Listen to this article
The militia commander with the dazzling smile leads us through the desert towards the oilfields, his Toyota pick-up truck throwing up a cloud of exhaust and dust. Looming on the horizon are the steeply sloping mountain ridges surrounding the Owbari Valley. Overhead the midday sun is glaring down on the dunes, a sea of golden desert in what was once the ancient Roman province of Fezzan.
The remote oil outpost we are aiming for, called the El Sharara fields, is part of the Murzuq basin and one of the most important in Libya, drawing out 350,000 or so barrels of oil daily from the parched earth. That’s on a good day. On a bad one, when war or political chaos shuts down the spigot, it can produce nothing. These have been particularly bad days. Ethnic Tuareg tribesmen recently staged a sit-in at the facility, forcing it to stop pumping completely for more than two months. It reopened again earlier this month.
Ibrahim Musa’s ever-present smile had turned into a frown and he had squirmed uncomfortably when he heard our plans to go to the facility on our own. For now, as acting commander of one of the militias in charge of securing the oilfields, he is responsible for us. There were bandits and smugglers and Islamic militants, he had explained, insisting that he and a couple of jeep-loads of armed men join us for the 50km journey from the main local town of Owbari to the oil wells.
“It’s a diverse group of people here and that’s the problem,” says Musa. The laid-back 36-year-old is a former social studies teacher who used to work for an organisation protecting antiquities. He is now a sort of benign deputy warlord. “There are weapons in everyone’s hand, remnants of al-Qaeda from the Mali war. Drugs come from Mali, Algeria and Niger.”
At about the 25km point, the paved road comes to an end and the open desert beckons. Truckers, smugglers and ordinary travellers in Libya’s south often find it easier on their cars, lorries and lower backs to leave the rutted roads and drive across the sand, which has been smoothed by wind and time.
Save for the occasional blanched camel skeleton, the desert trek is uneventful. The complications begin immediately on arrival at the facility. Musa’s Tebu comrades are vying for its control with a militia from Zintan, the small western mountain city that turned against Muammer Gaddafi at the outset of the 2011 uprising and which carries extraordinary weight in national affairs. There is considerable jostling about which facility we can access and by whose authority.
The Zintani militia, which is the principal group guarding the facility, insist on feeding us lunch and try to put on their best faces for the guests. But like a dysfunctional family trying to keep up appearances, the different groups prove unable to contain themselves.
The man in charge in one area of the oilfields refuses to allow us to pass because he doesn’t trust the militiamen accompanying us. The protesters at the tent encampment will not allow us to speak to or photograph anyone and begin arguing among themselves over who exactly is their authorised spokesman. The divisions cause chaos, explains the manager.
“Most of our problems are young people coming here with guns,” says Hassan Said, co-manager of the El Sharara field, jointly operated by Libya and the Spanish oil company, Repsol. He is an English speaker from one of the Fezzan peoples – darker-skinned Arabs who occupied positions of relative privilege under Gaddafi. “If they belong to one militia or another tribe they don’t get along. Sometimes they are shooting, mostly in the air. The problem is we have a dangerous oil facility with explosive gases.”
The oil facility serves as a fable for Fezzan, as well as for the rest of Libya. The goose which lays the golden eggs has been trampled nearly to death by the squabbling armed men protecting it. A land rich in culture, natural beauty and economic resources, Fezzan today is a powder keg, an impoverished and treacherous region riven by ethnic and tribal animosities ancient and new, with the added risks posed by arms smuggling and the presence of a uranium stockpile.
Stirred up for decades by Gaddafi’s manipulations, exacerbated by the bigotry and racism of the country’s post-revolutionary elite, Fezzan’s tensions reached crisis point in March 2012. During the events surrounding what is called “Black Saturday”, an all-out tribal and ethnic war between Arabs and Tebu and Tuaregs left scores dead in the slums of the regional capital, Sabha, and stirred up separatist sentiment across southern Libya.
