By Graeme Mackay
June 24, 2013
Every year, usually in late autumn, The Economist publishes its "The World in____" for the following year. The issue for 2012 has an article by Oliver August on the effects of the North African uprisings of 2011 spreading south and in particular, foresees trouble brewing for the Sahel states because of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi:
"...Niger, Chad and Mali had close links with Colonel Gaddafi and on occasion benefitted from his largesse...the departure of tens of thousands of migrant Sahel workers from Libya means an end of remittances they send home. Local mercenaries once in the Colonel's pay will also trickle back. All this sets the scene for the rise of protest movements".
Some protests! Many Sahel "workers" aligned with the Colonel who had taken in migrant workers from each of the above countries and the Sudan, very often to counter tribes who were opposed to his own tribe as well as to his regime. Ironically, when many of these migrants who lived in the Fezzan headed north to fight for Gaddafi, it left behind those who had always been his enemy and who then helped the rebels take the District and its capital, Sabha.
Nevertheless, when the Gaddafi loyalists subsequently fled back into the deserts and mountain ranges of the south, too many of them remembered to take their weapons with them. Their pursuers, the forces of the National Transitional Council which had been set up at the end of February 2011, were largely composed of tribes from the coastal districts where about 90 per cent of Libya's 6.5 million people live. Unfamiliar with the terrain, climate (some of the hottest world temperatures ever recorded) and peoples of this expansive landmass, they failed to sufficiently defeat the enemy, leaving the Government in Tripoli with scant control in this area.
The problem has not gone away and presents the Tripoli Government with difficulties that it does not have the means to solve whilst affecting, directly or indirectly, other countries near and far. Not helping is that the size of the dilemma facing the authorities in Tripoli is matched by the size of the regions currently experiencing the greatest instability.
Libya is divided into 22 Districts (Baladiyats) and Kufra, in the south of the former Province of Cyrenaica, is about twice the size of the UK with roughly 60,000 people. The village of the same name is capital of the District and has a notorious reputation as a kind of transit point used by human traffickers of people from the Near East and East Africa seeking passage to Europe. Murzuq in the south of Fezzan is half-as-large again as Britain and has about 80,000 people. Both Districts still see skirmishing, usually too often and not alarming enough to be reported, but particularly serious tribal fighting occurred in these regions in 2012.
One might be tempted to talk of the anti-Gaddafi forces as being those loyal to the new government in Tripoli - and some are - but Libya is essentially a country made up of tribes and tribal/clan alliances and the country has been carved out of the old Ottoman Empire with the added questionable benefit of straight-line borders, courtesy of agreements between Italy, the old colonial master, and other former European powers.
Acknowledging the differences between the peoples of eastern and western Libya, Italy for a number of years during the 1920s and 30s administered the country as the Provinces of Tripolitania, which benefited from many infrastructure projects - there was even a Tripoli Grand Prix - and Cyrenaica. Cyrenaica's capital, Benghazi, was developed but Italy's record in the region is one of harsh persecution of a rebellious native population which led to the deaths of at least 50,000 people.
A third Province, Fezzan was added later on.
Even today, there appears to be an uneasy truce between the east and west of the country as witnessed early in March 2012 when, citing the "suffering (of) decades of marginalization" under Muammar Gaddafi, an eastern 'regional congress' was elected by major tribal leaders and militias in Benghazi. One presumes they fear the same inferiority from the new government of the country. This body appointed as its head Ahmed al-Zubair, a relative of Libya's former King Idris, despite him still being a member of Libya's National Transitional Council.
The trouble is that nearly two years after the Colonel fled Tripoli with his loyal bodyguard, many acknowledge the new administration under its Acting President of the General National Congress in name only. Other militias don't even offer that courtesy and last year's eastern 'congress', though little recognised and condemned by Tripoli, does demonstrate the fragility of the Libyan state.
Whether pro or anti-Gaddafi during the uprising and ensuing war, many of the militias are better armed than Libya's newly-formed Libyan National Army. In an article for Reuters on 20 June 2012, Marie-Louise Gumuchian described the chaotic state in much of Libya's desert south where, since the end of the civil war, Tripoli is too often relying on ill-trained black-African Tibu tribesmen. Many of these are from Chad and Niger and have on occasion fought against al Qaeda-linked militias.
The tribesmen are supported where and when possible by poorly-equipped elements of the Libyan National Army in what is now officially designated a Military Zone. Ms Gumuchian quoted one 25-year-old tribesman:
"If I hear al-Qaeda is here, I will kill them. We know what happened in Mali and we won't allow it here, even if we only have rifles. We are here to protect Libya".
"Only rifles", not a problem for the militias as Ms Gumuchian was told by one Algerian security analyst:
"Libya is an open air arms market; it will remain a source of weaponry for 10 years".
In this vast desert area, some attempt at imposing law-and-order is being made but the authorities face multiple problems such as rising violence, trafficking in drugs and weapons and an "influx of illegal immigrants". The illegal immigrants, frequently a synonym for human trafficking, include the thousands of Africans attempting to reach the Mediterranean coast before tackling their last hurdle to entering Europe. Others are more sinister and represent defeated elements of the jihadist groups still fighting the French, Malian Army and their allied forces in Mali.
On this southern front the news is not very encouraging. A local Government official told Ms Gumuchian:
"The south is dying and the Government is ignoring us. Crime is rampant, there are tribal animosities, smuggling and we are worried that what is happening in Mali will spread here. We are free of Gaddafi but we are prisoners to chaos".
Maybe a helping hand from the coalition which toppled Gaddafi could ensure the last sentence doesn't become some perverse epitaph?