Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, the Fezzan region has become increasingly neglected and unstable. As observed in Chapter 2, the region has always been subject to neglect in comparison with Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, but since 2011 it has experienced a near total lack of state infrastructure. Libya as a whole post 2011 has been devoid of a united, functioning government, but in the Fezzan the situation has been further exacerbated for two reasons. First, the Tuareg and other groups were ostracised by the revolutionaries for their perceived or actual support for Gaddafi, and a deep-rooted racist sentiment towards darker-skinned inhabitants of the Libyan south (regardless of tribal or ethnic affiliation) began to be exhibited openly. Whole swathes of the Fezzan population were dismissed as ‘African mercenaries’ hired by Gaddafi, and therefore received little input, integration or representation in post-revolution decision making. Second, as security diminished throughout the south, local armed groups and opportunists took advantage of the enormous number of weapons that had been stored in the region during the Gaddafi regime. Thus, the Fezzan in recent years has been both neglected or wilfully ostracised, and highly armed.
At the same time, post-revolution Libya institutionalised a formal, democratically-elected local governance system for the first time in its history. In the south, Ghat and Ubari became municipalities in 2013, each with municipal councils tasked with implementing the rule of law and service provision. This represents a significant departure from the Fezzan’s particular history of informal governance, traditionally implemented by tribal elites. This history extends back to Libya’s colonial era, when influential tribes would maintain allegiances and trade routes on behalf of the Ottomans, and was also highly visible during the Gaddafi era, when the regime would select and empower certain sheikhs and tribes to be enforcers at local level. The recent introduction of formalised local governance, at a time of heightened instability and neglect in the Fezzan, poses a key question of how this will interact with the region’s entrenched history of tribal dominance.
This chapter will illustrate how the position of traditional authorities in the Fezzan has been strengthened by recent state neglect, and how the paradoxical introduction of a local governance structure in conjunction with wholesale state absence has enabled these authorities to gain official platforms and manipulate Libya’s competing national forces for resources. Simultaneously, traditional authorities are dogged by questions of legitimacy and ethnic or tribal favouritism, and there remains a sense within the community that their influence is borne out of pragmatism and lack of credible alternatives. Finally, this chapter will discuss the implications of these findings for the future of local governance in the region, and put forward recommendations for possible interventions.
As outlined in Chapter 2.4.c, the role of traditional authorities in the Fezzan has changed considerably in 2011, and in particular the role of Tuareg institutions, which historically aligned with the Gaddafi regime. The peripheral location of Ghat municipality means that service provision has always been fragile, yet the investment and incentives afforded to its majority Tuareg population during the Gaddafi era helped to offset this. Since 2011 the municipality has been largely overlooked by central authorities, and has become isolated by the closure of both the Algerian border and vital roads linking it with Ubari and the north of the country. Starved of resources and state salaries under a failing local governance infrastructure, living standards in the municipality have declined rapidly. Traditional authorities now take on responsibilities far beyond the inter-tribal roles they played during the Gaddafi era, and are tasked with attempting to provide services and security to a community that has severe shortfalls in healthcare, sanitation, electricity and financial services.
Indeed, respondents were unanimous in their observation that traditional authorities had assumed greater responsibilities since 2011, even from a non-Tuareg perspective. For example, a municipal official in Ubari and member of an Arab tribe described the pre-2011 situation as traditional authorities being restricted to working within their own tribes, but following the revolution they now serve far larger and more diverse constituencies. An influential Tuareg figure, who served as part of the ‘popular leadership’ – a committee of tribal leaders from across Libya formed and overseen by the Gaddafi regime – stated that during that era ‘there was little reliance on traditional authorities’ because, in his perception, state institutions and official bodies functioned far more effectively. A prominent Tuareg figure and former head of the Ubari administrative office during the Gaddafi era documented his old responsibilities as follows: ‘During the former regime when I was in charge most people’s problems were simple… In the past people only thought about education and work and how to improve their family’s conditions. Now people think about electricity, banks, water shortages, weapons proliferation, insecurity, low levels of education, healthcare and other services, and food shortages’.
