Dec 4, 2012 | 11:00 GMT

4 mins read

Libya: The Importance of Managing Southern Tribal Conflicts

 A tribal rebel fires a rocket propelled grenade from a militia post on February 27, 2011 in Ajdabiya, Libya.
( John Moore/Getty Images)

A delegation from the Toubou tribe, one of several semi-nomadic African tribes in southern Libya, traveled to Tripoli on Nov. 27 for talks to help resolve tensions after a Zuwaya tribesman allegedly killed a Toubou tribesman, Libyan media reported. Violence between the Toubou and Zuwaya tribes around the southeastern town of Kufra has existed since the Gadhafi era, but like southern Libya's other tribal conflicts, it was repressed by the Gadhafi regime. Since Gadhafi was removed from power in October 2011, tribal violence in southern Libya has intensified. In the absence of a strong central government in Tripoli, the southern tribal conflicts threaten critical energy installations and key infrastructure.

Tribal disputes are just one of many challenges the Libyan provisional government will face in the future. But of these tribal disputes, the Toubou-Zuwaya conflict is particularly important because of the threat it poses to oil and water resources.

The Toubou are found along Libya's fluid southern border with Niger and Chad. Due to their cultural and linguistic differences, the Toubou were thoroughly repressed under Gadhafi. Even before Gadhafi took power in 1969, the Kingdom of Libya's citizenship laws, enacted in 1954, made it difficult for non-Arab tribes to assimilate into mainstream Libyan Arab society.

Desertification and difficulties associated with their traditional way of life forced many Toubou to move north, putting them at odds with other, Arab tribes, particularly the Zuwaya, in the areas of southern Libya surrounding the oasis towns of Sabha and Kufra. During Gadhafi's Arabization campaigns, the regime's interventions typically favored the Zuwaya over the Toubou, supporting local Arab tribal suppression of minority groups that competed for resources and control of Saharan trade routes. This support fueled the Toubou's and other minority groups' anti-government sentiment that lingers today.

Libya's Tribes

Libya Tribes Map

When the anti-Gadhafi revolt began in early 2011, the Toubou fought Gadhafi forces in the southern provinces and sent fighters as far north as Benghazi to join the February 17 Martyrs' Brigade. After Gadhafi's fall, they regularly petitioned the National Transitional Council and then its replacement, the General National Congress, for increased rights and recognition and for mediation in the conflict with the Zuwaya, who are resisting the loss of their preferential status and dominance over local governance in Kufra.

Unless the fledgling government finds a way to deal effectively with the Toubou, Zuwaya, Berbers, Tuaregs and other tribal groups in southern Libya, there is a very real chance that it will foster not just further tribal violence but also opposition to the central government. That would be more problematic for an already strained governing body.

The Toubou and Zuwaya present one of the most difficult challenges to the government's attempts to create an inclusive Libyan society. Both tribes are rooted deeply in southern Libya at the fringes of Libyan society. They live along trade routes that traditionally have moved drugs, people and weapons through the Sahara. Unlike northern militias, which are more easily integrated — politically and economically — into society, the tribes far to the south remain more culturally distinct. They also harbor grievances that are not as easily settled financially, which could make them more difficult for a distant or weak government to control. Their proximity to key infrastructure — such as energy resources, oil wells and the Great Man-Made River — could present a credible threat to the economy and northern cities.

The chance of the southern tribal disputes affecting oil production increases during times of violence. In July 2012, Zuwaya tribesmen reportedly cut off oil production and threatened water supplies to the Great Man-Made River, which delivers critical fossil groundwater supplies to Libya's population centers along the coast.

The government in Tripoli is moving to consolidate its power while balancing against the northern militias and regional power centers such as Benghazi, but it cannot afford to neglect tribal issues in the south. The Toubou delegation's visit to Tripoli signals a willingness to recognize the provisional government's authority, but there are many recent incidents, such as October's Misuratan offensive against the town of Bani Walid, to serve as reminders that restive factions will settle their own disputes if the government fails to act. Libya's southern tribes in particular have plenty of options to remind the north that their grievances and their role in Libya's future must be taken into consideration.

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