Libya: The Rule Of Corruption, Envy And Hunger

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April 15, 2022: The war in Ukraine having a major impact on Libya. The most immediate impact was the price of flour in Libya rising 31 percent the day after the Russian invasion began on February 24 th . Russia and Ukraine account for 30 percent of world wheat exports and Libya gets all of its annual 1.35 million tons of wheat and barley imports from Russia and Ukraine. Other sources, mainly in the Americas and Australia, are available but they are much farther away, meaning higher shipping costs in addition to the shortage-related price increases. Before the civil war Libya produced most of the grains it needed but economic and transportation disruptions have halted most of that.

Russia thought they would retain the support of general Haftar, the leader of the HoR (House of Representatives) government armed forces. That did not happen as in early March a new HoR prime minister denounced the invasion of Ukraine. While Haftar did not make a statement, he works closely with HoR leaders and supports peace and unity in Libya and was never a supporter of all Russian policies.

Russia has a long history with Libya and has been providing military and economic assistance to Libya for decades, mainly because of its long relationship with Libyan dictator Kaddafi. That ended when Kaddafi was killed during the 2011 uprising. There was no unified government to replace the dictatorship then and there still isn’t. Russia tried to maintain its embassy in Tripoli but finally closed it in October 2013. Russia kept tabs on Libyan developments via its embassies in other Arab nations, particularly Egypt. Russia sided with the HoR faction and its military commander Haftar, providing military support and some ground forces, mainly Wagner Group Russian military contractors and a somewhat larger force of Syrian Arab mercenaries. That military support seemed decisive until Turkey made an illegal deal with the Tripoli government in 2019 and brought in a more powerful military force than Russian had in Libya. This created a stalemate that is now even less favorable for Russia because the enormous economic sanctions Russia was hit with for invading Ukraine means Russia can no longer provide as much military support to the HoR as it has in the past, plus its forces there are now needed in Russia,

The GNU (Government of National Unity) officially refused to recognize the HoR government approval of Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister. The HoR government represents more Libyans than the Tripoli-based GNA (Government of National Accord). The GNA and HoR are in the process of using the GNU to merge but that process, and the long-sought national elections, are currently blocked by a dispute within the GNU between the newly election of former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister and the original GNU prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose term of office ended in December. This dispute has been going on since January and the UN has not taken sides so far.

Dbeibah turned out to be corrupt and willing to accept the Turkish presence in Libya. Dbeibah and members of his cabinet refuse to cede power to Bashagha, who is backed by the eastern HoR faction and its military forces (the LNA), which still control most of Libya. Bashagha believes he can organize national elections in 14 months, unless the UN backs Dbeibah or does nothing to block interference from Dbeibah. Bashagha backed Turkish intervention in 2019 and 2020, but turned against the Turks when the Turks indicated they were not leaving Libya.

The December 24 elections did not happen and there are disagreements in Libya and the UN over a new date for national elections. The UN also wants to replace many of the local officials in the GNU. In late 2020 the UN brokered the creation of the GNU, yet another temporary government to unite Libya. The Turks, Russians, GNA , HoR and LNA (Libyan National Army) agreed to withdraw their forces as part of a late 2020 ceasefire/national unification plan. This agreement called for national elections to be held by the end of 2021. That did not happen, mainly because of the continued presence of Turkish forces and disagreements over the new constitution and who can run for office. The Turks realize they don’t have to fight to remain in Libya, just disrupt and delay any efforts, like elections or a UN condemnation, to force them to leave or fight to stay.

Libyans have not been able to agree on a new government since the overthrow of dictator Kaddafi in mid-2011. There was some unity because by 2015 there were two major factions’ one in the capital Tripoli and backed by the UN and the other in the east, based in Tobruk. The primary dispute between the two factions was support of Islamic political parties and some Islamic terrorist groups. In Most of Libya, especially the east, that attitude was not acceptable and the growing number of Islamic terror groups in Libya had become a major threat to most Libyans. The most effective opponent of the Islamic terrorists was a former Libyan army officer, Khalifa Haftar, who fled Libya in the 1980s after incurring the wrath of dictator Kaddafi. Now an American citizen, he returned to eastern Libya in 2013, revived some of the units of the Kaddafi-era military and began taking control of military bases from militias and Islamic terrorists. Eastern tribes rallied to Haftar, who had organized the most effective counterterrorism effort in the country. Haftar had the support of most Arab states, especially Egypt and the UAE. Egypt has a vulnerable border with Libya that was being used by Islamic terror groups to move people in and out as well as smuggle weapons into Egypt.

Egypt provided a land route to Libya for supplies and weapons for the LNA, largely paid for by the UAE and other Arab oil states. Egypt, the UAE and other Arab states support the new Bashagha government and oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey backs Ukraine more than it opposes Russia and is trying to play both sides. The UN was forced by nearly all its members to strongly condemn Russia for the Ukraine invasion. The Ukrainian situation has also taken away any UN attention to the Libya crisis. Currently the UN has not proposed any solution to the GNA/HoR dispute or the illegal presence of Turkey in Libya. The UN tends to avoid offending major UN members, especially the five nations with veto power. That group includes Russia but not Turkey. The UN does not have armed forces, aside from peacekeepers who are supplied by member states and paid for by UN members, especially the U.S. and other industrial nations that provide most of the UN budget. UN leaders have found that the safest thing for them to do when major powers have disputes is to find ways to offend no one, even if that means serious disputes go on far longer than necessary.

