Kufra, Libya – The drive across Libya’s Sahara from Murzuq to Kufra is arduous. Without a road, the desert’s residents, subsistence smugglers, and border guards navigate massive sand dunes and old mine fields guided by small piles of stones and ubiquitous fuel canisters.
Once at the isolated Kufra oasis, a large wall built by the local majority Arab Zwai tribe encircles the small town, funnelling desert traffic into one guarded entrance. The Zwai are also in charge of Kufra’s government, military council, commercial downtown and airport.
Kufra’s other residents, the minority Tebu tribe, are segregated into the impoverished ghettoes of Gadarfai and Shura. Cordoned off by checkpoints now monitored by the Libyan army, they live in damaged shacks surrounded by rubbish heaps and scorched earth, leftovers from this year’s fighting.
“Gaddafi never liked the Tebu because he had a strong belief there was no place for non-Arabs in Libya.“
– Adam El Tibawi, head of the Tebu National Assembly
After the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the balance of power between local tribes in places such as Kufra has shifted, and tribal battles between the indigenous Tebu and Arab tribes over power and control of lucrative trade routes have exacerbated instability along the country’s vast southern border.
The Libyan region in which the Tebu live – from the shabby outskirts of Sebha and Murzuq to Kufra about 900km to the east – is rich in oil, rare minerals, and precious underground water that is funnelled to the coast, where an estimated 90 per cent of Libya’s population of more than six million live. It is also prime territory for illicit trade, with government-subsidised fuel and food smuggled out of the country, and weapons, drugs, alcohol and migrants ferried in.
With fragile ceasefires holding together a tense truce, the Tebu are waiting to see if the recently elected Tripoli-based government can deliver a more sustainable peace.
While the Tebu now dominate Libya’s southern desert, guarding remote checkpoints, oil fields and weapons stockpiles, before the revolution they had been marginalised for decades under Gaddafi’s “Arabisation” campaign, and the regime’s divide-and-rule tactics favoured the south’s Arab communities, including the Zwai, Awlad Suleiman and Warfalla tribes.
|Tebu trade is crucial to the tribe’s way of life
[Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]
Discrimination stemmed from Libya’s 1954 citizenship law, traditionally semi-nomadic tribes – such as the Tebus – lacked identification, denying them access to higher education, skilled jobs, housing and health care. Labelled “foreigners” and speaking languages other than Arabic, many Tebus with Libyan citizenship were stripped of it during Gaddafi’s final years.
“Gaddafi never liked the Tebu because he had a strong belief there was no place for non-Arabs in Libya,” said Adam El Tibawi, the head of the Tebu National Assembly.
Dislike for Gaddafi led the Libyan Tebu to rise up against him in the 2011 revolution that eventually claimed the former leader’s life. Activating their tribal ties across Libya’s border with Sudan, Chad and Niger, the Tebu provided crucial southern support to the coastal rebels’ fight.
During that time, the country’s revolutionary National Transitional Council (NTC) assigned Tebu military leader Issa Abdel Majid Mansour and his armed border guard from Kufra a key role in monitoring the south’s porous frontier.
A post-revolutionary security vacuum allowed tribal tensions to boil over, and the south’s deadly turf wars kicked off. “The causes were a mix of economics and racism, and political prestige formed in Gaddafi’s time,” explained Fathi Baja, a political science professor at Benghazi University and a founding member of the NTC.
Recurrent violent clashes in Kufra between the Tebu and Zwai tribes over the past year have left more than 150 dead, and a fierce battle in March between the Tebu, Arab Awlad Sulieman and Abu Seif tribes in Sebha claimed an estimated 200 lives.
Polarised by hate
With hundreds more injured and neighbourhoods devastated by intense mortar fire, these small communities are now polarised by hate. The Tebu are accused of being “foreign”, while they say the Arab tribes are racist.
“We have Chadians coming and stealing and living with Tebu families,” said Colonel Suleiman Hamed Hassan, the Zwai military council head, during a lull in Kufra’s conflict. “The Tebu think they can protect them – they have no principles, and cannot tell the truth.”
The Zwai’s monopoly over Kufra’s hospital and transport routes – which prevented most humanitarian aid from reaching Tebu neighbourhoods – and the ministry of defense’s decision to send their auxiliary Shield of Libya brigades from the coastal northeast to Kufra as peacekeepers only exacerbated the violence.
“I was in Benghazi when I heard that Chadians were invading Libya,” said Rami Al Shabeibi, one of the few journalists in Kufra. “When I got there, there were no Chadians – only Tebu.”
Al Shabeibi said the Zwai’s satellite equipment and media savvy played a pivotal role in convincing Shield of Libya militias to drive down and keep the peace. But the undisciplined force soon turned their weapons on the Tebu, and fighters from as far as Misrata came to fight the “foreigners”, with little idea about the terrain or whom they were shooting at.
The NTC, pushed by increasingly critical media reports and the international community, finally brokered a ceasefire between the Tebu and the “peacekeepers” in June, and between Kufra’s fatigued original warring parties a month later.
“There is peace right now because everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen in the General National Congress,” said Baja. “This is a ceasefire for the status quo – no peace, no war – for now.”
Since Libya’s election this summer bade farewell to the NTC, Mansour has been waiting for an official assignment from Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s new government.
Kufra’s Zwai leadership is convinced Mansour would like to establish a Tebu homeland across borders in Libya, Sudan, Chad and Niger.
In turn, Mansour is suspicious, like many in the Tebu community, about the intentions of the religious militia within the Shield of Libya brigade.
|Tebu leader Issa Abdel Majid Mansour waits for an assignment from Libya’s new leaders [Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]|
Voicing his concern of “terrorists” seizing control of Libyan borders, Mansour said: “Since the revolution, we are focused on preventing the smuggling of weapons, food and fuel to supply Islamist extremist groups in the area.”
In addition to the formidable task of disarming militias inside its borders, southern Libya is vulnerable to the instability in parts of northern Mali, where Ansar Dine, the heavily armed Islamist militia group, has seized power. Libya is party to talks around the pending armed intervention led by the Economic Community of West African States.
The US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the European Union are also concerned that groups associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could spread, funnelling personnel and weapons across Libya’s Saharan borders.
Mansour said the Tebu are a valuable asset to the Libyan government and AFRICOM in the regional war against AQIM. While he underlines his preference for Libyan Tebu to gain full citizenship rights within the state, Mansour warned the tribe could be forced to prove its power if dropped from the government’s agenda.
“We can put pressure on the government. We can warn them about having a separate state,” said Mansour, “But we cannot say whether this is realistic or not – the time has not come.”
When asked about the widespread disillusionment within the Tebu community, Saleh Arzai, a former aide to a Tebu NTC representative, sighed. “[NTC head] Mustafa Abdul Jalil promised us many things, but we didn’t get anything,” he said. “Real power in Libya hasn’t changed. Only the names.”
Back in Tripoli, Taher Mohammed Makni is one of two newly elected Tebu representatives to the General National Congress. He shoulders the challenging task of inserting Tebu rights into the constitution.
But when asked about the future, he does not have high hopes. “I’m not optimistic about getting what we dream for.”