Most respondents, regardless of affiliation, point out that traditional authorities pre-2011 were concerned with social issues such as mediation between families, and their work in recent years has become more expansive and governance focused. This expansion of responsibilities was partly demanded by the traditional authorities themselves, as several ethnic and tribal groups sought greater political participation and citizenship rights following the 2011 revolution. Access to political power also became more tangible in the post-2011 climate, with the introduction of law 59 on local governance in 2012, which formally established local administrative units and electoral processes. Various ethnic and tribal groups now saw an opportunity to gain official representation via tactical voting among their communities. However, increased responsibilities for traditional authorities in this context has also arisen out of necessity, as the presence of official local governance structures in the south has declined markedly, particularly since the outbreak of civil war in 2014. Conflict between rival national factions led to severe shortages in services, delayed salary payments, an increased presence of armed groups, and a decline in security and the rule of law. This latter increase in responsibility for traditional authorities has not come without its problems, whether in terms of capacity and resources, or in terms of influence from Libya’s various political allegiances.
The vast majority of Libyan traditional authorities interviewed in this study came to power through informal mechanisms, often by virtue of their stature within their tribe, and their tribe’s relative influence within the community. Many more rose to prominence through designation by tribal elites. Crucially, and as opposed to the situation in our other country studies, none of the Libyan traditional authorities interviewed described ascending to their position via a popular vote. This reflects the fact that democratically elected local governance is a new phenomenon in Libya (from 2012 onwards), and influential traditional authorities in the Fezzan, such as the Tuareg, have only recently become institutionalised in a manner that allows them to put forward election candidates and canvas votes effectively.
The roles and responsibilities of traditional authorities in their own words provide a unique insight into local governance dynamics in the Fezzan. Traditional leaders interviewed were often bullish in their assessment of their effectiveness in governance. For example, a former SSTC member claimed that the Tuareg council now solves all problems in Ubari. One Tuareg tribal sheikh even argued that traditional authorities are now more powerful than official structures. He explained that traditional authorities have become ‘the ones who monitor the municipal authorities and hold them to account’, in addition to taking on more responsibilities and duties that were formerly the remit of formal governance. When asked why citizens of Ghat and Ubari would choose to approach them instead of formal authorities, traditional leaders gave similar reasons, such as being more trustworthy and more flexible in terms of meeting times and locations. The notion of being more trustworthy is particularly pertinent among respondents from Ubari, where the mediation role of tribal elders during the 2014 Ubari war helped to strengthen relations and trust considerably, according to various traditional leaders and civil society representatives.
In the years that followed the 2011 revolution, Ubari was severely affected by a lack of employment and legitimate economic opportunities resulting from the wider decline of Libyan national security, prompting a burgeoning illicit economy and a rise in tensions among the town’s residents over scarce resources and local power. What began in 2014 as a low-level dispute between Tuareg and Tebu fuel smugglers became a wide-scale conflict between armed groups, often acting as a proxy for warring national factions, that lasted until a ceasefire in February 2016. The Ubari war resulted in the deaths of over 300 people and left more than 2,000 injured. It also destroyed the town’s central business district and residential areas – much of downtown Ubari remains in a state of disrepair – and more than half of the town’s population became displaced.
Several respondents hinted at the ability for greater cross-border cooperation by virtue of being part of a multinational ethnic group such as the Tuareg or Tebu. The former mayor of Ubari explained that traditional authorities are in regular contact with their counterparts across state boundary lines to find solutions to problems such as drug trafficking or arms smuggling. A former civil servant, not affiliated to any traditional authority, conceded that when it comes to border conflicts, ‘informal authorities may play a better role than the official authorities because of the knowledge of the people of the region and their awareness of the nature of surrounding societies in the neighbouring countries’. A tribal dignitary similarly observed that, ‘our good relations with the desert tribes in the neighbouring countries of Algeria and Niger can contribute to strengthening relations between these peoples’. Traditional authorities were also better placed in other areas – a former mokhtar elaborated on the responsibilities of his role in particular, involving matters of personal status law, and stated that such a role could not be performed by a state official coming from outside the community, as it requires an understanding of traditional customs.
