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Michel Duijvestijn "Ghat Libya" / via flickr

The Libyan crisis - Implications for stabilization efforts in the Sahel and Northern Mali

Morten Bøås | 03 March 2015

If the international community is to succeed in Northern Mali, it must apply a regional focus that goes beyond narrow counter-terrorism efforts and works with different types of actors to restore local governance structures and livelihood opportunities.

The fall of Gaddafi and the breakdown of Libyan state as we knew it has left yet another open wound in a volatile and conflict-prone region. This has a number of implications for current international stabilization efforts in the Sahel and Northern Mali. If they are to succeed, the international community must apply a regional focus that goes beyond narrow counter-terrorism efforts and works with different types of actors to restore local governance structures and offers livelihood opportunities. Without such a focus, the armed Islamist forces expelled from Northern Mali will easily establish new rearguard bases elsewhere, including in the Southern Libyan region of Fezzan. Designing a new approach to the region will not be easy and will involve asking hard questions about current stabilization efforts in the region. Without a new approach, however, current stabilization efforts will not be sustainable. The international community will simply put out a fire one place, only for it to reignite elsewhere in the region until the process has gone full circle and goes back to where it first started. 

Gaddafi was undoubtedly a ruthless dictator and at times a source of regional and global instability, who used his oil wealth to support all kinds of rebel movements around the world; from trafficking weapons to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to establishing training camps in Libya for people like Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh, and going to war against Chad to claim the Aozou Strip.

However, Gaddafi’s Libya was also a bastion of stability in a volatile region. Its borders were relatively well-controlled and Gaddafi was at times a constructive actor in peace agreements in Mali and Niger. Perhaps most importantly, Libya not only provided much needed foreign direct investment to neighbouring Sahel countries, but was also a source of employment for people from nearby and faraway African countries. Now all of this is gone, and Libya has become a source of instability itself.

The current crisis in Libya is only one step further from the precarious situation that emerged when Gaddafi fell, but still the recent escalation of fighting could be the start of a protracted civil war, pitting various regional, political, economic and religious interests against each other, in a type of alliance-building (internally and externally) that will further fragment rather than bring together a possible future hegemonic ruling coalition.  

The old Libyan army has made an attempt to recruit new fighters but it lacks experienced soldiers, as many of those that served under Gaddafi and survived the uprising have chosen not to return to their positions. Other state-affiliated armed units are also operating, but most, like the al-Saiqa forces (the Libyan army’s elite unit), are embedded regionally and/or have been caught up on various sides since ‘Operation Dignity’, launched by General Khalifia Haftar in May 2014 to target the Libyan Islamist militias. It is, therefore, hard to see a coherent national coalition emerging from these diverse forces in the short-to-medium-term.

Much the same can be said about the other armed forces in the country. Some Islamist groups, such as the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade and the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, are fairly strong but are still far from being able to assume national control. There are also a number of other militias with regional strongholds, like the al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council in Zintan and the Nafusa Mountains, but none of them are strong enough to offer much stability outside their regional fiefdoms (and often not even there). The result is a ‘weave-world’ of alliances and counter-alliances that are made and broken on an ad-hoc basis.

This is not good at all for the prospects for peace and stability in Libya, but it is also having negative consequences on attempts to stabilize the situation further south in the Sahel. This is not to say that we are only moments away from witnessing the establishment of a larger coalition of Jihadist forces uniting AQIM and MUJAO of the Sahel with the Libyan Islamist groups, but the current volatility of Libya offers AQIM and MUJAO the possibility of new safe havens for local integration. Thus, the immediate outcome will not necessarily be that these actors will reinforce each other as such, but that the emergence of a whole regional space without functioning legitimate state structures will result in the accumulation of instability in the Sahel.

Currently, negotiations are slowly taking place in an attempt to find a durable solution to the crisis in Northern Mali. However, this is difficult in itself as not only is the level of trust between Tuareg rebels and the Malian state very low, but the sentiment among the majority population in Mali is also not in favour of giving much in these negotiations. It is important to acknowledge that ‘IBK’ (Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the current Malian president) was elected on a popular platform of resistance to large concessions to the Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali. This does not provide a suitable platform for negotiations, but the peace process is also complicated by the fact that the most important armed actors in this part of the Sahel are not present at the negotiating table.

There is simply no place for actors like AQIM and MUJAO in such negotiations, but they continue to make their presence felt through a series of small-scale attacks against the Malian army and the UN force. Even if they no longer have large bases or control much territory as such in Northern Mali, they are still able to operate in the form of small armed units supported by larger rearguard bases in the Fezzan region of Libya where they have already started working on  local integration strategies similar to those they used in Northern Mali. This is possible, not because the issues at stake are similar, but because the situation is similar. Where both security and local livelihood opportunities are lacking, anybody who can offer them will have an opportunity to integrate locally, and the Islamist forces can offer this because they have weapons, money and an ideology to offer local populations.

Thus, the situation that we are currently seeing, where Islamist forces that have been forced to leave Northern Mali attempt to integrate locally in the Southern Libyan region of Fezzan to establish new rearguard bases, is likely to continue until either a national coalition once more gains full control of Libya or the international community launches a successful full-scale intervention in Libya, neither of which are very likely to occur. What we therefore must be prepared for is continued instability and conflict in this part of the Sahel, and the people who live here will have no other choice than to attempt to negotiate their own security as best as they can, establishing relations of collaboration and cordiality with whoever have the power to use force in the area where they live.

Thus, as no sustainable solutions are within reach at the moment, it would be wise to start rethinking current international approaches in order to link future responses to crises in this region to the realities on the ground and not to what one wished the world looked like. The current situation in this region is so entrenched and complicated that it will not be easy to find a way forward. However, what is obviously clear is that, if the international community and the local actors it supports are to succeed, they must apply a much broader regional focus beyond current narrow counter-terrorism efforts. What is needed is a pragmatic human security framework that works with a multitude of actors (formal and informal/armed and non-armed) in order to restore local governance structure as well as offering livelihood opportunities.  

Photo credit main picture: Michel Duijvestijn "Ghat Libya" / via flickr

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Morten Bøås

Morten Bøås (PhD) is Research Professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

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