“If we don’t get our rights and they keep mistreating us, from this checkpoint on, all the way down to the border, we will declare it’s not part of Libya,” says Mohammed Wardugu, a 25-year-old Tebu militia commander who oversees a key checkpoint south of Sabha. He gestures towards the flatlands. “This is our territory here.”
The ancient land Fezzan was one of three ancient Roman provinces, along with Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, that make up contemporary Libya. Among the foreign rulers who have controlled the country, only the Ottoman sultans seriously bothered to try to bring Fezzan under control, establishing a series of ominous fortresses along the edge of the Sahara. Others tended to claim this part of Libya only to leave it to the elements.
Even compared to the leisurely paced cities of Libya’s coast, life moves slowly in the Sahara. It takes Mohammad Ahmed two months to drive his camel train from the heart of his native Niger up through the Sahara to the markets near Sabha, spending his nights beneath a sheet of stars. “We don’t have much of a life,” he says, seated barefoot upon cushions arranged on his camel’s hump. His worn, sun-chiselled face makes him look more like a man in his fifties than twenties, and save for his mobile phone and black hoodie he could be from a previous millennium.
Like Ahmed, up until a few decades ago the various peoples of the Sahara lived nomadic lives by necessity, ignoring arbitrary national borders imposed mostly by European colonial masters. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he imposed an Arab nationalist identity on Libya that helped empower the country’s majority against the European overseers and their surrogates. But he excluded Libya’s minority Amazigh (Berber) and the darker-skinned Tuareg and Tebu, with their separate languages, elaborate clothes and customs that include more relaxed attitudes to women’s honour, dress and sexuality. He denied many of the nomadic peoples their citizenship rights, infinitely delaying their applications for passports even if they had birth certificates proving that they were born in the country on the premise that their origins were in Chad or Niger. The Arab-dominated post-revolutionary government continues this practice, a source of great trauma for the minorities. Indeed, the one time that the charming Musa’s cool demeanour cracks is when he discusses his protracted attempts to get Libyan citizenship.
The bigotry runs deep. One Arab tribal leader spends 15 minutes regaling us with racist jokes about black men, including Barack Obama. Another of them, Hassan Raqiq, spokesman for Sabha Inter-Tribal Council of Elders, claims Gaddafi brought 750,000 black people from Niger, Chad and Mali into the country during the civil war, only about 150,000 of whom returned home – an absurd claim in a country of just six million. Hundreds of thousands of these black people, he tells us, are positioned along the Chadian border or hiding out in the slums of Owbari.
“We definitely experience discrimination and not just from the state,” says Amina Ebrahim, an eloquent 29-year-old ethnic Tuareg woman who has been denied Libyan citizenship though she was born in the country’s mountain city of Nalout. Her inability to register as a national makes it impossible for her to finish her university degree though she has studied for years. She now helps run Tameet Assout, a Tuareg charity in Sabha which helps poor women make traditional handicrafts.
Unlike Arabs, Tuaregs are matrilineal. Though Muslim, the women dress in bright and flowery clothing in contrast to the dark colours favoured by Arabs. Ebrahim – talking to me in the courtyard of the Tameet Assout building – wears a flimsy yellow hijab.
“When you come to a meeting dressed the way we are, they question whether you are Libyan,” she says. “They say, ‘You are Mauritanian! You are Nigeri!’ Of course, it is hurtful.”
With little recourse, the young of the region turn to smuggling across Libya’s porous borders. In the most benign form of the trade, they transport subsidised Libyan food and fuel to sell at a mark-up in Chad and Niger and return with cattle or camels. Far more commonly, however, they come back with sub-Saharan Africans escaping war and seeking a better life. Local officials confide that 70 per cent of Fezzan’s economy is smuggling. Transporting migrants within Libya is fairly safe, but cross-border smuggling of people attracts a higher margin.
