Transforming Libya’s ungoverned spaces through development

One of Libya’s immediate concerns must be the economic and social development of the Fezzan region.

As the focus of the current Ali Zidan government "remains squarely on security", national infrastructure planning and "getting the cranes moving has lagged" [EPA]

As political posturing surrounding the murder of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens four months ago continues to dominate news about Libya in the Western media, Libya has silently reached the crossroads. Vast swathes of the country are on the verge of becoming ungovernable, while the new democratically elected Libyan authorities are struggling to gain traction in the hinterlands and to prevent local powerbrokers from enshrining their own fiefdoms. 

Intrigue in the Fezzan

Over a week ago on January 5, the Libyan president, Mohamed al-Magariaf, survived an assassination attempt in Sebha – the capital of Libya’s southwestern region of Fezzan. Magariaf’s security guards engaged the assailants in a firefight for over three hours. It still remains unclear why he was attacked or by whom, but it is likely that the would-be assassins hail from the Fezzan. 

This region has been a particularly tough nut to crack for the new Libyan authorities as certain powerful Fezzani tribes were the key pillars of the Gaddafi regime. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Fezzan – along with the cities of Bani Walid and Sirte in Tripolitania – remains among the most difficult areas for the new Libyan authorities to control.

Unsurprisingly, President Magariaf was actually in Sebha to meet with local officials and tribal leaders about the deteriorating security situation and the frequent clashes between tribes that formerly supported Gaddafi (notably the Qadhadhifa and Magarha) and those with pristine revolutionary credentials and a tradition of historic leadership in the Fezzan (especially the Awlad Sulayman). 

Due to the unrest in the area, most of Libya’s “South” was declared a closed military zone on December 16. In addition to calling for a military governor to impose order on the warring tribes of the South, this action temporarily closed Libya’s borders with Chad, Niger, Sudan and Algeria. This was deemed a practical necessity to combat smuggling and to pre-emptively insolate Libya from the political blowback that would accompany refugees from Northern Mali should the situation further deteriorate there.

Despite this seemingly rational policy calculus, such actions represent a sorry state of affairs for Libya’s benighted South which needs jobs and infrastructural investment, not military governance, which only further antagonises its inhabitants and regional powerbrokers.

Missing the big picture

Just as the glut of coverage of the US Congressional hearings surrounding the killing of Ambassador Stevens has falsely highlighted the immediacy of the threat posed by Islamist radicals and federalists in Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya), the dearth of coverage in Western media of Magariaf’s surviving an assassination attempt (no mentions in the New York Times, Washington Post, or BBC) has effectively concealed from public view the dangers posed by endemic smuggling, warring tribes, sporadic violence and low-level ethnic cleansing in Libya’s “South”. 

Fault Lines
The US and the new Middle East: Libya

Therefore, both Western governments and the Libyans themselves appear to have been prioritising Benghazi and Cyrenaica over other potential problem spots, such as the Fezzan. 

A month ago, things seemed far more hopeful. An elected cabinet with the legitimacy to govern was sworn into office. The Libyan public waited with baited breath for them to unveil grand new initiatives to create jobs, clarify the confusion surrounding the selection of the committee to draft the constitution, build national institutions and get militiamen off the streets. Yet, little appears to have happened and what little has happened, has happened in coastal Libya.

Solving Libya’s political, social, and economic problems requires bold decision making and innovative plans. This is especially the case in Libya’s currently ungovernable spaces. The previous government of Abdurrahman Al-Kib was too timid to take the steps necessary to assert its authority in places like the Fezzan. 

As the focus of the current Ali Zidan government remains squarely on security – narrowly defined and implemented via old-fashioned mechanisms such as imposing military governance and co-opting militiamen with handouts – national infrastructure planning and getting the cranes moving has lagged. Yet, to achieve security, the economy must create wealth, jobs and a sense of inclusion for all of Libya’s regions.

Hence, one of Libya’s immediate concerns must be the economic and social development of the Fezzan region – Libya’s neglected Saharan interior. And the Libyan authorities should do this not to appease tribes, citizens and militias in the Fezzan, but because it is truly a national and international priority. 

