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Libya is currently undergoing a progressive collapse of its social and institutional fabric. Among this regressive dynamic it is difficult to pinpoint the most dangerous and aggravating causes thereof. There is no central authority that decides; there is no capacity to impose the decisions taken; there is no binding agent able to repair the relationship and co-existence between the many social souls present in the country. The final result of all of these elements is the resurfacing of tensions between the different ethnic groups that are geared towards a final armed confrontation between the tribes: Arabs, Tuareg and Berbers. Such armed confrontations are the early warning signs of a nation on its way towards total and utter failure.

This state of affairs is particularly visible and evident in an area that is particularly crucial for the security of the whole of Libya but not of Libya alone: the southern border of the country. The southern Libyan territory is by now in the hands of organized crime. It is an area where every kind of illicit traffic is amply diffused, an area which serves as a refuge for terrorist groups and where the instabilities of Libya bond with those of its neighboring countries. An explosive cocktail that could well be set ablaze and easily infect the entire sub-Saharan strip of Africa.

A precarious balance

The protagonists of this drama are essentially three: the Tebou, the Tuareg and the local Kabiles. The latter are defined by their counterparts as being "Arabs", a reductive description that does not refer so much to the color of the skin or to the difference between nomad and sedentary populations but rather to the difference between the original inhabitants of that territory and other peoples that have settled there centuries ago following conquests and invasions.

The Tebou are a tribe of semi-nomads devoted alternatively to herding or to temporary cultivation of land. With their origin in Tibesti, a mountainous region in northern Chad, this population branches out to Niger and north Sudan. In the 70's, Muhamar Khadafi dreamed of annexing a part of northern Chad, geographically defined as the 'strip of Aouzou', by claiming it belonged to Libya on the basis of an Italian-French accord favoring Italy and to the fact that the area was under the vassalage of the Senussia confraternity. In order to pursue his aims, the Libyan dictator had gotten mixed up in a war against Chad (also because there was talk of there being uranium in the area) that began in 1973 and which was moreover miserably lost by Libya.

It is in this conjunction that there originates the problem of the Tebou, whom inhabited the disputed area and whom were forced to abandon their territory. Some of them sought refuge in Libya and Khadafi, in order to validate his territorial claims, had granted them Libyan nationality. In 1994 a sentence of the international court of justice had given the strip of Aouzou to Chad, thus putting an end to the territorial claims of the Rais. At this point it wasn't in the Rais' interest any longer to give hospitality to the Tebou, who saw their newly found nationality stripped away. The same happened with their right to access the Libyan social services and their right to residency. In fact, they were discriminated. The decisions of the Libyan regime produced social tensions at a local level - especially in the area of Kufra where the presence of the Tebou was concentrated - and clashes with the local Kabiles, in particular with that of the Zway. In 2008, the Libyan authorities had then repressed the Tebou dissidence with the use of arms.

Once the revolt against the dictator exploded in 2011, the Tebou sided immediately with the rebels, winning consent which currently, among the Libyan social chaos, they tend to cash in by assuming a role of command and control in the southern part of the country. In the imagery of the Arab population there remains diffidence with regards to a community which is perceived as "foregin"; a diffidence that even the stripes won during a conflict cannot erase. This reciprocal diffidence has sparked bloody clashes in 2013 which have produced roughly 350 dead and hundreds of wounded in Cyrenaica. The recent incidents of January 2014 in the areas of Sebha and in the region of Fezzan where the Tebou have collided with the Kebil of the Awlad Sleiman (with over 20 victims) are proof that the problem has not been solved. The reason for the clashes was the elimination of a military chief of the Awlad Suleiman as vengeance for the killing, two years before, of about 40 Tebous. Just the sort of do-it-youself justice that is common in Libya nowadays.

The Tabou seek the same old things: Libyan citizenship, free access to social services, an increased political representation that can help them uphold their claims. In addition to these, there is the fact that, during the civil war, the Tabou have protected the oil installations and now expect to receive a share from the sale of the oil thereof. Presently, despite the reluctance of the Arab populations, the Tebou have the weapons, are part of the so-called revolutionary brigades and have thus an enhanced contractual power. On the Arab side there is a growing conviction that, apart from the renown smuggling activity that has always fed the Tebou, there is now an exodus of additional Tebous from neighboring countries with the aim of tipping the ethnic balance in a scarcely populated area such as the south of Libya.

