The case of Kufra raises difficult questions for policymakers over what interventions to support in places that have come to thrive on illicit cross-border trade.
The Libyan city of Kufra is an important trade hub for goods crossing its borders with Sudan and Chad. Since 2011, human smuggling has come to play a complex role in Kufra’s economic development and overall stability, providing counter-intuitive findings for international policymakers.
Kufra’s population comprises two main groups: Arabs and Tebus. The Arab community in Kufra numbers around 55,000 people – of which approximately 42,000 are from the Zway community, and 5,000 from non-Zway tribes – while the indigenous Tebu community consists of around 8,000 people.
Longstanding rifts exist both between and within these communities. While Kufra’s communities were united in their support of the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, they have not agreed on what should come next. The Tebu have sought greater representation in local government while the Zway have sought to maintain sole control of the local governance system.
The divisions within the city are literal as well as figurative. Residential areas are split between Tebu and Zway, and Zway residential areas are also divided by familial branches. While the Gaddafi regime had developed several mixed residential areas and sought integration of the communities in the city’s schools, divisions hardened following the revolution.
In 2014, in response to the Tebu community’s request for greater political representation, Libya’s eastern-based interim government approved the establishment of a separate Tebu local governance authority in Kufra and Rebiana oasis. The Zway community’s response to this perceived threat contributed to a significant outbreak of violence in which over 100 people are believed to have been killed and hundreds more were displaced.
The Zway’s military victory gave them control over the local security sector. The city’s security directorate, akin to police, and the dominant armed faction, Subul al-Salam – affiliated to the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of Khalifa Haftar – became armed factions of the Zway community, excluding Kufra’s Tebu minority. The Tebu also failed to achieve their political objectives as their parallel local council was transformed into a committee under the authority of the Zway-run Kufra municipal council in 2017.
The development of cross-border trade
From the 1960s to the 1980s, over 50 major agricultural projects were completed in Kufra, firmly establishing agriculture as a critical element of the local economy. However, the impact of war with nearby Chad (1978-87) saw Kufra become a militarized area. In addition, international sanctions applied following the Lockerbie disaster meant Kufra’s agricultural projects could not secure the necessary replacement parts and many fell into disrepair.
People instead turned to cross-border smuggling as a quick source of income. Historically, Kufra had been a vital waypoint for trade caravans from African Wadai and Kanem-Bornu kingdoms to Egypt. Electronics smuggling and cattle imports during the Gaddafi era meant Kufra residents enjoyed relative economic well-being.
These semi-licit activities were encouraged by the customs authority, whose employees came from big cities such as Tripoli and Misrata to compete for work at the lucrative Oweynat desert border crossing.
Human smuggling and trafficking: from conflict to cooperation
From 2012 to 2015, Kufra’s Zway and Tebu communities fiercely competed for control of border crossings and desert routes. In 2012, in an effort to gain exclusive control of the local cross-border economy, the Zway constructed large sand trenches around Kufra to curb Tebu-run cross-border trade, making it impossible to enter and exit Kufra without crossing through fixed checkpoints.
This effective siege of Tebu trade fuelled armed conflict between Tebu and Zway forces and inhibited the development of Kufra’s human trafficking and smuggling sector. However, following the consolidation of Zway control over Kufra in 2015, economic cooperation with the Tebu continued out of necessity.
While the Zway-dominated Subul al-Salam could monopolize the desert routes from Kufra to the Sudanese border, the route to northeast Libya remained difficult to use as a result of the security situation in the northwest. This meant that the Zway would cut deals with the Tebu to secure the movement of irregular migrants east through the Tebu-dominated Rebiana oasis and onward via the Fezzan region. By early 2017, the human smuggling and trafficking networks were operating freely via these routes.
Despite ongoing tensions, the mutually beneficial involvement in human smuggling and trafficking actually appears to have served as a source of stability among rival factions in Kufra.
Municipal funding underwritten by the smuggling sector
The income generated from the smuggling sector has led to reported improvements in the quality of life of Kufra’s residents. This is in part due to the 2017 establishment of the Kufra Construction Fund (KCF), set up by the Zway-controlled municipal council to provide a framework for Subul al-Salam’s expansive engagement in the economy.
Negotiated by local Zway elites, the KCF is effectively a deal to split the revenues from the taxation of cross-border trade between Subul al-Salam and the local municipal council. In the face of limited and intermittent support from national government, this is an example of a very different form of decentralization to that envisaged by Western donors.
The KCF provides no effective legal cover in Libyan law. Municipal councils do not have powers to impose movement taxes and, in any case, the flows largely consist of illicit goods. Rather, this is a local solution to mitigate the lack of resources provided by central government.
Stability steeped in violence
The business of human smuggling and trafficking inflict serious harm on the migrants that cross the Kufra region; its detention centre is infamous and human rights abuses are widespread. But for the local population, the sector is also raising living standards and establishing a largely functional – albeit entirely illegal – system of municipal development.
Although the dispute between the Zway and Tebu communities over ancestral ownership of the region remains unresolved, business ties in the human smuggling sector appear to offer the clearest functioning linkages between them.
These developments show that stability – or simply the absence of fighting – does not necessarily mean the absence of conflict. In fact, the sort of stability seen in Kufra is steeped in violence, both structural with respect to the exclusion of the Tebu minority and direct with respect to the violence inflicted on non-Libyan migrants.
Stability of a less violent nature would require a set of economic alternatives to engagement in illicit trade and a social reconciliation that seem more distant now than at any point since 2011. The experience of Kufra also raises difficult questions for policymakers over what sorts of interventions to support in places that have come to thrive on cross-border illicit trade.
Tim Eaton is a senior research fellow with Chatham House’s MENA Programme. His research focuses on the political economy of the Libyan conflict. In 2018, he authored a report on the development of Libya’s war economy which illustrates how economic activities have become increasingly connected to violence.