The war of spoils continues in Tripoli at expense of Libyans

The smell of potential spoils in Libya has awakened the greed monster inside and outside the country.
Sunday 09/09/2018
A file picture shows a militia fighter firing towards rival positions in western Sirte. (AFP)
Vicious cycle. A file picture shows a militia fighter firing towards rival positions in western Sirte. (AFP)

There is nothing to indicate that battles among various militias in Tripoli are likely to end soon and it doesn’t look like the ceasefire in place will last long, either. Despite multiple efforts to iron out differences between the warring parties, the situation in Libya is extremely tense and could explode at any moment.

Tripoli remains the trophy for all the warring parties. It is the main decision centre, not just in politics and diplomacy but in finances and the economy. This supports the conclusion that the war in Libya, since its beginning in 2011, has been a war over spoils in a country rich in oil, bank deposits and investments.

The smell of potential spoils in Libya has awakened the greed monster inside and outside the country. These spoils have produced a class of warlords that is sitting on billions of dollars. They control state institutions, peddle their influence for appointments and jobs, practically decide the fate of all major public tenders, control the parallel market in currency trading and manage huge investments in foreign countries.

All of this is happening while the common folk in Libya struggle with poverty, skyrocketing prices, the devaluation of the local currency, runaway criminality and corruption, insecurity and flagrant impunity.

What have the militias got to do with this? The answer is simple: Nothing happens in Libya without the consent of the warlords.

Regarding public funds, for example, a report by UN experts, leaked last March, revealed widespread misappropriation and theft of public funds through fictitious bank transfers crediting accounts held by warlords in banks controlled by their militias. The UN experts received direct threats from the militias.

Further leaks in May made public a list of companies owned by warlords in Tripoli that had received grants totalling $65 million.

Armed militias reap huge fortunes from trading foreign currencies on the black market. They use their influence to purchase US dollars at the official rate from official banks then sell them on the black market, turning profits of millions of dollars in a very short time.

It has become normal for the average Libyan to spend an entire night in front of a bank to secure a position near the front of the queue for the following day. After that, he will end up drawing no more than 200 Libyan dinars — the equivalent of $30 in the black market.

Asked about limiting withdrawals, bank officials say shortage of liquidity has become a problem in Libya because most of the rich long ago had withdrawn their entire deposits from banks in fear of kidnapping or assassination attempts. It has become obvious, that militias have agents inside banks who monitor client accounts and inform the militias about good candidates for blackmailing.

In the oil sector, the situation is worse. In August, an oil company executive was threatened by militias in Tripoli to make him go back on a decision to take out what was called the Monitoring Office for the distribution of fuel and gas.

Also, high-ranking managers in the Libya Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, were kidnapped by armed groups allegedly working under the authority of the Ministry of Interior.

These are just a sample of what has been happening in Tripoli recently. Obviously, the warlords and their militias are very much entrenched there. Obviously also, the Libyan Presidential Council has not been able to impose the security arrangements laid out in the Skhirat Agreement signed in December 2015. That agreement called for driving all armed militias out of Libya’s cities, including Tripoli. They were to be stripped of their heavy artillery first and later of their light weapons.

The agreement stipulated that militia members should be included in the country’s police and armed forces or offered jobs commensurate with their qualifications. Those arrangements also figure in the 2017 Paris agreement between Presidential Council Chairman Fayez al-Sarraj and Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.

The Presidential Council has failed to implement the security arrangements and will never be able to do so because the armed militias have become too powerful. They control interests they will never relinquish and their leaders are neck deep in criminal activities and will never acquiesce to solutions that would strip them of their power and open the gate of legally pursing them.

Even in the event of elections, the winners will automatically find themselves either confronted or controlled by these militias.

So, nothing is going to change in Tripoli and the ceasefire of September 4 won’t last because the choice in Tripoli is binary: Either put in place a state of law or end up with a state of militias.