Deep anger in south-western Libya fuels unrest

Within the wider Tuareg community, among those who are Libyans and have identity numbers, there is a strong sense of second-class citizenship.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Unaddressed grievances. A Libyan Tuareg man sits at a passport control post near the border with Algeria. (Reuters)
Unaddressed grievances. A Libyan Tuareg man sits at a passport control post near the border with Algeria. (Reuters)

TUNIS - When armed men forcibly stopped production at Libya’s largest oilfield and staff members had to be evacuated, it was a major blow to the country’s renascent oil industry.

Until it was closed December 8, the Sharara field, in south-western Libya, was producing 315,000 barrels of oil a day (bpd), a significant part of the national production of 1.2 million bpd. Despite the political divisions in Libya, oil output has increased from less than 400,000 barrels bpd in 2016.

The National Oil Company (NOC) said the shutdown, along with one at the nearby 73,000-bpd El Feel field, which depends on Sharara for its electricity supply, is costing the country $32.5 million a day in lost revenue.

The NOC has described the attackers as criminals and the attack as an attempt at extortion. It demanded the “militia” quit the oilfield.

The UN support mission in Libya denounced the attack and the one that took place at Al Hasawna water distribution complex 600km to the north. Those involved had to immediately and unconditionally withdraw, the NOC demanded.

The European Union said the shutdown would make matters worse and, while highlighting the need to address the problems in southern Libya, also insisted that the field return to NOC control.

The problem is not going to be resolved that simply.

Those who forced the closure of the field are some of the same people who are supposed to protect it, members of the 30th Battalion of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG).

In October and November, demonstrators from a new protest movement in the south called Fezzan Rage tried to get into the oilfield but were stopped by the PFG. The relatively few demonstrators said closing Sharara was the only way to make the country’s leaders in northern Libya — the Tripoli-based Presidency Council and its Government of National Accord, the Libyan National Army in the east led by Khalifa Haftar or the House of Representatives in Tobruk — address the dire situation in the south.

There is deep anger in Libya’s southern Fezzan region over abysmal living conditions. Health-care provision is at its worst in half a century because of lack of staff, medication and supplies. Crime is rampant. There are no jobs. The region’s airports are closed and travel is difficult, expensive and dangerous. Travellers cannot rule out the possibility of being kidnapped by mercenaries from Chad and Sudan or attacked by Islamic State gunmen.

Prices in shops are exorbitant and there is generally little on the shelves to buy. Fuel can cost between $1.40-$1.75 a litre, compared to $0.11 a litre in northern Libya. It is also a rare commodity. Southern Libya had been receiving 2 million litres of fuel from Misrata but there have not been deliveries for several weeks, Sebha Mayor Khalil Rafeh al-Khayali said.

Fezzan Rage was formed by young activists who said they were convinced that economic disruption was the only way to get the region’s complaints addressed.

The difference between previous attempts to enter Sharara and the recent successful break-in is that the activists and oil field guards have a common cause.

The PFG 30th battalion is manned mainly by Tuaregs, one of Libya’s three ethnic minorities. Some of them claim they have not been paid for three or four years, an allegation denied by the NOC but backed by others, including Khayali.

The problem dates back to when Muammar Qaddafi was trying to extend his influence among the Tuareg people in Mali, Niger and Algeria and claiming that the Tuaregs were originally Libyans. Qaddafi recruited several thousands of them, mainly from Mali, as soldiers.

They were promised Libyan nationality but it never came. They were given an administrative number, which allowed them to live and work in Libya. In 2014, state salary payments were tied to a new national identity number system. Without Libyan nationality, many Tuaregs did not have one despite being legally employed. As a result, their salaries were not paid. Despite promises from authorities to resolve the issue, that is still the case.

An estimated 18,000 Tuaregs in southern Libya are in this situation, including many in the 30th Battalion.

Within the wider Tuareg community, among those who are Libyans and have identity numbers, there is a strong sense of second-class citizenship. This is partly because of Tuareg support for the Qaddafi regime, especially during the revolution. It was a support that cost them dearly. In Ghadames, on the border with Tunisia and Algeria, many Tuaregs were forced out of the town after the fall of the Qaddafi regime and had to resettle further east. They have not been allowed to return to their homes.

Fezzan Rage is sympathetic to the Tuaregs’ complaints, hardly surprising given that many of its coordinating committees include Tuaregs. It has other demands, too, including reopening the region’s airports; opening a new power station at the Tuareg-majority town of Ubari; cash deliveries to banks in southern Libya; plus other changes that the movement says will benefit all Libyans, such as a single rate of exchange for all at 3.90 Libyan dinars to the dollar, (rather than the current system in which some have access to the rate of 1.40 dinars to the dollar) and national ID numbers to be verified by biometrics.

There is widespread support for the movement in the south and that appears to extend to the shutdown of Sharara.

“They just want their salaries,” Khayali said of the PFG, while listing the complaints in the region: lack of medicine, broken roads and damaged infrastructure, lack of jobs, lack of fuel. “We are being ignored,” he said.

Since the Sharara closure, it has been reported that the NOC’s Brega Oil Marketing Company is to send 3.8 million litres of petrol, 1.2 million litres of diesel and 80,000 tonnes of liquefied cooking gas to the south starting December 18.

That should help stem the widespread anger in the region but it will probably convince protesters that drastic action brings results. That means that without determined support to end the region’s problems, there will be similar actions.

Khayali, who said he is waiting to see if the fuel deliveries materialise, remains deeply worried.

“They have now promised us a delivery. It will be a disaster if it does not come,” he said.