Ethnic conflict adds to Libya’s crisis
Tunis - In the wider picture of conflict and collapse in Libya, the bitter struggle between the country’s southern ethnic minorities — the Tebus and the Tuaregs — may seem a sideshow.
But not only has it been deadly in places such as Obari and Sebha, with hundreds of civilians and fighters killed in the past 11 months, the two groups also provide the only security on Libya’s southern, south-western and south-eastern borders. They control the movement of terrorists, of human traffickers of the smuggling routes across the borders. Living on both sides of the frontier, they manage the lines of communication from Libya into Africa’s Sahel region.
For Libya’s neighbours and for Europe, the Tebus and Tuaregs are of immense strategic significance and their conflict a cause for major concern.
While both are in the south, the Tebus and Tuaregs live mostly in separate zones, the Tebus in the south and south-east (notably in Qatrun, Murzuq and Kufra), the Tuaregs in the south-west and central west (in Ghat and the Ghadames area). In Obari and Sebha, they live side by side, although in the former’s case, it is a Tuareg-majority.
It was in Obari that the current rivalry turned poisonous 11 months ago when a Tuareg militia tried to take over control of a petrol station being guarded by a Tebu group. In the subsequent fighting, about 80% of the town’s estimated population of 35,000 has reportedly fled.
According to local Obari Tuareg leader Ahmed Baye, 147 Tuareg fighters have been killed since September 2014. He claims to have been told by Tebu leaders that more than a thousand of their men have died in the clashes.
Inevitably, the hostility spread from Obari to Sebha’s Tiwari district, where the two communities have lived side by side and where during a week of hostilities in July, 60 people were killed.
The rivalry, however, goes back to 2011 when the Tebus, who had been oppressed by the Qaddafi regime, backed the revolution while the Tuaregs continued to support a regime that had used them as a military force in the area. On the winning side, well-armed, well-organised and united, the Tebus became the dominant military force across the south, able to exert power even in places they were not in the majority, such as Obari.
Since then, allegiances have changed, but two proud peoples remain apart. They have largely taken opposite sides in the current divide in the country between the internationally recognised House of Representatives based in Tobruk and the rump General National Congress (GNC) and its Libya Dawn military alliance in Tripoli. The Tebus support the former, contributing to its forces, while the Tuaregs have supported the latter.
The divide is not total. There are Tuaregs who support the House and some Tebus in the Obari area sympathetic to the GNC. But these are a minority.
The divide is such that the two view each other with deep suspicion, even playing into the hands of other Libyans who would write both off as non-Libyan. It is not uncommon to hear Tuareg complaints that many of the Tebus are from Chad and that Chad uses them to interfere in Libyan politics or, from Tebus, that Tuareg fighters come from Mali and have brought their Islamist politics to Libya with them.
There are efforts to end the strife. A ceasefire, agreed to in late July following mediation by elders from Arab and Amazigh tribes and towns to the north, is holding in Sebha, much to everyone’s surprise. There were also talks in Brussels between representatives of the communities in Obari. Organised by the French non-government organisation Promediation, they produced an agreement to work together for a ceasefire and peace in the town but clashes have continued.
There is, however, a view that mediation in Obari and Sebha will not succeed because the conflict is not based in either place, that the hostility is really about smuggler wars and is the consequence of Libya’s political crisis.
Certainly, with no national army and police to secure the south, it has been left in the hands of the Tebus and Tuaregs. And with no economic investment in the south either, both have turned to smuggling for economic survival. Although they largely control different areas, in Obari they overlap and are rivals.
Until the state is able to exert its authority in the south and to bring prosperity to the area, the smuggling will continue and, most likely, so too will the rivalries between those involved.