When we think about the war in Libya, our attention focuses on Cyrenaica in the East, ruled from Tobruk, and on Tripolitania in the West, ruled by the Government of National Accord (GNA). In the South, the region of Fezzan is quite forgotten, even though this highly strategic zone, where it to side with one of the belligerents, might prove a decisive factor in the triumph of one or the other.
The three main ethnic components of Fezzan—Arabs, Tubus and Tuaregs, total half a million and make up nearly 10% of the country’s population. They are mainly concentrated around three cities: Sabha, the region’s administrative capital (pop. 149,000) and seat of the Arab ethnicity, the Qadhadhfa, to which colonel Mouammar Khadafi belonged; Murzuk (pop. 50,000), the Tubu fief, and Ubari, theTuareg stronghold, half the size of Murzuk.
The competition over this territory goes way back. Between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th (until 1951, when Libya gained its independence), the colonial powers, after concentrating their efforts on the seaboard, sought to extend their domination to that semi-desert region. The Ottoman empire, then Italy, Great Britain and France all took a keen interest in the region, realising that the rest of the country was partly dependent for its economic prosperity on the region’s geostrategic resources and the access it provided to the Sahara.
When Libya was divided into three provinces (corresponding to the present regional divisions), Fezzan had few political and administrative ties with the other regional entities. Though administered by separate authorities and with different political ambitions, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, on the other hand, maintained close political and economic ties. Yet quite early on, Tripolitania made clear that it wanted to become a Republic of democratic inspiration, whereas Cyrenaica, under the rule of Mohamed Idris El-Mahdi El-Senussi, anointed by the British, had a more conservative vision. He was proclaimed king when Libya attained its independence in 1951, only to be overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969.
After Idris had proclaimed the independence of the Emirate of Cyrenaica in 1949, the King urged the other two provinces to follow his example. But the contentions between the provinces with their variegated populations, disparate economic markets and subject to different foreign influences led them to opt for a federal system, each administering itself under the authority of the King. This scheme was approved by the UN General Assembly and guaranteed under the Constitution of 24 December 1951 which officialised the country’s independence.
A French administration in 1943
Previously, as of 1943, Fezzan had been occupied and administered by France on the model of neighbouring Algeria. At the beginning of the fifties, even before the proclamation of the kingdom’s independence, provisional treaties, of a military and financial nature, renewable every six months, were drawn up between France and Libya. On the basis of these, Paris sent advisors to operate inside the country’s federal bodies and make sure that the aid provided by France to the Libyan budget would be redistributed in toto to Fezzan. Concretely, the objective was to keep a military grip on that strategic zone where links could be established between Algeria and the four colonies that made up French Equatorial Africa: Gabon, the present-day Republic of Congo, Chad and the former Oubangui-Chari, now the Central African Republic. France also obtained the right to use the highways and airports of Fezzan, such as the one at Sabha, site of the headquarters of the French administration, as well as those at Ghat and Ghadames.
Little by little, however, the federal government reneged on these agreements and took over a region where that French presence was unwelcome. Finally, in November 1954, France was obliged to withdraw and had to resign itself to renting the air bases which it had used freely until then.
When the war in Algeria broke out in November 1954, France was denied the renewal of these temporary arrangements and was summoned by the Libyan government to leave Fezzan by 31 December. Now, as the conflict in Algeria hotted up, the French authorities came to view the region as strategic, either as a potential space for weapons trafficking or a fallback position for rebels operating in Eastern Algeria. In spite of intense diplomatic wrangling and having lost the support of the British and the Americans, still present in Libya, France was now quite isolated on the international scene and was finally obliged, on 10 August 1955, to sign a treaty officialising its definitive withdrawal from the region. It did obtain nonetheless a period of transition and various guarantees, which included access to the airports, the use of certain highways and the capacity to defend Fezzan if its territory were attacked— or more probably if it became a refuge for Algerian fighters.
Transit zone for Algerian oil
France was also granted concessions in favour of its oil companies, active in Libya since 1954, exploiting the Al-Jurf and Mabrouk deposits in the Sirte Basin, but also the Al-Sharara deposit in the Murzuk Basin. And finally, France had its way regarding the delineation of the Algero-Libyan border, ensuring its ownership of the Algerian deposits at Edjeleh.
In fact, it was the discovery, in 1956, of large oil deposits near Edjeleh that led the French to reconsider their strategic interests in Fezzan and agree to their withdrawal. Until then, in the negotiations, the French had been adamant about maintaining their presence in the region for political and military reasons. With the discovery of these deposits, they became more flexible and negotiated their withdrawal in exchange for certain concessions allowing them to take advantage of the highways and certain infrastructures. Fezzan was considered an indispensable transit zone for shipping Algerian oil to mainland France, at a time when the nationalisation of the Suez Canal threatened energy supply lines. In return for their withdrawal, the French hoped to be granted access to Libyan airports and Zouara Harbour on the North Coast to ship Algerian oil to the mainland, at that point in time the most practicable and shortest route.
