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Libya's oil blockade: A crude solution?

An oil deal struck between Libyan rebels and officials is fuelling tensions over the country's political future.

Last updated: 11 Apr 2014 13:43
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Libya's oil will soon be flowing again from Zuetina, but the country's political future may not be as slick [Reuters]

Tripoli, Libya - A deal aimed at ending an oil blockade in Eastern Libya may have some messy side effects. It may even rebound on the government - at a time when the country is in dire need of stability.

Armed groups agreed on Sunday to reopen two of four ports which they've been blockading for nine months. Zuetina and Hariga have now been handed over to the Libyan military, while the larger installations, Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, are due to open within a month, providing there are no hitches.

Paying this money to solve the problem, firefighting like this, is not the right way.

- Omar Shakmak, acting oil minister

The government had been negotiating with the rebels at arm's length. It used intermediaries for the talks and had to use some uncomfortable pragmatism in reaching an agreement.

In effect, Libya's government is compensating the gunmen for maintaining the oil ports during a blockade that has cost the country at least $7 billion.

An undisclosed amount of money is to be given to the rebels, partly as back pay for the lost wages of men who had originally worked for the Petroleum Facilities Guard. The rest is said to be for expenses incurred. It’s the former head of this organisation, Ibrahim Jathran, who was the main player in the blockade and the subsequent talks. He had set up a self-declared federal government in the east where there’s a widely held view that Tripoli’s government neglects the region’s needs.

Demands

Jathran's demands included some autonomy for the eastern region, Cyrenaica, and a bigger share of Libya's oil wealth. He also called for an investigation into alleged corruption in the oil industry. In the published agreement, Libya's government agreed to the investigation but made no assurances on regional autonomy or a larger share of oil revenue.

It will have to make the cash settlement and give an amnesty to the rebels, some of whom were responsible for stealing The Morning Glorytanker, along with a cargo of up to $30 million of crude oil. The plot was thwarted in a commando raid by US Navy Seals last month, and the Libyan government later freed the three armed rebels who had commandeered the tanker.

Libya's oil deal with rebels sparks political division

Disputes like this have shown the weakness of Libyan officials in confronting brigades of former fighters who refused to disarm and demobilise after the revolution. A national army hasn't yet been formed, and rival armed groups allied to elected political factions often use force to dictate events.

But paying off Jathran's rebels is too much for some government ministers.

"I think this is a winning deal for Jathran, not the government. I am personally against it," said Ali Mihirig, Libya's electricity minister.

"Jathran lost his last chance after the fiasco of The Morning Glory, but, unfortunately, we are now paying him compensation. Now we will have other groups [take control of] the other oilfields."

Mihirig has reason to be cynical. Pipelines have been shut down elsewhere by protesters. The large El Sharara oilfield in the west has been closed for weeks. There are others out of action in the south. And there is no sign of a settlement with any of these groups.

Priorities

Here in the capital, at the Oil Ministry headquarters, Omar Shakmak wore an intense expression when asked about the implications of the eastern deal. The acting oil minister said that lives had been saved by the government persisting with its indirect negotiations.

There would, he said, undoubtedly have been heavy fighting had the government gone ahead with its threat to take back the oil ports by force. But Shakmak remains worried about the bigger picture for Libya's largest source of revenue. He wants to see the defence ministry and the prime minister's office devote massive resources to a new security infrastructure for the oil industry. He doesn’t believe there is a quick fix for the problem.

"Paying this money to solve the problem, firefighting like this, is not the right way," he told Al Jazeera. "The security issue, this is the first priority. And a long term plan for the future."

Inside Story - Libya's oil: A source of further tension? [First aired March 12, 2014]

Libya's Justice Minister Salah al Marghani had travelled to the eastern oilfields to sign the deal. He insisted that finding a peaceful solution without bloodshed was the priority. Before his journey east he had spoken of the "potential chaos" Libya faced unless it could stabilise its volatile politics and bring rival armed groups under control.

"Libya is going through a very sensitive time in terms of politics, the social situation and also its security. This is a time when all Libyans have to stand together and be very careful," Marghani said.

“We have too many political forces in the country that are competing for positions: Political parties, individuals, tribal powers, warlords."

Next crisis

Only two days after the oil deal was signed, another crisis emerged. On Tuesday, ministers decided to threaten resignations en masse unless the General National Congress (GNC) gave them a clear mandate to govern without restrictions.

The GNC responded by giving the acting prime minister, Abdullah Al Thinni one week to form a new government. But then some GNC members claimed the decision was not valid because there wasn't a quorum of decision-makers. Such is the confusion in Libya's government these days.

No-one appears entirely sure what will happen next.

Ali Mihirig, the electricity minister who has an unofficial role as mediator between factions within Libya’s government, believes this latest crisis could be a tough test for the country's rulers.

"There is potential here for real chaos," he said.

"The prime minister doesn't really have enough time to form a new cabinet. And, in any case, the GNC may not accept it."

Some of Libya's oil may soon be flowing smoothly again. But there is nothing smooth about the path the country's government is following.

Follow Andrew Simmons on Twitter: @simmjazeera

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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