The Libyan faction leader, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, made global headlines this month with his assault on the capital, Tripoli. But in January, fewer people noticed his preparatory move: a takeover of the country’s vast southern region, Fezzan. Fezzan is mostly desert but flecked with oil fields and agriculturally rich oases. Libya’s U.N.-recognized government, which is Haftar’s rival in claiming power, has largely neglected the south, leaving armed groups from different tribes to fight for control of economic resources. This absence of governance, across an area larger than California, offers a haven for threats to regional and U.S. security interests: human trafficking, arms smuggling, and violent extremist groups.
The United Nations endeavor to broker a political agreement for an end to fighting and a single national government will depend on establishing stability in the south. Even though national-level peacemaking now seems stalled by the battle for Tripoli, efforts to build peace at local levels can lay foundations for a more durable overall peace when the national-level process can be resumed. In Fezzan, local peacebuilding can reduce the risks that the region’s violence and instability will affect neighboring states, Europe or the United States.
Haftar recognized the importance of Fezzan to any Libyan government when he moved his forces, a mix of fighting groups called the Libyan National Army (LNA), into oil fields and towns in the south in January. He has said his army will provide the security and stability that Fezzan has lacked. That promise makes the prospect of rule by the Libyan National Army more appealing to many in the south, but the LNAs governance and human rights record makes it uncertain that it can provide good governance or justice.
Fezzan always has been important to Libya and its neighbors for its trade routes connecting sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast. Since the 1960s, Libya has pumped its wealth from the region’s oil fields, and from the 1980s it tapped Fezzan’s underground aquifers to grow food and pump water supplies to coastal cities.
Fezzan’s people, fewer than a half-million, live in the scattered valleys and oases where aquifers allow irrigated farming. But since the 2011 overthrow of Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi, the region’s tribes have fought for control of Fezzan’s resources. Violence and the absence of government has let irrigation systems and other infrastructure decay. Formerly productive farmland is desiccated, leaving increasingly poor residents to survive on smuggling and the informal economy.
Sebha: Stabilizing a Divided City
Fezzan’s mix of tribes—including ethnic Arabs, Imazighen (or Berbers), Tuaregs and Tebu—often have coexisted in peace. But over four decades, Qadhafi exploited tribal divisions to maintain control, privileging his own tribe, the Gadhadfa. Since Qadhafi’s ouster, Fezzan tribes have formed militias and periodically fought for control of resources. A large tribe that is rival to the Gadhadfa, the Awlad Suleiman, has gained control of many local institutions in the city.
Midway between Libya’s southwestern border and the Mediterranean coast, the city of Sebha perches at the edge of a sea of Saharan sand dunes. Sebha’s 100,000 or more residents form 20 percent of Fezzan’s entire population. Much of the city’s life and many of its neighborhoods are segregated by tribe, and tribal militias have fought, at times with tanks, in the city’s streets, uprooting thousands of people who now live with relatives or in camps. Fighting spiked last year between the Tebu and the Awlad Suleiman. The tribal violence often forces people to make everyday decisions based on fear. Depending on their tribal identity, where is it safe to buy bread, or to let children walk to school? Can they seek medical care at Sebha’s hospital?
The United Nations has targeted Sebha as one of seven key cities in which to fund projects to promote the country’s stabilization and recovery. The U.N. Development Program (UNDP) has rehabilitated clinics and schools, and recently donated generators to keep the city’s sewage system working and end floods of sewage in the city.
But development work easily can be ruined and wasted in a city where conflicts are still resolved by armed battles. USIP works with UNDP’s Stabilization Facility for Libya and with Sebha-based groups to ensure that development work is shaped in ways that ease the city’s conflicts rather than exacerbating them. And the Institute works with local leaders and civil society to build the community’s capacity to solve its conflicts nonviolently. In Sebha, as elsewhere in Libya, USIP has found young Libyans, in particular, eager to bring an end to the violence that has frustrated the hope for better lives that ignited during the 2011 popular uprising.
To Build Trust, Find a Problem to Solve Together
How can a battle-scarred city, divided among its combatants, be brought together? A useful strategy is to gather the community to tackle a problem that all sides agree should be solved. Over recent months, USIP has worked with a Sebha-based civic-improvement group, the Fezzan Libya Organization, to identify this first community initiative, and prepare a city-wide dialogue that will start this month.
The problem to be solved is this: every Thursday night, when by weddings in Sebha traditionally are held, the men in families celebrating the marriages step out to the street with their automatic rifles and fire fusillades of bullets into the sky. Celebratory gunfire, practiced in regions as disparate as the Middle East, Latin America, the Balkans and South Asia, consistently has killed and injured people in Sebha.
USIP and its partners determined that the problem of wedding gunfire is one around which they can gather people from every tribe—and from groups in the community who often lack a voice, such as women and youth. USIP has trained 13 community leaders to organize a community-wide dialogue to address the problem. These local peacebuilders are from diverse backgrounds—a woman who hosts public affairs discussions on a Sebha radio station, a prominent local scholar, a young politician, and a handful of civic activists in the Fezzan Libya Organization. With the Institute’s support, they will guide the community over the next months in shaping a plan to discourage the destructive gunfire and find alternative ways for people to celebrate.
A problem-solving effort that improves life in the city will help all sides see the benefits of dialogue and compromise. That will create a base of greater trust and hope from which Sebha’s various groups might be helped to work on more sensitive problems, such as restoring displaced families to their homes and seeking justice for crimes committed in the battles of recent years.
The Power of Local Dialogues
Such dialogues in communities riven by bloodshed are difficult, and they build reconciliation only gradually, over the long term. But ultimately, they can move such communities from violent conflict to peaceful management of their differences. A vital point for ending violence in tribalized societies such as Libya’s is that community dialogues do not require people to deny their tribal identities. Strong tribal identities need not be an obstacle to peace. Indeed, they have been shown to reduce people’s vulnerability to being recruited into violent extremist groups. The solution is to build a practice of cross-tribal cooperation within communities.
It may seem quixotic to pursue local-level peace initiatives in a country where rival factions are battling for control of the capital. But USIP has backed local leaders similar to the Sebha dialogue facilitators in northeastern Syria to reduce local conflicts amid that country’s war. Local dialogue projects in Iraq during and after the war with ISIS have produced community peace accords that let more than 600,000 displaced people return home in recent years. When paths to national peacemaking are blocked, better foundations for future success can be built at local levels.
Extending such local peacebuilding efforts to Fezzan is critical to the success of any national-level peace process. It also will help protect the region’s resources and hidden human heritage. For USIP, a focus on long-term peacebuilding in Fezzan reflects America’s commitment to the security and well-being of Libyans—and to marginalized people around the world who are struggling for futures free of violent conflict.
Abigail Corey is a USIP program assistant for Libya, based in Tunis.