Oil and gas blockade in Tunisian south highlights country’s quandaries

As it hits the ground running, the Mechichi government finds itself compelled to find a resolution to a long-running conflict where the country’s natural resources are taken hostage.
Wednesday 09/09/2020
A July 2020 file picture shows a Tunisian protester shutting down a valve at the oil and gas plant in El Kamour, in the desert of Tunisia’s southern state of Tataouine. (AFP)
A July 2020 file picture shows a Tunisian protester shutting down a valve at the oil and gas plant in El Kamour, in the desert of Tunisia’s southern state of Tataouine. (AFP)

TUNIS - Operations at blockaded oil and gas facilities in Tunisia’s impoverished south have been halted for nearly two months, protesters and authorities said as energy firms threatened to lay off staff.

Demonstrators have been staging sit-ins and cutting off production since mid-July to demand the state follow through on promises to create thousands of jobs under deals ending previous rounds of protests.

But experts says the commitments by previous governments were driven by political expediency and not based on a realistic assessment of the government’s financial resources or even on public service hiring regulations.

Under the pressure of young unemployed crowds, coupled with threats of violence, government negotiators have in recent months and years accepted the demands of protesters to earmark substantial development funds to the region and to hire hundreds of individuals in real and ghost jobs. “The authorities eventually found out they had no sufficient balance to pay the bill,” said a Tunisian economist who insisted on remaining anonymous.

Protesters have since cut off a key pipeline that normally transports half of the North African country’s oil and hundreds stormed a crude production site, slashing gas production by around 40% and halving that of oil, according to the industry, mining and energy ministry.

“Our sit-in will continue and the oil valves will stay closed pending a meeting with the new government soon,” Khalifa Bouhaouach, a protest organiser said.

The protests in the long-marginalised southern region of Tataouine have come as bitterly divided politicians in Tunis, some 420 kilometres to the north, squabbled over the formation of the ninth government since 2011, when a popular uprising in the country’s hinterland toppled the regime of longtime authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Analysts say the fraying of state authority since the 2011 uprising has meant that Saharan protesters often find themselves facing off with the army, with civilian authorities taking a backseat. Their protest movement was encouraged by the Islamist party’s populist allies in parliament, who claimed that Tunisia’s natural riches were systematically pilfered by France and needed to return to the impoverished locals.

Army personnel trying to contain protesters as they force their way into the oil and gas plant of El Kamour, in Tunisia’s southern state of Tataouine. (AFP)
Army personnel trying to contain protesters as they force their way into the oil and gas plant of El Kamour, in Tunisia’s southern state of Tataouine. (AFP)

Demonstrators in the deep south took advantage of the instability of the successive governments and their inability for nearly ten years to introduce any improvements in the lives of the local population to press on with their demands.

The traditionally-challenged south-east has been wracked by economic woes, the closure of the Libyan border and the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Demonstrators are now demanding that the new government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, sworn in last week, honour a 2017 pledge to invest millions to develop the region.

Tunisia’s south is one of the country’s most marginalised regions, burdened with above-average unemployment, failing infrastructure and a stunted private sector.

In July dozens of demonstrators set up a protest camp in the desert near El Kamour, before hundreds forced their way into the oil production site on Thursday, pushing their way past troops deployed to guard it.

Tunisia’s modest oil sector normally produces up to 40,000 barrels per day, just over half of it from Tataouine, where Austria’s OMV, Italy’s ENI and Anglo Tunisian Oil & Gas have exploration rights, according to the energy ministry.

Successive governments have promised more investment in the region, but many of these promises have not been fulfilled.

Officials in mid-August proposed creating 250 jobs over three years, according to Bouhaouach, who slammed the offer as “unacceptable.”

Tataouine already suffered over 30% unemployment, one of the highest rates in the country, before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out thousands of informal jobs and strangled illicit cross-border trading networks with Libya and Algeria that bring vital income to many of the region’s households.

Energy firms affected by the shutdown in early August wrote to President Kais Saied, according to media reports confirmed by the energy ministry, threatening to close down facilities and potentially lay off “thousands” of workers.

Many foreign companies, who are listed in the stock exchange of their respective countries, complain of government pressure to force them to accept social expenditures that are neither legally nor economically justifiable.

As it hits the ground running, the Mechichi government finds itself compelled to find a resolution to a long-running conflict where the country’s natural resources are taken hostage.

(with wire services)

 

* Ahmed Ben Khelifa is a Tunisian reporter.