Libya in the African Context – A History Waiting to Be Written

In the flurry of assessments and debates about the 2011 war in Libya that overthrew the country’s longtime ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, there has been little scholarly or policy attention to Libya’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa during and after the conflict.

The World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School (institutional partner of the RAS on African Arguments) recently convened a seminar to examine aspects of this relationship after the conflict as well to bring to light untold or under-appreciated components of African engagement during the war that overthrew Gaddafi. Below is a summary of the seminar with links to short essays that several of the participants contributed afterwards. A full seminar briefing paper is available here.

Turning Away from Africa

As Faraj Najem argues, over modern history, the relationship between Libya and sub-Saharan Africa has been checkered. There are important historic links across the Sahara, especially associated with the Sanussiya of Cyrenaica. Also, nomadic groups in the Fezzan, including the Toubou and Tuareg, range into the neighboring countries. In modern times, Libyan-African relations were closely identified with the person of Muammar Gaddafi. Rebuffed by Arab leaders, Gaddafi turned towards Africa and tried to buy influence, while also promoting grandiose visions of himself as the leader of the continent. His military adventurism in the continent included support both for legitimate liberation movements (such as the South Africa’s ANC) and for insurgents.

Today, in post-Gaddafi Libya, there is a popular perception that as a result of this largesse sub-Saharan Africans in general, and the African Union (AU) in particular, supported Gaddafi. As a cause or perhaps a consequence of this perception, during the conflict that overthrew Gaddafi many black Libyans fighting on behalf of the former leader were stigmatized as “African mercenaries.” This may have been because Libyans did not want to acknowledge that their compatriots were committing violations of human rights. The sum effect is that Libyans in the post-Gaddafi context are leaning away from Africa, albeit with important exceptions such as those countries that actively supported the NTC.

Nonetheless, geography cannot be overcome. For a host of reasons, including regional and international security concerns, Libya cannot ignore sub-Saharan Africa. It shares concerns with its regional neighbors over the proliferation of weapons, trafficking of people across the Sahara, and use of smuggling routes for illicit commodities such as drugs. Libya will also need cooperation on issues such as the presence of exiled members of the former regime in African countries and Libya’s commercial investments across Africa. However, given the new Libyan leadership’s deep distrust, we should not expect to see a rapid improvement in the relationship.

Stories from the fall

The African Union Mediation Effort

United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011, in paragraph 1, demanded an immediate ceasefire, and in paragraph 2, stressed the need to find a solution to the crisis, making specific mention of the AU’s effort at “facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.” Nonetheless, by the time this resolution was passed, the P3 (France, Britain and the United States) had already made their decision that military action would continue until regime change had been achieved. The UN was of the opinion that there was no opportunity for negotiations until the killing of civilians had ceased. The AU’s position was that there was always time for negotiation, and that an attempted military solution would have high costs for Libya and unknowable repercussions for the region.

The AU initiative suffered from many flaws, including internal divisions within the continent, poor public relations, and the failure to counteract negative perceptions of the African intention and role among Libyans and internationally. The Libyan opposition was deeply skeptical of the AU’s endeavor. Nonetheless the AU roadmap and framework were the only full package on offer for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and it failed primarily due to opposition from the P3. From an early date, members of the AU’s ad hoc High Level Committee were clear in private that Gaddafi needed to step down, and managed to wring a tacit concession from him on this. South African President Jacob Zuma, who chaired the committee, put considerable effort into the initiative and coordinated with the Russians. However, by the time that talks reached the stage at which Gaddafi was actively contemplating leaving power, the NTC was gearing up for its final offensive on Tripoli.

Alex de Waal argues that, “The AU’s principal diplomatic advantage was that only African leaders could make the case to Gaddafi that he should both stop his assault on civilian populations and step down, with any credibility. A combination of African access to Gaddafi and NATO leverage over the TNC could have provided the basis for a negotiated settlement. However, this possibility was never pursued.”

Neighbors’ Involvements

The role of Sudan was critical in the overthrow of Gaddafi. Sudanese support to the Libyan opposition was immediate and generous, based on Sudan’s interest in ending Gaddafi’s patterns of interference in its internal affairs, by, for instance, supporting rebel groups like the Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur. Sudanese support stretched far beyond engaging in supporting the anti-Gaddafi elements in the local politics of south east Libya. As examined in depth by Asim Fath-Elrahman Ahmed Elhag, The NTC leadership sought out Sudanese support and were provided wit weaponry, logistics and expertise that were enormously helpful in the war effort, up to the western mountains, Misrata and Tripoli itself. The extent of this support has never been fully documented but it is openly acknowledged by both the NTC and Sudan, though not yet by NATO. It is not clear whether there was actual battlefield coordination between Sudanese intelligence officers and NATO in terms of target selection by aircraft. Sudan’s role has continued beyond the conflict in terms of monitoring the southern borders of Libya, tracking Gaddafi loyalists, and helping with contacts between the NTC and some sub-Saharan countries (e.g. Niger).

Chad leaned towards supporting Gaddafi during 2011. Chadian policies towards Libya must be seen in the light of the history of wars between the two countries, including the territorial dispute over the Aouzou strip, the Libyan annexation of Chad, and Libyan sponsorship of particular leaders in the Chadian civil wars. The north-south conflict in Chad is itself in large part a product of Libya intervention.