The supporting actors in the south of Libya are the Tuareg, whom share the same claims as the Tebou: Libyan citizenship and better social conditions. This convergence of interests has created a bond between the Tebou and the Tuareg, two tribes that had fought each other in the past in order to expand their respective spheres of influence and that have now joined forces against the Arab populations of southern Libya.

tebou woman
Libyan Tebou woman

The southern borders

Despite the claims or complaints of the various groups present on the Libyan territory, the main problem is that the south of Libya is essentially an insecure and unstable desert. There are over 2000 km of southern borders that are not controlled in any way by the central government. A good part of these - from Kufra to Murzuq - are under the control of the Tebou while the rest - the area of Obari - are in the hands of the Tuareg. This means that the traffics that originate in southern Egypt, in Chad, Sudan and in the eastern part of Niger are now controlled by the Tebou, while the ones coming from western Niger and from Algeria are within the Tuareg jurisdiction.

The Tebou can count on approximately 18 revolutionary brigades which are apparently quite well organized while the Tuareg can only count on 9. In theory, these revolutionary groups should answer, through the Chief of Staff, to the Ministry of Defense. In reality they only safeguard the interests and follow the orders of their direct commanders. Moreover, these militias don't need a salary because they control very profitable trades like arms, alcohol and drugs which transit freely in the areas under their control. There are no customs, there is no border police and the main crossings are under the control of these same militias that have a thorough knowledge of the desert areas where they operate. One can enter and exit Libya only with their consent and by paying a right of passage. This is one of the reasons why the traffic of migrants has found new impetus after the elimination of Khadafi. According to certain esteems, an average of 5 to 6 hundred migrants enter southern Libya on any given day.

The Tripoli authorities have stated that the south of the country is a "militarized zone" in a clumsy attempt to limit the access and transit of things and people in the area. A military governor has been designated but has no power to intervene, seen the sheer military preponderance of the revolutionary ("Thuwars") brigades ("Katiba") compared to the scant and badly armed police forces and the regular army. In this part of Libya the police does not intervene (or rather, it does only against weaker military sides) and the judges refuse to judge crimes connected to the traffics of the Tebou by adopting the tactic of postponing trials or passing decisions on to the tribal elders. The rest is regulated by corruption and by the code of silence.

The most worrisome aspect of this situation are the recurrent rumors about the presence, especially in the areas bordering Algeria (thus in the areas controlled by the Tuareg) of terrorist camps belonging to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), a formation that is very active in Algeria and which is also present in northern Mali. The French intervention in northern Mali would have caused these groups to spill into Libya. This circumstance would postulate a collusion between terrorists and Tuaregs or, at least, the indifference of the latter with regards to the military aspirations of the Islamic extremists. Moreover, some of the Tuareg Katibas, such as the 315, headed by Sheykh Ahmed Omar, seem to express a subtle nearness to the claims of AQIM.

A further problem is represented by the presence of individuals and groups tied to the defunct dictator which, once the regime had collapsed, have sought refuge in the south of the country. This has caused a series of clashes between Kabiles and in particular between those tied to Khadafi - like the Warfalla and the Qadhadfa (Khadafi's original Kabil) - which are presently discriminated and support the armed opposition.

tuareg libya
Libyan Tuareg

No solution in view

There presently exists no solution to this state of affairs and there will exist none until a central authority has been created. Presently, the rulers of southern Libya are the Tebou, the Tuareg and, in the role of the gooseberry, the Arabs (both for and against the defunct Rais). Recently the Tebou and the Tuareg, those that derive profit from the traffics across borders, have negotiated (without the authorization nor financing from the government) with the authorities from Niger on a presumed cooperation along the border.

On paper, the Tripoli government aims at reconquering southern Libya from the aforementioned tribes. There is even an old project - part of the friendship treaty negotiated with Italy in 2008 - that has been picked out of the dust of time. With the excuse of curbing immigration, Khadafi asked Italy to install a radar system along the southern border of the country. The fact that such a system was ineffective against dot-shaped migrants in the middle of a desert was known to all. But Khadafi wanted the radars and Italy wanted to indulge him. It was a 300 million euro project that was financed in part - reluctantly so, it must be said - by the European Union.

Now the project has been fished out of drawer by Tripoli and once again humored by Rome. It will be a great favor to Finmeccanica which, through Selex, will build the radars, but it will not serve the purpose of controlling southern Libya. The Tebou and the Tuareg can therefore sleep tight; nobody is bound to disturb them anytime soon.