Mustafa Fetouri

Libya scores 170 out of 180 countries listed in the international Corruption Perceptions Index, a measurement of corruption around the world published by Transparency International, an anti- corruption, non-governmental advocacy group. To be at number 170 on the list of 180 countries surveyed is enough to shame any politician and bureaucrat in Libya. In fact, corruption in Libya is so widespread and normalised practice, to the point that it is standard among government officials, trickling down to the level of ordinary everyday people, who believe no government official is honest, let alone not corrupt.

Former United Nations envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salam, once described the conflict in Libya as being purely about wealth and economically rooted, meaning that the political manifestations of conflict in the country are merely disguising the fact that it is all about money.

He said the entire system is based on “corruption and looting” of the country’s wealth by the political elite, without exception. He once said “I saw with my own eyes the trafficking of fuel to Tunisia. I see a new millionaire in Libya every day.” Mr. Salam, in a TV interview, asked the simple question “Libya has oil and gas like Kuwait, but Libyans are living like Somalis. Why?”

Smuggling is one key corruption enabler in the country. Despite being a top oil producer, Libya lacks enough capacity for petroleum refining to produce enough petroleum products to meet its domestic market needs. This precarious situation forces the government to spend billions of hard currency on importing such products, including gasoline and diesel.

The most recent figures show that the country, in 2022, imported some $5.27 billion worth of petroleum products. Most such products are then sold in the local market at highly subsidised prices, making it easier to smuggle them to neighbouring countries, like Tunisia. Some estimates say that almost as much as 40 per cent of subsidised imported fuel is smuggled to Tunisia and even some European countries, like Italy, where the prices of a litre of gasoline costs almost $2.10 compared to Libya, where it costs about $0.05 cent. In neighbouring Tunisia, where most smuggled fuel goes, the price is $0.21, gasoline being a hugely lucrative business worth billions of dollars every year.

Despite the long years of instability and occasional little wars here and there, the cost of living in Libya is still about 25 per cent cheaper than in Tunisia, which is more stable and never fought a war in the same period. This makes smuggling a life-line to many Tunisians, while enriching a few Libyans.

Over the last decade, the entire Southern Tunisian towns and villages saw flourishing economies, thanks to smuggling from Libya. Many Tunisians living near the borders would just walk into Libya for their weekly shopping because almost everything there is cheaper. This explains why most Tunisians and their government went nuts when Libya closed the main crossing between the two countries at Ras Ajdair.

Last March, the Tripoli government took over the crossing from a local militia, closing the border point until new arrangements are in place. It took nearly three months of inter-governmental communications, exchange of official visits and public appeals to arrange for re-opening of the crossing, expected by the end of this month.

However, public corruption and waste is not new in Libya but has been a fixed feature of its economy since it gained independence decades ago. Under the former leadership of the late Col. Gaddafi, corruption and public waste were limited in scope and there was occasional accountability for officials found to be involved in both.

However, after his fall with the help of NATO and Western supported rebels, the central government became weaker and the country is run by two parallel administrations and, with the dominant role played by armed militias, corruption has became so common across all government levels, from the local municipal councils all the way to the top. It also appears to have become some kind of national sport, enticing the general public to take part in the ransacking of the country at all levels.

Nowadays, the country is so corrupt and there is very little accountability. Most people really do not mind seeing officials and government agents stealing money since they think “there is plenty for everyone” according to economist, Said, from Tripoli, who does not want his family name mentioned. The problem here, he said, is that “corruption has consequences that touch almost every one” and tends to “victimise the less lucky majority of people”.

Economist, Said, points to the Derna disaster of last year, when the small town in north-eastern Libya was washed away by heavy rain with the bursting of two of its protective dams, killing thousands and destroying almost all of its buildings. He said “the primary cause of that disaster is corruption and negligence, which is also another form of corruption.”

Since September 2023 when Derna was destroyed, Libya’s Prosecutor-General has been investigating the disaster but nothing concrete has come of his investigations, so far. Indeed, a few municipal-level officials have been jailed, but many think the really responsible politicians are unlikely to be held accountable.

To economist, Said, this is like “normalising corruption” to the point that people are “indirectly encouraged” to take part in “stealing from their country whenever they have the chance” he concluded. Indeed, the general public in the country appears to be indifferent to the corruption disease despite scathing financial reports published by the country’s Audit Bureau which oversees government spending across Libya. Last year’s report, for example, accused almost all government departments, including the Parliament, of wasteful spending and corruption.

Mr.  Al-Seddik Al-Sour, Libya’s Prosecutor-General, has been busy investigating government corruption across the country but, so far, his work has failed to deter more corruption, particularly at the top of the government which is considered as the most corrupt in Libya’s history. Many Libyans and the UN believe that the current Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, paid for votes to get the top job back in 2021.

One of the detrimental and devastating effects of corruption is the loss of trust between the people and their government and its institutions. When corruption becomes accepted at the top of government departments, “how could little guy in some obscure municipal council be blamed for stealing few thousands” asks a Benghazi-based law professor, speaking anonymously. He added “unless the big fish is stopped, deterring the small one is worthless.”

Without a strong, stable and legitimate government in place that controls the entire territory of Libya, the financial looting of the wealthy nation will continue, despite all judicial efforts to end it.


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