Libya is at war with itself, but how did we get to this point?

By Mucahid Durmaz

Not too long ago, the picture was completely different. In 2008, Libya was hosting an African Union (AU) summit, and its dictator, sporting a robe and wraparound sunglasses, was on stage to be declared “King of Kings” of Africa by more than 200 African chiefs. 

The bizarre show in which Gaddafi called for borderless African unity with a common army and currency, was a representation of his nostalgic Pan-African anti-imperialist credentials that made many African heads of state grimace. 

Gaddafi’s impassioned pan-Africanism was paradoxical. 

He preached African solidarity, supported the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa and became a close friend of Nelson Mandela. But at the same time, he showered oil money on rebel groups and oppressive regimes from Sudan and Mali all the way to Liberia and played an enormous role in the destruction of the social fabric in the entire Sahel region. 

Behind Gaddafi’s Pan-Africanism, the personal ambitions of the former leader and Libya’s foreign policy interests were lying in the background,” Umberto Profazio, a Maghreb Analyst from the NATO Defence College Foundation told TRT World.

“[Gaddafi’s Pan-Africanism] is a myth. When he talked about the unified currency for Africa, no actual work was done,” Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at Clingendael Institute tells TRT World

His Sahel policy,” referring to the Sahel region of West Africa, Harchaoui continued, “was extremely painful,” for neighbouring countries. 

Gaddafi’s adventurism

In Sudan, Gaddafi’s Libya provided logistic and financial support to the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and other rebel movements in the Darfur region which fought against the Omar al Bashir regime. 

For years Gaddafi harboured Sudanese militants like JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim in Libya and the Sudanese government repeatedly claimed that Libyan trucks, equipment, arms, ammunition and money were used against the Sudanese army. 

The years of fighting in Darfur between rebels, military forces and government-supported Janjaweed militias resulted in the deaths of thousands and displacement of millions of Sudanese. 

Chad was the first neighbouring country that Gaddafi’s adventurist militarism was tested on. His decision to annex northern Chad was followed by constant military confrontations between the neighbours in the 1980s and Chad was able to secure itself only with the help from its former coloniser, France. 

The relations between the two countries improved only when Tripoli and N’Djamena reached an agreement where Deby allowed Gaddafi to increase his influence in exchange for the political and economic support of his regime. 

Ironically, the same Gaddafi who destabilised northern Chad and fuelled ethnic tensions became a mediator between the various armed groups which he helped form, and backed.

The north-south conflict in Chad still stands as a product of Gaddafi’s intervention. But more importantly, the foundations of the Sahel crisis lie in Gaddafi’s expansionist policies. 

Local tribes along the Sahara, notably nomadic Tuaregs who are spread across countries, have been neglected by Southern-dominated elites in Mali, Niger and Chad.

Due to the decades of exclusion from both the military and the corridors of power, they launched uprisings against weak Sahel capitals but they never succeeded in founding their own country. 

Starting in the 1970s, by offering huge salaries, homes and cars with oil money, Gaddafi recruited impoverished Tuaregs as mercenaries under his command. From Lebanon to Niger and Mali, they fought for Gaddafi for decades and became a vital asset for Libya’s projection of power in the region. 

When Gaddafi presented himself as a meditator to solve conflicts between the Sahel countries and the militant groups he either formed and backed at the beginning, he provided them salaries and settled them in Libya. 

“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region,” Abdul Aziz Kebe, a specialist in Arab-African relations at the University of Dakar, in Senegal said.  

The ousting of Gaddafi, essentially removes a man responsible for nurturing and funding various rebel movements and militias across the region. He filled the power vacuum where a massive lack of state presence and infrastructure compounded the grievances of local tribes. 

Now, Libya is in ruins, and so is the entire Sahel 

The fall of Gaddafi unchained forces that were long dormant in the region and were suddenly reactivated,” Profazio said.

As Libya’s civil war has pumped a massive amount of weapons and men into the region, the volatile mix of militias, cross-border criminals, smugglers and militants linked with Al Qaeda and Daesh are only expanding. 

Hence, when the fight began between opposition forces and the Gaddafi regime in 2011, they sided with Gaddafi. Defeated and their dreams of independence crushed, the Tuaregs returned to Mali angry and disappointed.

Mali was soon gripped by violence in 2012 when the returning Tuareg rebels and loosely-aligned various militant groups seized the northern part of the country.

A year later, a military operation by former coloniser France successfully pushed back Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

But the instability did not end, in fact, it got worse. Militants, linked to Daesh, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram have since regrouped and expanded their range of influence despite the thousands of regional and foreign troops countering the insurgency. 

The Tuareg rebellion and the French intervention further complicated the issue of the fragmentation of the state authority and the security sector in a volatile area, where the presence of international terrorist organisations has grown exponentially, as seen by the most recent events,” Profazio added. 

The violence from northern Mali spilt over into the entire region, making its way to Burkina Faso — where terror attacks take the lives of civilians on a regular basis — all the way to Benin.  

The arms trafficking from Gaddafi’s arsenal was the first legacy of the Libyan war for the Sahelian states, Profazio said. “But other illicit activities such as drug and human trafficking followed after, eroding the state authority and empowering criminal and terrorist organisations.”

In Niger, around 160,000 returned to their homes from Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. With few economic opportunities and little state presence, most of them turned to human smuggling and arms-trafficking. 

The ancient Nigerien city Agadez, once a tourism spot became a significant part of a migrant route that stretches all the way from Nigeria’s shores to Libya’s coasts for thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe. 

As the waves of migrants began reaching Greece, Italy and Spain, and Europe positioned itself as a “victim” of a refugee “crisis” and woke up to the reality that lawless Libya had become the main hub for African refugees. 

While black African refugees stroked far-right racism in domestic politics, the Libyan crisis has been mainly perceived through a Mediterranean or European lens, rather than through an African lens.  

The US followed closely by France and Qatar,” referring to those who led the NATO intervention in Libya that ousted Gaddafi, Harchaoui said: “They didn’t look at the Libya crisis from an African perspective…they did not pay attention to the Africa dimension of the crisis.”


Mucahid Durmaz is a Digital Producer at TRT WORLD.


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