Federalism in Libya: Tried and failed

Given Libya’s history and infrastructure, appeasement of local actors via regional autonomy is a recipe for disaster.

Sabha militias
Clashes in the southern cities of Sebha and Kufra in early April led to calls for regional autonomy arrangements [REUTERS]

Cambridge, UK – In today’s Libya, local is king. Yet, if Libya is to become a functioning state that derives its legitimacy and stability from resource extraction, wealth distribution, and empowering its citizens, the interim government of the National Transitional Council (NTC) must become king.

In the run-up to the June elections many militias and civil society organisations are lambasting the interim government’s mission to centralise authority rather than its lacklustre results at achieving that task. On March 5, notables in Benghazi – Libya’s second city and capital of the Eastern region of Cyrenaica – proposed to compensate for the ineffectiveness of the central NTC authorities by asking them to relinquish certain powers to sub-state bodies such as an autonomous Cyrenaican provincial government. On April 17, they met again to demand that NTC authorities change the election law and stake their claim to Libya’s resource rich Sirte basin.

At the start of April, clashes in Libya’s main southern cities of Sebha and Kufra led to similar calls for special regional autonomy arrangements, dubbed “federalism” in the Libyan political discourse. These calls for the delegation of overlapping, autonomous, and ill-defined powers to localities and regions bear only the vaguest resemblance to types of federalism that exist in the United States, Germany, or India. Worse than being ill-named, such proposals are ill-timed as it is manifestly impossible to act upon them until the constitutional convention is convened following the elections.

The militias remain powerful

There are many valid reasons why Libyans would trust local actors over central ones. The local militias courageously vanquished Gaddafi and in many areas have provided a modicum of security and social welfare functions in his wake. In fact, in the absence of functioning NTC institutions throughout most of Tripolitania – Libya’s Western region – the militias have become judge, jury, prison guard, and executioner. Rather than focusing on rebuilding infrastructure or creating a functioning bureaucracy, the militias tend to concern themselves with the populist issues of purging the Libyan state of those who served under Gaddafi and attending to the needs of their home communities. These issues are highly popular with wide swathes of the Libyan population.

Nevertheless the time has come where militias and local activist groups constitute the primary barrier to stability, reconstruction, and a democratic transition. Paradoxically, the aloof technocrats of the NTC are Libya’s only real hope. Tragically, these technocrats appear more hapless every day. The primary pillar of the NTC campaign to curb the militias has been offering a one-time demobilisation payment to revolutionary fighters in exchange for registration with the Warrior’s Affairs Committee. Rather than successful causing fighters to either join the national army or return to civilian employment – the ostensible aims of the programme – after awarding $1.4bn, the NTC has determined that much of the money was fraudulently awarded and has actually reinforced militia solidarity. After this announcement on April 10, fighters protested against the NTC in Tripoli and raised new traffic checkpoints.

Even well-thought out NTC demobilisation programmes will not succeed if the conditions that nourish the militias remain. Just recently necessity gave rise to a new militia in the Arab town of Rugdalein – an area that remained loyal to Muammar Gaddafi until his very last days. Men from Rugdalein knew they needed to prepare to stand their ground, as they watched Libyans from other localities known for supporting Gaddafi, such as Tuwarga, being forcibly evicted from their homes. On April 2, the predominately Berber militias from Zwara attacked men, women, and children in Rugdalein and scores were killed in an example of traditional Libyan feud settling. In the eyes of the inhabitants of Rugdalein, the central government was powerless to protect them and only their militiamen defended their community.

History of Federalism

Amid the ongoing tumult, over-eager commentators warn that Libya is poised to fracture along regional, tribal, and provincial lines. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, has written in an Al Jazeera English Opinion piece that federalism is the only solution which would be in fitting with Libyan history.

The reverse is true. Federalism was tried in the Kingdom of Libya between 1951 and 1963. It facilitated dysfunctional governance, widespread corruption, and redundant government offices at the national and provincial levels simultaneously enacting conflicting policies. Provincial legislators and bureaucrats were local notables protecting their fiefdoms – similar to the militias and regional strongmen of today. Taxation policy was subject to a provincial veto rendering wide-scale planning unwieldy.

When Libya was a poor desert economy prior to 1961, central planning and streamlined infrastructural budgets were not yet necessary. However, with the influx of oil wealth post-1961, federalism needed to be abandoned when the inefficiencies it fostered impeded the rapid development of Libya that would otherwise have been possible. Protracted battles in 1963 over which authorities had the right to tax foreign companies operating in Libya were its final death knell.

Federalism is divisive

Today’s Libya requires the rapid creation of nation-wide institutions and human capital that Libyan history shows is incompatible with federalism. Yet, the proponents of federalism wish to decide taxes and budgets at the provincial level – a sure recipe for gridlock. Furthermore, one of the few positive legacies of Gaddafi’s rule is his construction of extensive water and oil pipelines that link the provinces together. For example, much of Libya’s oil is extracted in Cyrenaica and brought via pipelines to the Sirte Basin, while the majority of Libya’s groundwater comes from aquifers in southern Cyrenaica but is consumed in the populous areas of Western Tripolitania. A return to a “federal” governmental model would inevitably endanger these gains unleashing a competition over strategic resources – especially those in the Sirte Basin where Cyrenaica and Tripolitania meet.

Creating a functional chain of command

The NTC’s current failings point in another direction – careful delegation of local powers to the spontaneous organisations that arose in each town and region during the uprisings, creating a chain of com­mand that links these organisations to the central government. Misratans should run their town’s affairs through their new democratically-elected local council and Benghazi transparency activists must be involved in their local governance – but only as representatives of the central government and not as their own fiefdoms.

In post-Gaddafi Libya, peripheral actors will continuously rebel if they do not feel they have a say in their own governance. Federalism is not the only way to give them that say. In fact, the discourse surrounding federalism has proved so toxic that the Benghazi declaration of March 5th unleashed scores of anti-federalism protests, leading to NTC officials stating that they would use force to prevent an Eastern federal region from coming into being. Further backlash was occasioned by the April 17 meeting of the pro-federalism “Congress of the People of Cyrenaica”.

Like Afghanistan and Yemen, Libya may be yet another country in which the culture and history of peripheral actors does not allow them to easily accept a subordinate position, even to a central authority they accept as legitimate. However, Libya is certainly the only example of an oil-rich Arab country where the periphery remains dominant; usually the economic requirements of the extractive industries necessitate nationwide infrastructure and coherent chains of command. Given Libya’s history and shared infrastructure, appeasement of local actors via promises of regional autonomy is a recipe for confusion and inefficiency. In the long term, enshrining a federal system would almost certainly doom the implementation of any coherent, countrywide development plan.

Jason Pack is a PhD student of Libyan history at Cambridge University. He is president of Libya-Analysis.com and the author of In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya.