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Africa/Europe: Mediterranean Trajectories
June 19, 2017 (170619)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"On July 5, 2016, a 36-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker named Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi
was beaten to death by Amedeo Mancini, a 39-year-old Italian soccer ultra associated
with a local chapter of the neo-fascist CasaPound Italy political movement. Emmanuel
and his wife Chinyery had fled the violence wreaked by the Boko Haram insurgency in
Nigeria after losing their parents and a two-year-old daughter when their village
church was set on fire. They undertook the dangerous journey through Libya and across
the Mediterranean on a smuggler's boat, during which Chinyery suffered a miscarriage,
finally arriving in Palermo. The harrowing story of Emmanuel and Chinyery is far from
an isolated case, however." - Camilla Hawthorne, "In Search of Black Italia"
Migration, whether of those now legally defined as refugees or other migrants, is
a universal phenomenon, throughout history and on all continents. In today's world,
this takes on increasing prominence, both in news coverage and in political debate.
Yet news and politics are tilted unequally, toward the sensational and toward those
cases that are privileged because of geopolitical or other bias. Yet the lives of
refugees and migrants, whether of today or from previous generations, are far more
complex than the images most often viewed.
The AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from two articles that go beyond the
surface: (1) Camilla Hawthorne's article quoted above, on Black Italians of different
generation; and (2) a recent first-hand account of the complex situation in Southwest
Libya, one of the least visited crossroads of the migration within Africa and through
Africa to Europe. by Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.
To go directly to these excerpts, both with links to the full articles, click on
Italy or Libya.
Other recent commentaries that step beyond the iconic images of migrants dying on
boats in the Mediterranean, to explore the complex human realities and identities in
the trajectories of migration across the "African Mediterranean," include:
Nunu Kidane, "Stepping back from sensationalist stories on African migration,"
OpenDemocracy, May 4, 2017 http://tinyurl.com/y8a432qa
Laura Delle Femmine, "Room in the middle: the Africans repopulating Spain's Dying
Villages," The Guardian, June 11, 2017
Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, "Elementi per un esposto nei confronti del governo
italiano a seguito dell'applicazione del Memorandum d'intesa sottoscritto con il
governo di Tripoli il 2 febbraio 2017", Associazione Diritti e Frontiere (Rights and
Borders Association), June 14, 2017
http://tinyurl.com/y8zj24ko – Google translation to English is at
Exile Guayla, Eritrean Music in Switzerland, 8-minute video
Afropop, June 16, 2017
Stuart A. Thompson and Anjali Singhvi, "Efforts to Rescue Migrants
Caused Deadly, Unexpected Consequences, "New York Times, June 14, 2017
Includes very revealing interactive map of location of rescues at sea,
nearer each year to the coast of Libya.
Goldsmiths (University of London), Forensic Oceanography research team,
"Blaming the Rescuers: Criminalising Solidarity, Re-enforcing Deterrence,"
June 9, 2017
But headline in previous New York Times report is misleading, notes this
Brennan Weiss, "Ghana is safe and stable, but its young people
are still risking their lives to cross to Europe," Quartz, June 13, 2017
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit
AfricaFocus Bulletin will be taking a break from publication
for the next two weeks. The Bulletin will resume in early July.
website and Facebook page will continue to be updated during this break.
To support continuing AfricaFocus publication and education efforts,
consider contributing through one of the following channels:
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
In Search of Black Italia : notes on race, belonging, and activism in the black
On July 5, 2016, a 36-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker named Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was
beaten to death by Amedeo Mancini, a 39-year-old Italian soccer ultra associated with
a local chapter of the neo-fascist CasaPound Italy political movement. Emmanuel and
his wife Chinyery had fled the violence wreaked by the Boko Haram insurgency in
Nigeria after losing their parents and a two-year-old daughter when their village
church was set on fire. They undertook the dangerous journey through Libya and across
the Mediterranean on a smuggler's boat, during which Chinyery suffered a miscarriage,
finally arriving in Palermo. The harrowing story of Emmanuel and Chinyery is far from
an isolated case, however. UNHCR estimates that in 2016, over 37,000 Nigerians
arrived to Italy via the Mediterranean. That year, Nigerians made up approximately
21% of sea arrivals, followed by Eritreans at 11%.
Students from University of Southern Mississippi meet with African
migrants at hostel in Ponte Felcino, Perugia, Italy, in study
visit led by Bob Press and Joshua Hill. Credit: Barbara Pilati.
Emmanuel and Chinyery had been living at the bishop's seminary in a small Italian
seaside town, Fermo since the previous September, and were married in January. Six
months later on the afternoon of July 5, the couple was going for a walk when two men
began shouting insults at them. At one point, one of the men grabbed Chinyery and
called her "una scimmia africana [an African monkey]." When Emmanuel intervened to
defend his wife from this assault, Mancini attacked him with a street sign ripped out
of the ground nearby. Emmanuel fell into an irreversible coma from the beating, and
died the following day. The murder of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi rapidly, albeit
fleetingly, brought together two groups in Italy who were normally not in direct
dialogue, at least not at the level of formal political activism--that is, newlyarrived
migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa on the one hand, and the
Italian-born or raised children of African immigrants on the other. This is because
the brutal attack made shockingly apparent the precariousness of what Frantz Fanon in
Black Skin, White Masks (1952) famously called the "fact of blackness" or "the lived
experience of the black man" in Italy which, in many ways, transcends immigration and
citizenship status--arguably, the primary ways in which questions of "difference" are
framed institutionally in Italy.
