Africans try their hand at peacemaking in Libya but belligerents remain far apart

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad offered to host a “reconciliation forum” on Libya on behalf of the African Union.

Sunday 02/02/2020
Mali Minister of Foreign Affairs Tiebile Drame attends a meeting with foreign ministers and officials from countries neighbouring Libya to discuss the Libyan conflict, Algiers, January 23. (Reuters)
African role. Mali Minister of Foreign Affairs Tiebile Drame attends a meeting with foreign ministers and officials from countries neighbouring Libya to discuss the Libyan conflict, Algiers, January 23. (Reuters)

TUNIS - With the failure of the Berlin Conference on Libya to end the fighting in Libya and restart dialogue, the focus of efforts to reach a Libyan settlement swung to Africa, in particular Algeria.

At a meeting January 30 in Brazzaville, Congo, of the African Union’s High Level Committee on Libya, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad offered to host a “reconciliation forum” on Libya on behalf of the African Union.

The offer followed quick, intensive diplomatic activity by Algiers. Two days after the January 19 Berlin conference, which had been attended by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Algiers discussing Libya as well as bilateral and other regional issues.

“We are going to coordinate our efforts to re-establish a political dialogue and will act together to ensure that the efforts we began in Berlin will be able to continue,” Le Drian said following talks with Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum.

Two days after that, Boukadoum hosted foreign ministers from Libya’s other neighbours — Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia — plus Mali. All have been affected by the crisis in Libya, in most cases having their own security and stability threatened by the flow of militants and weapons from Libya.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Algiers January 25 for discussions regarding Libya with Tebboune and other members of the Algerian government. The next day, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan travelled to Algeria. Tunisian President Kais Saied was also due in Algiers for talks on Libya as well as bilateral matters.

There was hope the High Level Committee on Libya, at its January 30 meeting, could entice the head of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj, and his rival, Libyan National Army’s Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to focus on a ceasefire and political dialogue, as set out in Berlin. The plan would be endorsed when leaders of the African Union gather February 9-10 in Addis Ababa for their annual summit.

It was unclear whether the African Union would take up Algeria’s offer, even if Algiers seemed eager to take the lead on Libya to highlight its revived diplomacy.

Djerad offered to host a meeting “between the Libyan brothers to help find a solution to the crisis and lay the foundations for a new stable state.” He said Algeria would “spare no effort” to support the African Union and the United Nations help find a solution for Libya.

While claiming that Algeria had “maximum neutrality” regarding Libya, he insisted on the “legitimacy of [Libya’s] internationally recognised institutions” — the Government of National Accord.

That is not the language Haftar or his allies in the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, nor Haftar’s foreign regional supporters, notably Egypt, want to hear and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi occupies the rotating AU chairmanship. That, along with the rivalry between Egypt and Algeria over Libya, could scupper Algeria’s hopes of having its offer endorsed at the AU summit.

Algeria’s long-time adversary Morocco, which it did not invite to its foreign ministers meeting on Libya, also has plenty of friends in Africa who might oppose the offer. Algeria’s unchanged support for the Polisario Front on the Western Sahara issue, despite its change of civilian and military leaderships, is maintaining a wide gap between Algeria and Morocco.

Tellingly, an AU statement simply said it had “taken note of the Algerian offer.”

Moroccan and Algerian policies on Libya are quite similar — that the crisis must be resolved by the Libyans themselves and that outside powers should stop intervening.

At the meeting in Brazzaville, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita hammered out the same message, lashing out at what he called “cynical interventionism” in Libya and in the region by certain parties. In a clear, specific reference to Turkey and Erdogan’s suspected neo-Ottoman vision, he said that it came from “another age, another era.”

In Libya, the gap between the warring sides has become so wide as to be almost unbridgeable and the only place the two sides are present together is the battlefield.

Libyan National Army spokesman Major-General Ahmed Mismari ruled out any solution other than a military one. Language from the other side is equally militant and intransigent.

A statement on the Facebook page of the Libyan High Council of State, which sent a delegation to accompany Sarraj to the meeting in Brazzaville, said there were only two solutions to the crisis. There could be a political solution but Haftar had to be completely excluded or the fight around Tripoli would continue until “the aggressors were expelled.”

The intransigence was fully on show in Brazzaville where Sarraj was present but not Haftar, although he sent representatives. As in Berlin, discussions with the two sides again took place in separate locations.

Inside Libya, the conflict continues and, despite the promises in Berlin, more weapons and fighters arrived.

The UN Support Mission in Libya on January 25 said that, in the previous ten days, cargo and other flights had been seen landing in western and eastern parts of Libya. French President Emmanuel Macron accused Erdogan of reneging on his promise in Berlin to stop interfering in Libya and of sending shiploads of Syrian mercenaries there. In addition to Turkish military specialists and the Syrian fighters, the Turkish Navy established a presence offshore, with four frigates and a support vessel.

There were unconfirmed reports of Qatar smuggling weapons to Tripoli via Sudan’s Darfur province.

The major clash took place south of Misrata, where the Libyan National Army seized the strategically important town of Abu Grein but were forced to retreat towards Sirte. The battle was reported to have been particularly bloody, with significant losses on both sides, but it has not diminished either side’s desire to continue to fight.