Libya is fast following Somalia’s road to ruin – we must act now to stop it
By Richard Bailey
With Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq dominating the news, nobody is paying much attention to the violence in Tripoli that is swiftly tipping Libya over the edge. The UN and US have withdrawn and the UK have ordered all British nationals out. Yet, the repercussions of losing Libya are monumental, especially for Europe.
After twenty-three years searching for salvation, Somalia is taking little steps towards recovery. Sadly, all the signs show that Libya is following Somalia’s route to disaster as the country plunges backwards into a conflict so complex it could take decades to fix. The similarities with what went wrong in Somalia and what is now going wrong in Libya are there for all to see but we appear powerless to stop it.
In Libya today, social cohesion and trust are dangerously fragmenting on a geographic, tribal and religious basis in the midst of a multi-dimensional battle – all underpinned by the power and influence of oil.
With the loss of trust comes ever greater insecurity, the collapse of politics and governance. Violent conflict and quickly thereafter economic stagnation follows. In a short space of time, a once stable society deteriorates into anarchy and looming poverty, like a cartoon character falling through the floors of a high-rise building.
Libya’s oil reserves and their potentially enormous value lie at the heart of everything that has happened since the revolution; perverting and corrupting all reason and logic in a country that had everything it needed to flourish. Becoming the Dubai of North Africa was entirely within their grasp. But oil has lubricated the greasy pole of politics and the funnel down which the nation now spirals.
Libyans made a very simple calculation: value of oil sales divided by the adult population equals vast wealth without lifting a finger. So the natural post-revolution tendencies towards unity, entrepreneurship and hard work, so evident in neighbouring Tunisia, evaporated instantly.
The conflict between revolutionaries and the quietly fuming Gadhafi loyalists has smoldered since the day the tyrant died. But the most prominent agenda has been that of the Muslim Brotherhood, who lost no time in asserting itself and undermining politics. This led to in-fighting, the paralysis of government and the gradual slide into anarchy and corruption, with the repeated storming of Parliament by gunmen loyal to one side or another seemingly the only means of resolution to any stalemate.
Battle number one therefore has been the battle for political control: revolutionaries versus old guard Gadhafi loyalists; and tolerant, conservative moderation versus illiberal, religiously inspired oppression.
Next comes the regional conflict, centering on the resistance of locally based revolutionary militias to disarm. The lack of governance fed the sense of insecurity and strengthened the claim of militias to be treated as de facto police.
Therein lies battle number two, and the creeping power struggles between regional militias, all sustained and paid for by government in the vain hope of controlling them. City vs. city; East vs. West vs. South.
Rapidly entwined in this battle is the conflict surrounding the nation’s natural assets. Alongside each militia lie powerful biz-lords, thugs and bullies, who saw the paralysis of government and seized their opportunity to take control of state resources and utilities. Thereafter they became instruments through which to dictate terms to the government and further their own agendas. The government and Libyan people have repeatedly been held to ransom with their own assets and have been entirely powerless to prevent it.
And so then to the final battle – the battle for the soul of Libya.
In November last year, security in Benghazi was professional, overt, confident and reassuring. Then came the December clash, with forces loyal to the government clearing Ansar Sharia out of the city. The backlash came hard and fast.
By January those same government soldiers had largely disappeared, manning only checkpoints vital to their own security and wearing balaclavas to prevent identification. The soldiers were scared and the civilian population were correspondingly nervous. The battle had been lost. By March Ansar Sharia had hit back with a wave of bombings and killings that brought General Hiftar and his Operation Dignity to the fore.
Libya satisfies both essential reasons for foreign intervention. The commercial rewards from a stable Libya would be exceptional. But it is absolutely certain that losing Libya to either anarchy or an extreme Islamic regime will hurt us.
Somalia’s potential ruin concerned few until they started holding global trade and the Gulf of Aden to ransom with piracy.
Libya’s importance is more immediately concerning. Libya is Europe’s neighbour, separated by just 400 miles of quiet sea. It is the gateway into and out of Africa through which people, weapons, drugs and a host of other illicit trade will pass if untroubled passage can be purchased.
It is also the lynchpin in the ever-widening global onslaught of Al Qaeda franchises across middle Asia, the Middle East and north Africa. But for Egypt and Libya’s resilience, Osama Bin Laden’s disciples will walk freely from Lahore in the East to Bamako in the West, and from Mombasa in the South to Mosul in the North.
To rescue Libya and to save ourselves from Libya, we must look to Somalia and the past four years for an answer.
An unwavering security presence provided by the African Union, and backed comprehensively by the international community, established the much needed security scaffolding within which the UN, the EU, UK, Turkey and others led the political roadmap and began rebuilding the political machine and state institutions.
Somalia’s renaissance is far from complete. But, as ISIS dissolves any vestige of progress in Iraq, it represents the only moderately successful model.
Libya needs its oil production taken into trust with all proceeds funneled directly into governance. It needs a comprehensive security operation provided by African nations with the Libyan and continental interest at heart. And it needs single-minded volunteer nations to lead an inclusive state-building and governance operation.
Libya has not yet gone past the point of no return, but it soon will if we do not act now – and act decisively.
Former Army Officer and Whitehall communications officer, the author, Richard Bailey, is a Strategic Communications Consultant who has been working as Communications Advisor to the African Union Mission in Somalia and latterly the Office of the President in Somalia between 2009 and 2013 and to the Government in Libya since November 2013.