However, despite the undeniably significant role undertaken by these authorities, and the efforts of some respondents to champion informal governance structures as being on a par – or even superior to – official governance in the Fezzan, there was an overwhelming sentiment of subordination expressed by many traditional leaders, suggesting that traditional authorities themselves consider their role to be unequal to that of the state. Traditional authorities are inclined to point out the asymmetries in this relationship with formal power structures. A representative from a council of elders lamented the distorted relationship between formal and informal structures, urging that the municipality grant traditional authorities ‘a fundamental role rather than considering us merely in a supporting role’. He blamed the national-level conflict and the resultant competing governments as a factor behind the perceived marginalisation of traditional authorities, claiming that ‘we do not have a clear place among them’. He portrayed the council of elders’ role in Ghat as a lobbying body – a means of putting pressure on the municipal council on behalf of the Tuareg people.
This sentiment is echoed by a tribal sheikh who said that people come to him because as the sheikh of their tribe he can represent them in front of official bodies. It is also reflected by a dignitary of another tribe, and member of the council of elders, who said the council is effective in ‘pressing the municipal council and its institutions to do their part’. Such rhetoric implies that traditional authorities in general consider themselves to be go-betweens, capable of accommodating the concerns of the community in an accessible manner, and then using their connections and stature to press the municipal council and other state institutions into taking action.
There are notable examples in the interview data where traditional authorities also concede that the municipal council and official institutions are better placed to implement effective governance. On the subject of regional disputes, the tribal dignitary observed, ‘maybe our role here is less influential because central authorities have greater capacity than social authorities’. Two prominent members of the Ghat Council of Elders openly acknowledged that the traditional governance structure was not equipped to fully cater for the needs of society, and recognised that this left traditional authorities out of their depth in some regards. One suggested that the absence of state institutions in the region ‘weighs upon us and burdens us with responsibilities greater than our capabilities, having to take on matters that are not within our competence’. When asked what such burdens entailed, the Council of Elders member cited a lack of employment opportunities for residents, coupled with the rising cost of living. Another member said, ‘The dignitaries do not have the potential of the official authorities and there are problems greater than the capacity of traditional authorities that need solutions from the government.’ These sentiments do not imply that traditional authorities resent their greater responsibility, but it is clear that the current situation does not enable them to perform the role of the state effectively amid such a governance vacuum.
To ascertain the effectiveness of traditional authorities in governance, this study also conducted several interviews and focus groups with religious leaders, members of civil society and the private sector in Ghat and Ubari.
In general, religious figures interviewed for this project expressed admiration for the work of traditional authorities in the region, with a Ghat-based Imam stating that they are a ‘better and more viable solution than going to official authorities’. However, other respondents pointed to a relationship that was at times strained. A muezzin at a mosque in Awainat stated that, ‘In the framework of religion we may not agree with the tribal authorities in some customs that are contrary to the rules of religion.’
Civil society activists interviewed unanimously suggest that traditional authorities are indeed influential and prominent in Ghat and Ubari. One Tebu women’s rights activist remarked that ‘traditional authorities are closer to us than other authorities. They even welcome us in their homes’. A representative of the Ubari Youth League attested that ‘traditional authorities are acting as mediators to resolve disputes faster than other authorities’. The reputation of traditional authorities among civil society is particularly positive in Ubari, where their mediation work during the Ubari war and in the following years was greatly appreciated. For example, a women’s education and training activist claimed that traditional authorities left an ‘excellent footprint’ in ending the war, while after the war they developed a programme for reconciliation and the return of displaced people. A prominent Tebu civil society activist also praised traditional authorities for being ‘instrumental’ in reducing conflict and subsequent tensions between Tebu, Tuareg, and Ahali populations.
The role of traditional authorities in mediating a lasting ceasefire between Tuareg and Tubu fighters in the Ubari conflict is often cited by the Ubari community as a fundamental reason for their support and legitimacy in the town. In 2015, both the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) factions sought to bring about an end to the conflict through mediation, making use of local interlocutors to gather together prominent actors from each side in the same room. Tribal sheikhs and elders were particularly effective in this context as they had unparalleled access to the military factions of each side. However, brokered ceasefires were fragile and quickly fell apart, largely due to ineffective national security institutions to enforce them and a lack of investment or foresight given to address the town’s endemic poverty and lack of employment opportunities, both underlying grievances of the Ubari fighters. A lasting ceasefire was only achieved in 2016 under the sponsorship of international actors such as Qatar, Algeria and Italy, away from the politicized GNA-LNA divide. Tribal mediators were once again central to facilitating the ceasefire process in successive meetings in Doha and Rome. Implementation of the Ubari ceasefire also has an element of tribal mediation, with the Arab Hassawna tribe being identified as a (relatively) neutral peacekeeping force by both sides to implement the agreement on the ground.
