Tubu, Other Armed Groups, and Smugglers along Libya’s Southern Border
By Jérôme Tubiana & Claudio Gramizzi
Since Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, southern Libya has become synonymous with lawlessness. This frontier zone’s cross-border ethnic militias and their allies in northern Libya vie for control of strategic and economic assets, including trade routes.
The border itself fails to block trafficking in contraband and people, and external actors regularly interfere in security and migration issues, too often to the detriment of local communities and migrants.
Autonomous, yet fragmented ethnic militias are in control of southern Libya’s border, which has prompted northern Libyan forces as well as the governments of neighbouring and European states to pursue alliances with them. For the fragmented Tubu (or Teda) community—whose largest militia comprises about 400 fighters and 100 vehicles—expediency has generally guided allegiances: they seek both national and international recognition as a way to secure legitimacy and funding.
Accordingly, they also cast themselves as an effective shield against what they present as the growth of Islamist networks in southern Libya. At the same time, they often argue that only a unified Libyan state can shield Tubu youths from spreading jihadism.
Chad and Sudan are intent on preventing their own rebels from mounting insurgencies in neighbouring Libya. To that end, Chad has concentrated on forging good relations with cross-border Tubu militias.
Khartoum has deployed the notorious Rapid Support Forces—paramilitaries associated with people trafficking—to the border to crack down on Darfur rebels and to track the return of hundreds of IS fighters from Sirte to Sudan.
For the region’s rebels and migrant youths, who face bleak prospects at home, Libya remains an attractive marketplace, largely because its competing militias offer mercenaries decent pay and loot. Despite Chad’s efforts to prevent Libyan forces from recruiting and supporting its rebels, a few thousand Chadian fighters have aligned themselves with N’Djaména’s adversaries, including Misrata’s Third Force, while some joined opposing forces simultaneously.
In 2016–17 an estimated 1,500 Darfur rebels fought alongside Gen. Khalifa Haftar, allegedly with Egyptian support, to the dismay of Khartoum.
Beginning in 2012, the gold rush became another draw to the border region. Insecurity on the gold-mining routes as well as violent conflicts between miners and local communities drove up the local demand for weapons.
A lack of governance structures and fatal clashes between armed prospectors, Tubu militias, rogue soldiers, and former rebels-turned-road-bandits have since left many of Chad’s and Niger’s gold mines in a state of limbo—‘closed’, except to soldiers and gold miners who work for them.
In August 2018, after Chadian rebels attacked the Chadian army in gold-mining areas in northern Chad, tensions increased as N’Djaména proceeded to evacuate the mines and to orchestrate air strikes on Tubu civilian areas.
This violent response aggravated Tubu anger against the Chadian regime, increasing the risk that Tubu youths will join or support armed opposition groups.
Indeed, in October–November 2018, as Chadian air and ground forces attacked the Miski area, armed local civilians increasingly shifted from self-defence to rebellion.
On trade routes where state presence is weak, such as the corridors between northern Niger and southern Libya, or between Libya and the Lake Chad region, various government forces and non-state militias extort money from smugglers and traffickers who deal in migrants, cars, arms, and drugs. Convoys also risk attacks by road bandits, who then demand payment for their safe passage.
Since the dissolution of the Libyan state, a growing number of West African and other migrants travelling along these routes have been held for ransom, sold, or forced into debt bondage, slavery, or prostitution. Those who continue the journey also face the risk of being detained or expelled by local militias that seek recognition and financing from European authorities intent on stemming migration flows.
Libya, Niger, and Sudan all receive—directly or indirectly—European Union funds to curb migration and build what might be called a Saharan wall. On the whole, European migration policies in the area have had a host of detrimental effects. They have caused migrant smugglers to engage in more perilous activities, exposed migrants to greater danger, fuelled corruption and tensions, exacerbated economic insecurity, and heightened the risk of insurrection.
In mid-2016, under pressure from the EU, Niamey began to enforce a new law criminalizing migrant smuggling. No efforts have been made to provide economic alternatives, even though the activity was the principal livelihood in northern Niger, one on which local communities, public officials, and military authorities—and the fragile social balance between them—depended.
Since then, migrant smugglers—mostly Libyan and Nigerien Tubu and Tuareg who are loath to give up their only source of income—have taken migrants on new routes to Libya that are far more treacherous and whose associated ‘taxes’ are twice as extortionate.
In the absence of decent income-generating alternatives, smugglers are at risk of turning to banditry, drug trafficking, rebellion, or jihadism.
To date, Western countries have not aligned their policies on migration or security in Libya’s borderlands. While Italy and Germany clearly prioritize the migration issue, France and the United States appear more interested in fighting terrorism. Whatever their positions, external powers are more likely to secure Saharan communities’ support against terrorism if they simultaneously foster adequate economic options for people who lack or are to be deprived of their livelihoods.
Although Libyan Tubu forces played a key role during the 2011 revolution, they have since splintered internally and grown distrustful of former allies in the north, as evidenced by limited and shifting allegiances. Nevertheless, disparate northern powers have continuously sought to secure Tubu support.
Chad, Niger, and Sudan have all tried to secure their borders with Libya by building ties to southern Libyan militias. Chad and Sudan, in particular, are uneasy about the presence of their respective armed oppositions in southern Libya.
Some Chadian and Sudanese rebels have joined Libyan militias to secure their support, be it on an ideological or more opportunistic basis, while others have become gold prospectors, road bandits, or drug traffickers.
In late 2018, as Chadian government forces attacked the Miski gold mining area in Tibesti, local armed Tubu civilians increasingly mutated from self-defence into rebellion.
By pressuring Niger to criminalize migrant smuggling and block migrants in or on their way to southern Libya, European states have contributed to a series of destabilizing dynamics. Specifically, their policies have:
aggravated risks for migrants, as trafficking is now concentrated among fewer, more abusive actors, especially in Libya, where migrants from West Africa and elsewhere are systematically kidnapped for ransom, or forced into debt bondage, labour, or prostitution;
caused migrant smugglers to ply more treacherous routes or engage in more dangerous activities, such as drug trafficking, jihadism, and insurgency;
fuelled corruption among Nigerien forces and exacerbated tensions between Niger’s government and its northern communities, which are largely dependent on migrant smuggling for their livelihoods; and
empowered Libyan and Sudanese militias. Western powers will not be able to secure Saharan communities’ support against terrorism if their anti-migration policies simultaneously deprive them of their livelihoods and fail to offer them alternatives.
These communities have an interest in helping the West to combat terrorism, but they view anti-migration policies as hostile and lack the incentive to undermine migrant smuggling.
Analysis of seized illicit weapons confirms that large-scale transnational flows of military-type equipment from Libya began to decrease in 2014, with only few significant seizures since 2015.
Trafficking networks remain active in the region, as illicit firearms that were diverted from Libya and, to a lesser extent, from other government stockpiles continue to circulate in the northern areas of Chad and Niger, where demand has grown in response to the local gold rush.
Jérôme Tubiana holds a PhD in African studies and has extensive experience as an independent researcher specializing in Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan over the past 20 years.
Claudio Gramizzi is the head of Operations for West Africa with Conflict Armament Research, for which he has undertaken research since 2014. Between 2007 and 2011, he served as arms consultant and arms expert on UN Security Council groups of experts on Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.