Russia backed Haftar early on and by 2016 Haftar was making regular visits to Russia to discuss cooperation in the fight against the Islamic terrorists in Libya. In January 2017 the Russian government visited Haftar when the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and its escorts arrived off the coast of eastern Libya. The carrier sent a helicopter to nearby Tobruk and picked up Khalifa Haftar and two of his senior officers, all in uniform, to the carrier. The visit to the Kuznetsov was captured on video and broadcast. The video showed the event treated as an official visit with sailors in dress uniforms lined up and a band playing the Libyan national anthem. What impressed the Russians was Haftar’s long-range plan for uniting Libya, holding elections and allowing the Libyan economy to thrive once more. Russia began providing military assistance, in the form of advisors and technicians to repair and restore a lot of Russian tanks, artillery and aircraft that were still intact but out of action because of a lack of repairs and new parts. Russia and Arab allies also helped Haftar with logistics.

Haftar forces were effective and loyal because Haftar took care of them and minimized friendly casualties. The Russian and Arab support enabled the LNA to pacify 90 percent of Libya and by early 2019 Haftar was closing in on Tripoli, where the UN-backed GNA was barely able to maintain order in Tripoli and two other eastern cities dominated by Islamic militias who openly feuded with each other and barely tolerated the GNA. By mid-2019 the LNA offensive was working its way towards taking Tripoli when Turkey showed up with an offer the GNA couldn’t refuse; military intervention against the LNA. In return the GNA would sign a treaty with Turkey granting it somebody else’s offshore oil rights. The GNA’s UN patron did little more than protest as Turkey began moving in weapons and troops, especially 10,000 of its own Syrian Arab mercenaries, to halt the LNA advance. By February 2020 the LNA agreed to a ceasefire. This held and led to a peace deal in which the GNA and eastern HoR governments agreed to merge and carry out national elections. Part of the deal was Russia and Turkey withdrawing their troops. Russia began doing so but the Turks did not. The Russian force was much smaller (about 1,200 Wagner Group military contractors and Russian technicians for maintaining equipment as well as a larger force of Arab mercenaries) than the 12,000 Turkish troops and Arab mercenaries. Russia had another reason for pulling out most of its personnel; it could no longer afford it. That was the result of economic sanctions imposed after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine. In 2022 that escalated into a larger operation and Russia is now burdened with even heavier sanctions. This will probably lead to the departure of all Russian military personnel. The Turks are now the major obstacle to Libyan unity and elections. Russia also has forces in Syria, where it is an ally of Turkey.

The key issue is getting the Turks out of Libya but no one has the military capability to force the Turks out as long as the Turks refuse to leave. Bashagha, the new GNU leader, promises to use negotiation to get the Turks out. The Turkish forces are still concentrated in the west, around Tripoli and Misrata. In both these cities the militias violently feud with each other. This happens despite Turkish efforts to train militia members to be professional soldiers. The militiamen accepted the training and new weapons, but their first loyalty remained to their militia leaders, who often represented populations in the two cities.

What it comes down to is that there is currently no war in Libya. There is still violence between rival militias and some diehard Islamic terror groups. Not all the troublesome militias are in the major cities. Some are from rural areas around oil production facilities and serve as PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards). General Haftar and his LNA tamed these PFGs via negotiation and in a few instances by force. Despite that, and the fact that jobs as PFGs are among the best paid and secure in the country, some PFG groups have internal political problems that occasionally result in a PFG threatening to shut down the facilities they guard unless they are paid more. It’s still up to the LNA to settle these disputes with a minimum of violence or lost production. Most Libyans are aware of the rising cost of grain imports and that the national bank has exhausted most of its cash reserves. That means that any serious disruption of oil production will soon mean less access to food or cash for government payrolls, including the PFGs.

The PFGs have long been seen as a permanent source of corruption. PFGs are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous or post-2011 governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Soon after Kaddafi was deposed in 2011 many, if not most, PFGs went rogue, shut down the facilities they guarded and, in effect, tried to blackmail whoever was paying them to pay more. This was driven by tribal feuds over how oil revenue should be allocated. Libya has always been very corrupt and Kaddafi remained in power for decades by playing the tribes off on each other with oil income. Those who cooperated got more, those who caused trouble got less. With Kaddafi gone many tribes wanted payback for past real or imagined injustices. Many of the PFGs came to support the GNA but as long as some of them continue to resist oil income is crippled and the much-feared food crisis is no longer approaching, it is here. General Haftar and the HoR government have been successful negotiating with the PFGs and offering a better deal (larger share of oil income) and less corruption. Haftar has a reputation for being much less corrupt. PFGs often shut down oil fields and ports because GNA has not paid them. In these cases, GNA often delivered the cash but some or all of it was stolen by PFG leaders who denied they were stealing. The GNA has to collect and publicize enough evidence of the theft to convince other militias and tribal leaders that the corrupt PFG men must be replaced. This is difficult to do and meanwhile PFGs are constantly demanding “adequate compensation” before they will allow oil to be pumped, moved via a pipeline to the export facilities or loaded on tankers. The details of how much “adequate compensation” any PFG is paid is usually kept secret because in Libya the feeling is that no one group is getting their fair share of the oil wealth that has kept the country functioning since the 1970s. Without the cash provided by oil exports Libya could not import enough food and other essentials to keep the population alive. PFGs are acutely aware that if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs so they are extremely defensive and paranoid. The overall problem is that PFG compensation has little relationship to how dangerous the work is but rather is more a matter of tribal politics. It has taken several years for tribes in areas where there are oil facilities to realize that if they do not cooperate everyone will suffer, which is what has been happening and is getting worse.

The growing fear of political uncertainty, hunger and foreign intervention has paralyzed most of the organized violence. This won’t last long but for the moment there are greater threats to worry about.

April 13, 2022: Egypt is hosting peace talks between the two rival Libyan factions; the eastern HoR and the western one based in Tripoli and surviving only because of the presence of Turkish troops. The HoR forces control most of the country and the oil production facilities. Most Libyans and Arab countries throughout the Middle East want the Turks out of Libya.

 

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