However, as expressed by the authorities themselves, civil society and private sector representatives suggest the role of traditional leaders is most effective as a link, or a vehicle, to convey citizens’ concerns to the state in order to get things done. Two representatives from the education sector gave examples of when traditional authorities have lobbied the state effectively on their behalf. One education supervisor recounted that ‘here in education we had a shortage of books so we went to the traditional authorities who then went to the ministry and received the books’. An influential school principal in Ubari explained that many students lack national identification numbers or registration documents, and traditional authorities are able to ‘facilitate procedures’ whereby pupils and students can communicate with municipal education officials to resolve the problems quickly and obtain documentation.
Focus group data gathered from Ghat municipality reinforces the perception among civil society activists that traditional authorities are the de facto leadership in the region. However, participants in a youth focus group suggested that they do not provide equitable governance to the whole municipality. One participant explained how sometimes traditional authorities would provide extra services to their relatives and tribal group, while another urged them to give priority to the citizens ‘not just themselves’. Older focus group participants claimed that traditional authorities enjoyed their current power and influence at the expense of state institutions, which were described as ‘divided and uncoordinated’, ‘incapable of solving problems’ or even ‘non-existent’. However, these elder residents also stressed that they resorted to traditional authorities out of pragmatism rather than preference, and suggested that they would follow the dominant authority in the region, whatever that might be, in order to gain access to resources.
The above implies that despite the current stature of traditional authorities in local governance in the Libyan south, the popular support enjoyed by these entities stems not only from tribal loyalty, but also from the incompetence or lack of credible alternatives. The overall impression from civil society respondents supports that of the majority of traditional authorities interviewed – the conditions in Ghat and especially Ubari are deplorable and basic infrastructure is severely lacking. Traditional authorities cannot replace the state fully in their current capacity and they acknowledge this. However, the transnational networks and informal organisation of such authorities mean they are better placed to respond directly to the needs of citizens in the south and then convey such concerns effectively to policy makers.
Traditional authorities have made considerable efforts to fill the governance vacuum in the Fezzan and provide services and administer governance, albeit within their limited resources and traditional frameworks. However, it is important to note that there is little appetite among the population (and arguably among traditional leaders themselves) for traditional authorities to be long-term governors or service providers. Representatives of civil society display a clear desire for elected accountable institutions, and the informal structure through which traditional authorities come to power and subsequently govern does not reflect this. The history of traditional leadership in the Fezzan is also one of unequal and undemocratic power dynamics, highlighted by the relationship between tribal nobles and slaves, and in the modern day many citizens observe that traditional authorities continue to prioritise the interests of their own tribes or families. Furthermore, traditional authorities have, to an extent, always been politicized. The Tuareg have a history of being co-opted and strategically fragmented by the Gaddafi regime, and this phenomenon is still evident today, with various individuals and factions choosing to side with different national actors in an effort to secure resources and influence.
As a final point, it is essential to note that Libyans must be able to construct a governance structure that works for them, incorporating elements that are specific to the Libyan context, and this could be a lengthy process. Traditional authorities in this regard will certainly play a role in future governance, but the current format is likely to be unsustainable.
This study has demonstrated that traditional authorities, despite their shortcomings, are relevant and influential actors in the current reality of Ghat and Ubari, and are praised by many citizens for being more approachable, flexible and efficient than central government. Case studies from the region also illustrate how traditional authorities are vital in order to gain access to particular areas or groups, and to foster connections and dialogue that would otherwise be impossible.
Building on the first recommendation, those seeking to improve local governance in the region must acknowledge that traditional authorities currently play a part, and should therefore seek to incorporate their benefits and expertise. The Fezzan has long been neglected both nationally and internationally, and the lack of state presence in the sparsely populated but resource-rich region means international actors are without points of contact or unaware of local projects. As a precursor to meaningful intervention, traditional authorities could serve as an entry point, given their close ties with local communities, history of mediation, and relatively well-established institutional structures.