“First they trade with food because it is very cheap and sell it in Niger and Chad,” says Abouzom Allafi, an economics professor at Sabha University. “They bring migrants of two types, those who want to live here and those who want to live in Europe. They also smuggle drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, to consume here or to distribute in Algeria and Egypt.” The business has grown over the decades. “We have relations across the border,” says Mohammad Aji Halal, a 37-year-old geologist and community leader in the city of Murzuq. “The trade routes have been established for 100 years.”
So deeply ingrained is the smuggling business that it has bred its own subculture. The smugglers scoff at Hyundais – their vehicle of choice is the Toyota Hilux, preferably with four-wheel drive and a double cabin, which they insist handles the desert better than any other vehicle. However, the illicit trade is “not just about money”, according to Lamin Taher, a local official in the village of Hamira, a desolate backwater of cinder block huts just south of Sabha, which is a linchpin of the trafficking business. “Say you’re taking 20 people in your truck and four don’t have money. We’ll take them. It’s a religious duty to help someone in trouble.”
After the revolution
Gaddafi’s manipulations didn’t just stoke racism and justify neglect. He also won the loyalty of some in the south by holding out the promise of citizenship to those with nomadic roots in the Sahara. In exchange they would have to serve as his praetorian guard, fighting his wars in Chad and joining his regular armed forces against the rebellion when the Nato-backed uprising against him began. Amina Ebrahim says her father, for example, was killed fighting for Gaddafi in 2011.
Once the rebels took control of Libya, the long-brewing racism towards the darker-skinned Libyans of the south took on an institutional character. They were broadly derided as African mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi even though some did the opposite. The famously warrior-like Tebu, for example, proudly boast that they took the arms Gaddafi gave them to fight the rebels and promptly turned them on the regime, wresting control of what they consider their homeland before rebels took Tripoli – and without the help of Nato firepower.
“We were liberated August 17 2011, days before Tripoli fell,” says Ali Sid Abou Bakr, a 27-year-old Tebu activist in the city of Murzuq just south of Sabha, during a meeting in a café. He pulls out a hefty book called Memory of Fire, a history of the 2011 uprising by a scholar from the eastern city of Derna. “There’s not one word about the Tebu or Murzuq, even though the Tebu revolutionaries were the first to turn their weapons against the regime in the south.”
The uprising also added a dangerous new element to the mix of contraband swirling back and forth across the Sahara: guns, and lots of them. Gaddafi’s vast weapons storehouses – expansive bunkers spread out across the desert – were thrown open and looted. A traditionally lawless area became even more unruly as state security forces melted away. Skinny teens in flip-flops and Ray-Ban Aviators began slinging guns over their shoulders and plopping checkpoints down along desert roads. As in the rest of Libya, holding an AK-47 and calling oneself a “revolutionary” has become a ticket to respect for aimless, angry young men.
One western diplomat in the capital, Tripoli, sums up the growing international concerns about Libya’s south. “The absolute issue for the south is that the economy is almost entirely dependent on the trafficking of humans, arms, drugs and tobacco,” he says. “It’s not clear that there’s any economic plan to allow people to move out of these businesses. You’ve got 10, one hundred times the weapons that were in Iraq. Much of the area is controlled by armed groups and there are open borders. The quantity of weapons and the scale of the problem is so large you need an international effort.”
For now it’s left to tribal leaders and a new class of warlords. Among the most benign are figures such as Musa, the Tebu commander in Owbari. The former schoolteacher boasts rare administrative skills and maintains a spreadsheet detailing how many men are under his unit’s command down to a single digit.
At the other end are men like the Arab militia commander who last year boasted about his control over yellowcake uranium and shoulder-held anti-aircraft rocket launchers. Described by some as a former criminal in and out of Gaddafi’s jails, many associate him and his Arab tribesmen with the worst violence in the south in decades: an incident in March 2012 that left more people dead in the south than the 2011 rebellion, including scores of Arabs.