Chadian President Idriss Déby feared the NTC, which he saw as rigidly Islamist and ready to expel Africans from Libya. He was also aware of the potential for Libya to destabilize its neighbor. After the conflict, Déby is looking to normalize relations with the NTC, but he also has a strong commitment to the Toubou who live both in northern Chad and southern Libya and will, if necessary, intervene to back them up in their local conflicts inside Libya.

Libyans see Chad as their backyard. Cyrenaica has historic links to Chad through the Sanussi order. Tripolitania’s links to Chad are much weaker.

Current international policies towards southern Libya, northern Chad and the neighboring areas of the Sahara, tend to be framed by the international political boundaries, which are arbitrary. While counterterrorism policy is integrated across the region, political engagement is not.

Algeria is a powerful influence throughout the Maghreb and the Sahara. Algerian politics present an enigma: it gives the appearance of continual crisis but the regime displays a remarkable resilience. It is an oligarchic state in which each faction of the elite also has a reach into the opposition, creating a structure that is remarkably resistant to systemic change, despite day-to-day signs of crisis such as numerous local riots. The regime also has a memory of the 1988 October demonstrations that led to the Algeria’s failed democratization and subsequent civil war, and is determined not to repeat the same mistakes. The government has learned to manage expressions of popular discontent, using the pattern of numerous local demonstrations to identify the most pressing issues needing its attention, without being threatened.

Algeria took a strong non-interventionist position in the 2011 conflict and Libyans see it as representing the old order. The Algerian security services enjoy a reputation for penetrating all armed groups and political formations both inside and across their borders, making them a formidable presence in the region.

The role of Qatar in Libya and more widely in the Middle East and Africa has not been subject to much critical scrutiny by scholars, perhaps because of Qatar’s role as a prominent sponsor of higher education, research and mediation. However, as Lina Khatib has written, the rapid emergence of this small but rich state as an important player in the wider region deserves attention. Initially Qatar carved out the niche of mediator, serving as friend to all, but during 2011 played a more assertive role in intervening in Libya. Qatar’s extensive engagements throughout the region can be characterized as “promiscuous,” pursued to further its interests of competing with Saudi Arabia, countering Iran, gaining favor in the West, and protecting its own security. Within the Arab countries, Qatar has filled a vacuum of state mediator, but in its efforts to expand into Africa, it has moved into a more crowded field and run up against the AU. There are important unanswered questions about the professionalism, effectiveness and sustainability of Qatar’s foreign policy roles.

The Conflict in Mali

The seminar paid special attention to the conflict in Mali. While this crisis was triggered by the Libyan conflict, specifically the return of several thousand Malian Tuareg who had served in the Libyan armed forces, the roots of the crisis are internal to Mali. In fact, the problem should be seen not as a crisis in the north, but, as Jeremy Swift states, as one intrinsic to the Malian state itself, which has since independence failed to come to a workable political arrangement with the Tuareg and other populations of the northern regions, as well as failing to address the needs of citizens in the south.

The current situation, with several insurgent groups (separatist and Islamist) operating in northern Mali, and a decrepit political system and army in the southern part of the country, is unsustainable. The objective of the government and the international community should not be to restore Malian state pride and territorial integrity, but to reform and restructure the Malian state. The military option, currently being pursued, suggests three main scenarios, none of them promising. Under scenario one, the Government of Mali and ECOWAS launch an offensive to recapture the north, and “win.” This would provoke a humanitarian crisis and would further embitter the Tuareg and radicalize the inhabitants of the north. Under scenario two, the rebels win, with a similar outcome. The third scenario is a stalemate.

A national political settlement is needed. The best options are those based on the 1992 National Charter, including maximum devolution of powers to the northern regions and a national process of reconciliation. However, the necessary internal political forces to push for such a solution are not currently present and international discussions are largely focused on military intervention.

The internal dynamics within the north also require attention. The Tuareg, themselves a diverse group, are only one ethnic group among several in the north, matched in numbers by Arabs and Songhai. Conventional distinctions between Sufis and Salafis in the north do not hold: the dynamics of Islamism are changing. The different insurgent groups have divergent agendas and may find it difficult to maintain a coalition.

Several commentators pointed out that beginning under US President George W. Bush, that the US provided significant support to the Malian army, which, nonetheless, crumbled at the first sign of insurgency. Its next move was to stage a coup. Before they can be expected to play an effective, let alone positive, role in resolving Mali’s armed insurgencies, the Malian military and security sector needs reform.

There was strong consensus amongst the Mali experts that the proposed military intervention is unworkable, but it has nonetheless generated a sense of inevitability. However, as Alex de Waal argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, there is room for maneuver. UN Security Council resolution 2071 on Mali demands that rebel groups cut ties with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but urges that negotiations take place between all other major players – including rebel groups, transitional authorities, and local leaders. Algeria is strongly opposed to a military intervention and is a key player. France is aware of the problems of an intervention and appears to be backtracking.


The following principal conclusions can be derived from the seminar.

  • The full account of the 2011 uprising, conflict and revolution remains to be written. There are important details of the AU mediation effort, and the roles of neighboring countries that have yet to see the light of day.
  • Libya and its sub-Saharan neighbours need to engage with one another, and the AU and Libya need to develop common understanding.
  • The central Sahara, consisting of southern Libya and the adjoining areas of the neighboring countries, should be studied as an integrated whole, in pursuit of integrated national and international policies.

Bridget Conley is Research Director at the World Peace Foundation.



via African Arguments

Libya in the African Context – A History Waiting to Be Written

Bridget Conley, a Research Director at the World Peace Foundation, writes on the need for the African continent to learn from the 2011 uprising in Libya.