected to fossil aquifers deep under the Sahara. Surrounded by desert, I even see some gardens that are lush and blooming.
Some illegal immigrants can be seen in the streets, but they are evidently the lucky few. Many are kept in large warehouses, often in atrocious conditions, across town, until they change hands to other smugglers who take them one step further north in a long supply chain that ends in southern Europe. Others, unable to pay for their trip, are forced to stay put to cultivate land, load trucks or undertake other labour-intensive work to earn money for their onward journey. Organisations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) report that in Sebha sub-Saharan migrants are being sold and bought by Libyan traffickers, a trade they denounced as being comparable to “slave markets”. I did not see this and heard many Sehba residents complain that these accusations are exaggerated. But there is no doubt that these migrants I see have already endured a lot, and could suffer even beatings and rape in the next leg of their trip.
Libya’s Wild West
After three nights in Sebha, I’m on the road again, fortunately this time without an armed escort. The next destination is Murzuq, in territory that is dominated by the Tebu and which has not seen any fighting in recent years. A good Tebu friend in Tripoli sends his cousin to take me there.
We pass many trucks filled with goods on their way to Chad and Niger. The Libyan government imports refined fuel and then subsidises it for local use, which makes onward sales to sub-Saharan Africa highly profitable for smugglers. I expect to see many more vehicles with migrants, but I am told that though we are also driving in the direction of the border to Niger, smugglers transporting migrants to Sebha take another route, slightly further east from where we are.
As soon as we enter Murzuq, it’s clear the town is better off than Obari and Sebha. Luxurious houses rise in some streets and the atmosphere is clearly calm. An Ottoman-era fortress dominates the town. There are no hotels here, as in Sebha and Obari, so visitors like me have to stay in people’s homes. This works out better for me too, as I learn far more about daily life there than on my own or in hotels.
The city has enjoyed relative stability primarily because there is just one dominant group, and also because the town’s two security chiefs – one loyal to Haftar, the other to Ghwell – have gone on with their respective jobs without picking a fight.
The boom in gold mining in the area bordering Chad and Niger is also boosting the local economy, probably more so than human smuggling. My hosts here say as much as seven kilos of gold (worth nearly $300,000) passes through town daily on the way to outside markets, adding to a sense that this is Libya’s Wild West.
As I travel through the south, I am constantly aware of reports of Islamic State fighters transiting through the south, fleeing the major setback they were handed by a coalition of Misratan militias that drove them out of Sirte in December 2016 after a six-month battle. I see no sign of jihadists, but so many people tell me about them that it’s clear that some are passing through discreetly and most likely heading to one of the countries to the south, through the Salvador Pass on the Libya-Niger border.
One reason for this could be that few southerners seem interested in ISIS ideology. Some young women I meet in Obari say that some of their relatives are with the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council, a group that is fighting alongside the Islamic State against Haftar’s LNA. But they say these men are mainly motivated by anti-Haftar sentiment, and had already joined another anti-Haftar coalition formed in Tripoli in 2014. Few, if any, seem to have joined ISIS themselves, though some admit that, in the immediate aftermath of Qadhafi’s fall, they had joined armed groups that they later discovered were associated with al-Qaeda.
With all the shifting allegiances, people find it difficult to work out who is supposed to be “good” and who is “bad”. They tell me that they want to be with the legitimate factions, but don’t know which those might be. They don’t see the strings being pulled behind the greater daily rush of political chaos. They have people they have to feed, and inadvertently risk aligning with a terrorist group or an illegitimate armed faction, just because that’s all what’s on offer at that time.
A Libyan Enigma
An easy return to Obari, then on to the Sharara oil field airfield, and a quiet flight back to Tripoli affords me time to reflect on what I’ve seen. The ethnic and tribal patchwork I have just criss-crossed seems chaotic, but it is not exponentially different from the rest of Libya. In fact, there is much that is still shared. Even if the economy is all about smuggling to neighbouring countries, it is based on Libyan factors like a policy of subsidising fuel imports that make reselling it so lucrative, a national currency that everyone uses and nationwide lines of supply for most of the goods in the shops.
Many of the local ethnic and tribal groups remain at loggerheads despite ongoing efforts to heal these rifts – indeed local leaders tell me that they meet more often at conferences outside the country than at home. But these are still conferences about the south’s place in Libya, and it seems to me that rather than promoting an active separatist dynamic, tribal leaders and local military actors are simply filling a power vacuum. Government officials mostly sit at home, waiting for the political struggles in the big cities on the Mediterranean coast to produce a functioning state again.
The bottom line for southerners is that they have an irresistible financial incentive to continue illicit economic activities, at least compared to the moribund legitimate economy. Profitability trumps legality wherever there are mouths to feed. Unless the legal economy is put back on track, it will be very difficult for interested powers to tackle the smuggling of goods and people. People are in need of salaries, services and security, and they await the moment a central state can once again offer that.
If there is one thing that my trip confirms to me once again, it is a paradox. Despite all the divisions and neglect, Libya is not just a country of two halves, three governments and countless tribes. The Libyans I meet still see themselves as belonging to one country. When the right moment comes, ethnic and tribal divisions can one day be bridged again.
Claudia Gazzini, Senior Analyst, Libya. Tripoli, Libya.