Security through development

Prime Minister Zidan is well placed to understand the pressing problems in the Fezzan. He was born in Widdan, a key gateway to the South. As the development pendulum swings, the approach of Libyan national policymakers and central authorities should be the incorporation of a macro view of national economic development rather than one built upon regional favouritism, appeasing certain constituents, or short-term security concerns.  

In the case of the Fezzan, however, long-term national and regional security issues bolster the need for sustained economic development. Libya’s South is the country’s soft underbelly – bordering northwestern Sudan, Chad, Niger, southwestern Egypt and southeastern Algeria. The strip of land from northern Chad all the way to Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean is known as the Sahel region – one of the world’s poorest areas and a site of vast socio-economic deprivation.

In the Sahel, central government control is at its weakest and hence the potential for non-state actors, like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to recruit, arm and train is at its greatest. Recent events in Mali, Niger and the Fezzan clearly illustrate this threat. If the Sahel does not experience economic growth and the extension of government control, it will remain the Afghanistan of Africa for decades to come. 

By contrast, an economically developed Fezzan region – centrally governed and integrated into Libya’s core infrastructural and governance network – could play a major role in the development of the Sahel and ultimately in its pacification. As economic growth accelerates, Fezzan could offer employment opportunities to the labour force from neighbouring countries and help ease the tide of undocumented migrants.  

A road map for the development

A key project that would help to transform the Fezzan, provide local employment opportunities and contribute to regional development is to turn Sebha airport into a regional cargo transit hub. There have been a number of studies for such a hub for the Sahel region but none of them considered the Fezzan or Sebha.

The airport project could be tendered by the Libyan authorities on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis. The central government’s contribution could be limited to laying down the necessary transport, communication and security infrastructure as well as budgeting for their operation and maintenance. 

“With the right expertise, it would not require many years for the Fezzan to be at the forefront of non-fossil fuel electricity generation.”

Furthermore, Fezzan is one of the world’s most well-suited regions for solar energy generation. Foreign companies and the Libyan government should begin investing in the Fezzan to benefit from these favourable conditions and its proximity to Europe. With the right expertise, it would not require many years for the Fezzan to be at the forefront of non-fossil fuel electricity generation. To forward such undertakings, the University of Sebha could partner with universities in the United States and Europe to help bring about the transformation of the region.  

To start this virtuous cycle, the University of Sebha should draw on the wealth of experiences and knowhow of Western universities that have for decades been engaged in specialised research concerning agricultural and soil conditions in areas with scarce water resources and combating desert conditions. In the US, Arizona has very similar climatic and soil conditions; its universities would be natural partners. In shouldering this responsibility and assuming this pioneering role, the University of Sebha could itself become a centre of excellence in the Sahel region and node in triggering regional development.

With the right strategic partners and mechanisms in place, the Fezzan will be ripe for myriad projects requiring little capital outlay which are also well-suited to the social structure of the local population scattered around the various oases. Both tank fish farming and date palm cultivation are suitable as small community projects and have a track record of success in similar soil and climatic conditions. 

Libya’s development cliff

Libya’s central government is on the edge of its own kind of cliff with far more long-term implications than that faced by Congress. Without an improvement in security, foreign companies and technicians will not return to Libya – oil production and infrastructural spending will stagnate.

Simultaneously, if the Libyan government does not combine attempts to provide security with the implementation of coherent plans to spur economic development, many of Libya’s far flung regions will soon become entirely ungovernable. This could lead to a negative spiral and a descent into warlordism akin to that developing in Mali where tribes, Islamist radicals and outside actors vie for control and the conditions of the local population has descended to a truly medieval level.  

Conversely, Libya has the money, knowhow, and international alliances to establish a virtuous cycle. The Fezzan urgently needs to be integrated into the rest of Libya via infrastructural investment, job creation, demobilisation of militias and strategic partnerships with outside universities and corporations. The current crisis represents a great opportunity. One can only hope Libya does not become yet another example in a long list of wasted opportunities and wasted revolutions. 

Jason Pack is a researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University, President of, and editor of  The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan Forthcoming). 

Abdullah Elmaazi is founder and CEO of Trakon Consulting & Training which offers training and consultancy in the oil, gas and water industries. He is a regular contributor to The Tripoli Post.