And indeed, the outpouring of horror, grief, and anger that was expressed in the wake
of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi's murder over private text message exchanges and phone
calls, and across public-facing social media postings and calls to action, always
condensed to a single, nightmarish point: This could have been any one of us. Merely
for committing the violation of being black in public, Nnamdi's name had been added
to the ever-growing roll call of black victims of racist violence in Italy-- one that
stretches from Jerry Masslo (the South African political asylee murdered near Naples
in 1989), to Abdul "Abba" Guibre (the 19-year- old Burkinabe who grew up in Italy and
was beaten to death in Milan in 2008), to Samb Modou and Diop Mor (the two Senegalese
migrants murdered in Florence in 2011 by another member of the CasaPound). This, in
the land of Italiani, brava gente [good Italian people]: the perpetrators of a
supposedly more "gentle" and "mild" form of colonialism in Africa, the "underdogs" of
Europe who, thanks to their own national experience of large-scale emigration and
history of being racialized as "Mediterranean," had less of an innate capacity for
racism. Or so the story goes . . .
As anti-racism protests erupted in cities across Italy that hot and sticky summer,
from Fermo to Milan to Rome, demonstrations under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter
were also mushrooming across the United States and in European cities such as London,
Paris, and Amsterdam in response to the state-sanctioned murders of black men and
women at the hands of police officers. Many young black Italians earnestly followed
these global struggles against anti-black violence from the international window
afforded to them by Facebook, noting to me the ways in which their struggles against
everyday and institutional forms of racism in Italy seemed to be so clearly
intertwined with the mobilizations of their sisters and brothers in other countries.
The issues that interested activists in Italy may not have precisely mirrored the
main violations that were mobilizing protesters in other corners of the black
diaspora (instead of--or perhaps in addition to--police brutality, there are
restrictive citizenship laws and the deaths of black migrants in the Mediterranean
due to the violence of Fortress Europe's border regimes). Still, my friends and
interlocutors in Italy expressed a shared sense of their very blackness being under
siege in the context of both micro-level interactions and large-scale bureaucratic
encounters. In Milan, an anti-racism and anti-fascism protest was organized less than
a week after Nnamdi's death with the help of the youth organization Il comitato per
non dimenticare Abba e per fermare il razzismo [The Committee to Remember Abba and
Stop Racism]. This group formed by a multiracial collective of young people in 2008
in response to the racially motivated murder of Abdul Guibre, still organizes
language workshops and public events in Milan about the relationship between racism,
xenophobia, militarism, border fortification, and capitalism. The Milan-based DJ
Marvely Goma Perseverance expressed the continuities (and disjunctures) stretching
from Abdul Guibre to Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi in a wrenching open letter addressed to
the deceased Abba, published on July 9 in the Italian web magazine GRIOT:
A lifetime spent with a finger pointed at us, condemned to excel so that we don't
fall into the category of the "usual immigrants" or the "usual blacks," as if we had
chosen to be born "black," as though we had chosen that label--which, among other
things, I never under- stood. . . . Goodbye Abba, I miss you so much and here nothing
has changed. The other day they beat and killed Emmanuel. I didn't know him but
unlike you, who was born Italian, he had a different story that was similar to that
of our parents, a refugee in search of Christian charity and calm where he could
nurture his own hopes.
On the day of the protest organized by the Comitato in Milan, I was walking with my
friend Evelyne, who was that day clad in her trademark red dashiki and a fresh twistout,
as we headed to make handmade posters near the iconic Piazza Duomo. Evelyne, a
plucky 29-year-old Italian-Ghanaian woman who grew up in nearby Brianza, is widely
known in Italy as the creator of the first Italian-language Facebook page and blog
addressing the care of natural Afro-textured hair, Nappytalia. Evelyne has, in the
last two-and-a-half years, rocketed to mini stardom in Italy--she has been invited to
give TEDx talks and speak at universities, she has won numerous entrepreneurship
awards both nationally and internationally, and she is often recognized on the street
as "la ragazza di Nappytalia [the girl from Nappytalia]."
As Evelyne and I commiserated about the social and logistic chal- lenges of
organizing political demonstrations in Italy, she proceeded to whip out her
smartphone, open up the Facebook application, and proudly swipe through photos of a
#BlackLivesMatter march that had taken place not long ago in London. We took refuge
from the beating sun in the shade of a portico near an empty café, huddled over her
phone near a teetering stack of chairs, while she explained to me that the black-clad
activists posing solemnly with raised fists in the photos before us were actually
black Italians living, working, and studying in London. Several had met each other
for the first time through their involvement in the U.K. demonstration.
