By Patrick Wintour
Mustafa Sanalla says specialist unit needed to end repeated seizures of oil assets by militias.
The head of Libya’s national oil company has said he wants to set up a national force armed with surveillance to protect the country’s petroleum assets after repeated seizures of oil installations by militias.
Mustafa Sanalla, the chairman of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), said the force would require an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars and be under the control of the UN-recognised government. But the force could include members of the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the dominant figure in Libya’s east, he added.
Sanalla was speaking to the Guardian as a militia continued to occupy the country’s biggest oilfield, El Sharara, in the impoverished south. The army has attempted to capture the site.
“They [the militia] are criminals, demanding ransom from the government, and there will be no compromise with people that kidnap our staff,” said Sanalla.
He said his plan for a national, non-tribal, oil installation protection force should start with a pilot project in El Sharara once it was secured. The force, would exclude anyone involved in previous attacks on oil installations, he continued. “It would rely on radars, cameras drones and fast satellite communications.” Sand barriers and tunnels would also be set up to protect the oil sites.
Sanalla expressed his doubts about Haftar’s intervention in the south. The crisis in El Sharara, he said, had been complicated “by the launch of an international counter-terrorism mission, which has expanded into an attempt to seize control of territory, including potentially, national oil infrastructure”.
He added: “It is my concern that a sequence of events has been set in motion with unknowable consequences for Libya and the National Oil Corporation. The south does not need a military solution to what is effectively a humanitarian problem.”
Libya’s fractured and often corrupt politics often undermine Sanalla’s goal of defending the NOC’s independence and increasing Libyan oil production.
Production reached 1.1m barrels per day in 2018. Sanalla said 2m a day could be reached by 2021-2 but that he had yet to reach approval for an NOC budget from the central bank, a delay that frustrates him.
He called for a new generation of younger Libyan politicians to advance fresh ideas, urged foreign powers to abandon “rushed unsustainable” solutions, and accused France and Italy of sparring over Libya’s future for internal European political reasons rather than the good of the country.
Sanalla said as a Libyan, rather than head of the NOC, he hoped a national reconciliation conference being organised by the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, would not just focus on elections, but an integrated plans to help the economy.
Without economic reform, the result would be “a democracy that will only last one round of elections”, Sanalla said.
El Sharara has been closed since December when it was seized by the members of the Maghawir Brigade, a Gaddafi-era armed unit. Sanalla set the closure of the oilfield in the context of the deprivation of Libya’s south.
“The east of the country has long claimed that the west does not fairly distribute oil wealth,” he said. “Yet the real gulf in living standards and development indicators is not between east and west, but between north and south.
“In the north, petrol is available at the state subsidised price of 0.15 dinars a litre. By the time a series of smugglers have added their surcharge it can cost as much as 1.5 dinars in the south. The price of basic goods is the highest in Libya; there is a serious lack of economic opportunity; human development indicators are the worst in the country.”
If the government in Tripoli “is not able to enforce subsidies for fuel and other essential commodities”, he said, “then it is time for us to roll back subsidies completely – giving that money directly to citizens instead, not to smugglers who are a plague on the social fabric of the country”.
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, The Guardian