In Libya itself, oil is as much a catalyser as it is federative, but whereas in the past it furthered the country’s unification, today it tends to be a factor of division. The discovery of oil in Cyrenaica at the end of the fifties, led the central government to seek more actively the country’s economic and political unification, at a time when the Libyan people felt they belonged to the Arab world.
Thenceforth, the political unification of the country depended on how its natural resources were to be shared, and a renegotiation of the social contract binding the tree States together became inevitable. In 1963, the King officialised the adoption of a new Constitution, decreeing the end of the federal system which until then had unified the country’s three entities.
The disputed oil windfall
Libya possesses Africa’s largest fossil fuel reserves. In 2011, on the eve of the country’s revolution, 80% of its production was exported to Europe (half of it to Italy, Germany and France). Even though the bulk of petroleum deposits are located in Cyrenaica, they are a major bone of contention in the power struggles in Fezzan, where the country’s largest single oil field is located, to the West of the town of El-Sharara, in the Murzuk desert. This site, established in a region which also hosts that of El-Feel, turns out nearly one third of Libya’s total production.
During the second Libyan civil war (2014–2015), the oil issue inflamed interethnic relations in the South, especially between the Tubus and the Tuaregs. The Tuaregs are mostly present in western Fezzan, near the Algerian border. The Tubus dwell in the centre and the East and control the routes crossing the Chado-Libyan border. The two communities also live side by side on a strip of land that runs from the border with Niger to the border with Tripolitania. Oil also acts as a bond between these two ethnicities to defend their common interest against Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s advancing army.
The chaos in Libya is going to give rise to a struggle over the economic revenues—produced by oil or by smuggling— in addition to the competition for political power. In addition to the profits accruing from the oil trade itself, the work of guaranteeing the security of the petroleum infrastructures will provide a substantial income for the groups in charge. In Fezzan, these security measures are handled by the Tubus and the Tuaregs. And this strategic activity is used in the negotiations between the central government and the ethnic minorities. On several occasions, the latter have taken the petroleum installations hostage to back up their social and political demands and gain recognition for their rights, which for many years were ignored by the Gaddafi regime.
When the second Libyan civil war broke out, there were violent clashes between Tubus and Tuaregs 200 kilometres to the West of Sahba. These were the result of the Tubus having taken over the town and the oil resources in its vicinity. Despite the agreement between the two communities signed in November 2015, there were again clashes between them only a few months later. Ubari was laid to waste and there were several hundred casualties on both sides. And yet at the same time, Tuaregs and Tubus stood shoulder to shoulder in demanding that their minority status and their rights be written into the new Constitution. But apart from this parenthesis, they are still at loggerheads over the control of the two main oilfields in the region. They took turns in that capacity until the major offensive launched by Marshall Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) at the beginning of 2019.
The progress made by the LNA in Libyan Fezzan in the vicinity of Murzuk, Sabha and Ubari finally prompted the Tuaregs and Tubus to pool their militias for the defence of the El-Feel sites, controlled at the time by the Tulus, and the El-Sharara sites, in the hands of the Tuaregs. Thus, it was that in May 2016 plans to create a National Army of the South were first tabled. This initiative was the work of Ali Kina Souleymane, a high-ranking Targui officer and was in line with the feeling among the southern ethnicities that they were being neglected by Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA). So, despite the confrontations between them over the past four years, the two ethnicities sought to ally themselves under the command of General Ali Kana. Yet, it wasn’t until 2019, when the LAN launched its offensive against Fezzan that Tuaregs and Tubus actually joined forces to defend their territory and that General Ali Kana was appointed by Tripoli military commander of the region.
A united front against Hafter
Despite their fierce resistance against Haftar’s troops, Tuaregs and Tubus have proven incapable of stopping that army, reinforced by Russia and by foreign mercenaries. Their disputes over the exploitation of their natural resources or the attitude to adopt towards the two rival political entities to the North have prevailed and weakened them. The ferocity of the battles, the power of the enemy and the inadequate backing from Tripoli have obliged them to give ground to the LNA and accept its presence in various strategic positions, including the oilfields.
The divisions between them are due in particular to the fact that the balance of power between the rival authorities ruling the country is in a constant state of flux. Now this continued reshuffling may provide the opportunity which both ethnicities have long hoped for to carve out a niche for themselves in a Libyan society which for years has instrumentalised and marginalised them, and to benefit from a fair share of the oil revenues. Thus, they must at all costs avoid finding themselves on the losing side when the end of the current war is in sight.
However, the present situation suggests that Tubus and Tuaregs will not obtain the recognition for which they have been fighting. Even if the economic chaos afflicting the country on account of the unprecedented crisis brought about by the fall in the price of oil, together with the combined pressure exerted by Turkey (backing the GNA) and Russia (supporting General Haftar) succeed in bringing the rival governments to the negotiating table, the absence of the ethnic minorities from the South will render a lasting outcome to the crisis highly improbable. In order to reach a negotiated solution to a seemingly endless conflict, a Libyan Political Dialogue Forum was held in Tunis from 9 to 15 November which concluded with the announcement that elections would be held on 24 December 2021. Without the participation of theTuaregs or the Tubus.