“Proxy” war and tribal conflict in the Libyan south

Mapping tribal conflict in the south:


While the war was raging between Hiftar-led forces and their Operation Dignity and his opponents, the Libya Dawn forces, a forum on peace and security on the African continent that gathered Sahel political leaders was taking place in Dakar in Senegal On 15 and 16 December 2014. Speaking to the audience, Chadian president, Idriss Déby Itno vociferously blasted the NATO allies for having failed to restore peace and stability in post-Gaddafi Libya, stressing that the solution is in the hands of NATO, “which created the (Libyan) disorder”. Chad, which has complained of the increasing presence of religious militant groups with “jihadist” ideology, is home to French military base, which has been watching over the moves of such groups in the region.

Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime following popular revolt of Libyan people and NATO intervention in March 2011, the North African nation fell prey to chaos and disorder that was exacerbated by the political vacuum left by the former regime, the proliferation of weapons in the country and the recent conflict between forces loyal to retired General Khalifa Hiftar and Libya Dawn forces and their allies in Western Libya. The south became gripped in such a conflict, which has been conflated with existing tribal conflicts, mainly those pitting the Tebus and the Tuaregs. The former are loosely allied to Libya Dignity forces led by Hiftar and the latter are allied to Libya Dawn with the city of Misrata, 200 km east of Tripoli, claiming to be the central force on the ground.

To complicate things, neighboring Sudan has entered the scene in a bid to contain the spillover effect of such a threat to it through its border with Libya. Kufra a southeastern Libyan oasis town is home to the Arab-majority Zwai tribe and the Tebu-minority tribe, which has witnessed bloody clashes in February 2012, in which scores of Tebus died; tribal conflicts that surfaced to the ground a few months after the overthrow of Gaddafi. Many Tebus have sought refuge in Ubari in 2012 following the clashes, represents this nexus in the Libyan-Sudanese relations.

A Tebu local from Kufra, Kalami Ramadan who fled with his family to Obari due to his political activism in 2012 following the clashes with Zway tribe, had to witness further clashes in the summer of 2014 between the Tebus and Tuaregs. He since returned to Kufra, where the warring Tebus and Zway tribes reached a peace deal in the summer of 2014[1].

Kufra got a respite as it sought to lead a normal life. The town had suffered from shortage of basic necessities, Internet and power outages throughout 2014.

Conversely, Murzuk, another oasis town in the southwest, east of Obari was not affected by tribal clashes and it remained calm. Yet it witnessed large influx of Tebus from Obari who fled due to the clashes between Tebus and Tuaregs in the town in September 2014. Tebus also make up a big part of the population of the town of Murzuk in the southwest.

As Abu W. Libyan media and civil society activist pointed out to me in November 2014 the issue has to do with ethnic and tribal sensitivities but mainly power ».

« Tribal clashes are caused by political vacuum, » he stressed. He conceded that conflicts in Libya are complex they start as criminal activities sometimes and later develop into political fights[2].


The Kufra connection: Sudan’s “ambiguous role” in the conflict


Kufra has become notorious for being the hub for illegal immigrants from neighboring Sudan since the fall of the Gaddafi regime. It is in its airport that a Sudanese plane was allegedly caught with weapons aboard in September 2014 when it landed to refuel before departing to Tripoli’s Mitiga airport. The local military leader of Kufra later denied that the plane was carrying weapons to arm Libya Dawn militants.

The fact that Sudan might have become entangled in the Libyan quagmire may be revealing of an escalating “proxy” war, that some analysts have described of the involvement of outside or foreign forces in the current conflict in Libya out since the beginning of Hiftar’s Operation Dignity in May 2014. With Libya Dawn, being largely supported by Turkey and to lesser extent Qatar – this latter’s support for Libyan Islamists has dwindled since the Libyan revolution, on the one hand, and of UAE, Egypt and sometimes Saudi Arabia supporting directly or indirectly Operation Dignity by General Hiftar, alliances between Libyan actors on the ground and the outside actors seem to be clear cut and the Libyan south has not been unaffected by such strategic alliances.

With the Tuaregs entering in a strategic alliance with Libya Dawn, represented by Misrata Third Force in the south, mainly in the Tuareg-majority regions of Ubari and Ghat, their Tebu counterparts largely chose to ally themselves with General Hiftar’s Operation Dignity. Tebus, who in 2012 had their lot of tribal conflict with the Arab tribe of Zway, found themselves pitted against the Tuaregs over alliances in the current conflict. Here Sudan’s entry in the scene signaled a turn of events when it became apparent that Libya’s southeastern neighbor has drawn suspicion as to its motives in sending a military transport with weapons and ammunitions in September 2014, despite the denial from the local military commander of Kufra and head of the Libyan side of the joint Libyan-Sudanese border control force, Colonel Suleiman Hamed Hassan[3].

Followed the incident the expulsion of Sudan’s military attaché in Libya, to which Sudanese government reacted by strongly denying having sent weapons to any of the protagonists in the conflict, and that it remains neutral. It also expressed its preoccupations by the repercussions of the conflict leading to instability, offering to mediate between the various factions on the ground, its foreign ministry spokesman in Khartoum stated in September 2014. Additionally, cooperation between Libya and Sudan on halting illegal immigration from Libya’s southern border has been activated last year with the creation of the joint Libyan-Sudanese border control force.

Illegal immigration remains another security challenge for the oasis town of Kufra adding to the region’s problems, but an issue that is being kept under control thanks to the Libyan-Sudanese cooperation. Kufra Department of Illegal Immigration continues to deport hundreds of illegal immigrants mainly from Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria (in December 2014 it deported 248) and whom smugglers from Sudan and Chad, are using them, by charging them thousands of dollars to send them to northeastern Libya to be later sent on boats bound to Europe.


Prospects for containing the conflict


Generally, efforts at containing the conflict in the Libyan southeast, unlike in the southwest of the country proved to be relatively successful with Sudan “willingness” to find a solution to the conflict through its mediation efforts and the recent truce reached between Tuaregs and Tebus in the south to end hostilities. All this in the face of further challenges with rising threats of radical jihadist groups in the region and most recently the advance of Boko Haram to neighboring Niger and Chad, which may threaten Libya’s already faltering stability. African Union recent decision to send 8,000 strong troops to fight Boko Haram is another effort in containing the war in the Sahel region.

[1] Interview with the author in September 2014

[2] Interview with the author in November 2014

[3] Waleed, F.  « Update: Sudan weapons plane caught in Kufra Thursday”, September 6, 2014.



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