It started out as a deadly armed robbery. A member of an Arab tribe was killed when his pick-up truck was carjacked in Sabha in late March 2012. Many Arabs blamed the Tebu, though without evidence, and a meeting of militia leaders was convened the next day. Tempers flared and a Tebu man was killed at the meeting. Fighting erupted shortly thereafter: Arabs began using the weapons that they had seized during the uprising against the inhabitants of the Tayuri neighbourhood, a hilly slum near the airport.
For days, Libyan media in Tripoli and Benghazi took the Arab line, that the south was under attack by Gaddafi loyalists and mercenaries from Chad and Niger. Militias from Misurata, Zintan and Benghazi began dispatching fighters to come to the aid of their brethren (though most declined to participate when they got an inkling of what had really happened).
On the morning of March 31, Tebu from Sabha and outlying areas marched on the Arab militias and fought back, retaking positions used to attack Tayuri. Well-armed and determined, they sent the Arabs into retreat and brought an end to the fighting. “We crept up behind them and took back our people’s rights,” says Yahya Adam Mousa, a 30-year-old Tebu fighter.
A council of tribal elders was convened. Predictably, competition over lucrative trade routes had fuelled much of the ethnic rivalry. There was one consolation, however: in a move to cool tempers, Tebus such as Musa finally got an audience with the government and their citizenships approved.
In the end, 54 Tebu – mostly civilians, women and children – were killed and perhaps twice as many Arabs – almost all fighters. The killings only reinforced the Tebu’s martial tendencies and determination to keep their guns. “Even the people who we elected are not accountable to us,” says Yousef Chaha, head of a community group, seething with anger. “Even the media when they come down here don’t show the conditions we are living in. This is why we want federalism or even separation from Libya.”
Hardworking people strive to make a difference in Fezzan. Aisha Jouma Yousef, a 26-year-old Tebu schoolteacher in Hamira, has devoted her life to a primary school, near Murzuq, that now consists of half-a-dozen trailers arranged in a rectangle on the desert sand. “They’re well behaved and want to learn,” she says of her students, her stern expression masking an obvious passion. “We have textbooks but no equipment or tools. I would like to build this school up to a level where it has very high standards.”
But for now at least, the future of Fezzan belongs not to upstanding community pillars but to Musa, the charismatic militia leader who is our guide in Owbari. Explaining that the same armed Islamic extremists who flowed out of the country to join the 2012 Mali uprising flowed back in afterwards in the face of the French-led counter-offensive, he convinces us to let him and his men provide protection on a visit into the town’s slum quarter. However, he agrees to leave his truck-mounted large-calibre guns back at his headquarters.
Perhaps 3,000 families are crowded into the vast slum, a densely packed network of mud-brick houses, criss-crossing electrical wires and open sewers. The men swarm around Musa, treating him like a celebrity. Though mostly on opposite sides during the revolution, centuries-old bonds between Libya’s Tebu and Tuareg peoples remain strong. He encourages them to speak their minds even as his armed men nervously patrol.
Though it lies atop one of the biggest oil reserves in north Africa, there are no schools here, the locals complain. There is not a single health clinic. People die of scorpion stings. Few if any of the men, women and children living here hold citizenship, their applications held up just as they were under Gaddafi. Many concede that they fought alongside the former leader’s forces but insist that they had no choice. All say that they have made sacrifices for Libya. “My father fought for Libya in Chad and in Lebanon,” says Hassan Muhammad, a 37-year-old Tuareg. “The way we’re treated by the old regime is the way we’re treated by the new regime,” says Harou Muflah, a 32-year-old former soldier as the last traces of daylight flicker out and a purple night sky envelops the neighbourhood.
“We are ready to die for our rights and for our country,” says Mohamed Lamin, a 21-year-old student. His elders try to persuade him to calm down and retract his threat. He refuses. “I’m ready to fight,” he cries out in English, so there is no mistaking it. “I’m ready to do anything because I have been wronged.”
Borzou Daragahi is the FT’s Middle East and north Africa correspondent.
To comment on this article, please email email@example.com
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published