In order to implement effective programmes in the Fezzan, it is imperative to be aware of contextual nuance – at local and national levels. The municipalities of Ghat and Ubari have distinct characteristics formed out of recent experiences. Ghat serves as a Tuareg stronghold, particularly after the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the backlash experienced by the many pro-Gaddafi Tuareg groups. Yet within Ghat there are important distinctions to note: the relatively affluent district of Awainat is home to some of the most powerful and influential Tuareg tribes in the country, whereas residents of the poorer Al-Barkat district are less represented in decision-making circles.
Ubari has been the site of a protracted tribal conflict that was exacerbated by the involvement of external forces and has left the municipality in ruin.
These contextual backgrounds have a strong influence on citizens’ perceptions of local governance, the role of the central state, the role of traditional authorities, and the future of the region. In a wider context, responses from both traditional leaders and civil society representatives in this research point to a sense of subordination within the Fezzan region. This is most evident with the respondents’ portrayal of traditional authorities as go-betweens – entities to represent the community and convey their concerns to a higher power. This portrayal indicates that although there is considerable desire for autonomous local governance, at present there is little motivation for active citizenship. From a national perspective, the longstanding debate over federalism, its controversial accompanying political movement, and the historical distinctions between Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and the Fezzan also entrench sentiments of regional autonomy. Such contextual nuances must be taken into account when working with Ghat and Ubari municipalities in order to promote effective local governance, and the idea of achieving consensus, even at local level, should not be taken for granted.
At present, any organisation looking to engage in the promotion of local governance in the Fezzan faces an arduous task. They must be prepared to work with divisions at every level – among the population, within municipal offices, and within traditional authorities themselves. Moreover, power and territorial control in the south is currently being derived largely from military or financial clout. This landscape proves hugely challenging for effective governance, as there are various duplicate entities affiliated to Libya’s national warring factions and operating simultaneously. Duplication not only means less efficiency and higher costs, but it also contributes to an overriding sense of confusion and ambiguity, which plays into the hands of certain actors.
Those seeking to intervene must be aware of the powerful and sizable entities within the Fezzan that are profiting from the status quo and striving to maintain it. In this sense certain traditional authorities are complicit, successfully maintaining multiple allegiances with rival governments and armed actors in order to preserve their current status. In order to bring about a change in circumstances that benefits the many rather than the few who are currently prospering, it is essential to engage with those profiting from the status quo and identify future roles and opportunities that could integrate them into a more inclusive future. The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of armed groups is central to this, but any actor (traditional or otherwise) prospering in the current climate who is not consulted and factored into future plans will seek to maintain the status quo. It is particularly difficult for international organisations to work with unofficial authorities such as tribes or armed groups due to ethical and political sensitivities, but any attempt to change the status quo without understanding what this long-term engagement implies is not sensitive to current conflicts.
To date, decentralisation in Libya has been poorly implemented and resourced, and therefore this recommendation is particularly difficult to achieve. However, it remains imperative that elected local institutions in the Fezzan operate effectively. The local governance law 59 of 2012 was passed in response to a strong message from communities, namely that they sought greater local autonomy following decades of centralised rule. The findings of this research indicate that such a sentiment remains popular in the Fezzan, despite citizens’ initial experiences with municipal councils over the past seven years being hugely disappointing.
In order to ensure a more effective relationship between citizens and their municipality in the Fezzan, it is first essential to lay the foundations for good governance in the region. The municipalities of Ghat and Ubari are in severe need of infrastructure in order to provide basic services, and until such investment is made any authority will struggle to govern effectively. Younger members of the community in particular are susceptible to illicit activities and militarisation, and greater investment and attention is required to provide sustainable, legal employment avenues. Second, it is important to remember that local governance via direct democracy is a relatively nascent concept in the region, and many residents are unaware of the exact roles and responsibilities of their elected institutions and officials. Efforts should be made to raise awareness and strengthen the influence of the population via inclusive dialogue and practical pilot projects managed by local communities and their representatives, to further develop locally supported governance structures and solutions.