Evelyne, like so many other young black Italians born or raised in Italy, had found
some inspiration in the model of autonomous black political action represented by
#BlackLivesMatter. She saw it as an incitement to build similar types of anti-racist
movements in Italy, even if the specific contours of anti-blackness in Italy differed
from the primary issues centered by activists in the United States and in the
emerging U.K.-based offshoot of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But for other black
Italians, the connection between these struggles was far less self-evident. A
prominent Ugandan-Sudanese blogger based in Milan, who over the last year has gained
a substantial online following for her smart social commentary, slickly produced
anti-racism videos, and curation of beauty tutorials for black women, posted an
incitement to Facebook that brought to a head the unspoken tensions within a new
generation that has only very recently (and very tentatively) begun to collectively
refer to itself as Afro- or black Italian:
Guys, we are not in America and we are not Americans #chill you're more concerned,
shouting, and crying for the injustices suffered by African Americans than for things
that are happening in the country where you live, your country of origin, and many
other places where injustice and discrimination run rampant . . . #blacklivesmatter
here blacklivesmatter there.
A heated debate quickly ensued under the blogger's aforementioned, indignant message,
one I heard directly referenced in passionate conversation over countless aperitifs
and coffees in the subsequent weeks. But on that sleepless summer night, I was
affixed to my laptop screen as I tried desperately to piece together news reports of
racist violence and black resistance from Minnesota, Louisiana, London, Amsterdam,
Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Fermo.
And with each new and increasingly irate addition to the discussion about black
Italians and their connection to #BlackLivesMatter, my browser emitted an
incongruously cheery two-tone notification alert. BA-BING! "I am half American, so I
feel the injustices and hypocrisies of both countries," replied one woman from Reggio
Emilia, the daughter of an African American father and an Italian mother. BA-BING!
"Afro-Italians simply need to stop emulating African Americans . . . Afro-Italians
can create something better, which hopefully won't be based on skin color and the
stupid 'one-drop' rule," retorted another commenter. BA-BING! "This is why I don't
agree with the use of the term 'Afro-Italian,'" responded an Italian-Afro-Brazilian
student activist from Rome. "It refers to African Americans, but here in Italy and in
Europe . . . there is no 'Afro' in common," she continued, arguing that
Afrodescendants in Europe tend to identify with their or their parents' country of
origin. A Ghanaian-Italian medical student from Verona with a keen interest in the
black diaspora attempted to mediate between the various positions that had been
expressed earlier: "It is true, yes, that we and black Americans swim in different
waters. Just as it's true that we are able to take our first steps thanks to them.
They are different waters, but at the end of the day we are all drowning in the same
* * *
This debate about the relationship between black Italians and African Americans,
while a small snapshot in time, actually encapsulates several fundamental questions
about racial politics and blackness in contemporary Italy.
[Article continues with analyses of identity and a special section of photographs:
available at http://tinyurl.com/y7uee78f]
Traversing the Tribal Patchwork of Libya's South West
http://www.crisisgroup.org -- Direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/yarkbrdj
Our Senior Analyst Claudia Gazzini travels to southern Libya and finds neglect,
smugglers, a gold rush, and simmering tensions among a patchwork of ethnic, tribal
and militia actors on the edge of the Sahara Desert. She also discovers much longing
for a united, well-governed Libya.
Sebha, Libya -- To understand the full extent of the impact of the civil war that has
fractured the rest of the country into warring fiefdoms, it is critical to visit
southern Libya. In April, I had my first chance in two years to get there. There are
no commercial flights, no foreign aid missions and traveling 800km by car through a
maze of militia-run checkpoints and eager kidnappers is simply not an option.
By a stroke of luck, I am offered a lift by one of the few organisations still
operating in south Libya and one of the most important players there: the National
Oil Corporation (NOC). Despite recurrent fighting for control of oil fields, export
terminals and pipelines, the NOC sustains the north-south flight link to maintain oil
fields and keep production flowing.
I check in at a now-bustling former military airfield in Metiga, in Tripoli's eastern
suburbs to join a shift of mostly northern Libyan oil workers on a 100-seat
commercial jet. Since fighting in 2014 crippled the capital's main airport, all
domestic and international flights operate from here. My fellow travellers are quiet
on what for them is a routine journey.
But south Libya is hardly calm. A plane from the south's main city, Sebha, was
hijacked last year, forcing the closure of that airport. Indeed, the cycles of
violence can be bewildering.
Before my trip, the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Gen. Khalifa
Haftar, threatened to attack another Sebha airport, the Tamenhint air base, which at
the time of my visit to the south was controlled by another faction, the so-called
"Third Force", originally from the northern city of Misrata. Tamenhint was subject to
recurrent attacks by a militia backed by the LNA.
Shortly after my trip, the Third Force took apparent revenge by attacking Haftar's
forces in the Brak al-Shati air base, 80km north of Sebha. They killed between 80 and
130 people (numbers are still disputed), mostly LNA soldiers, but also some civilians
that were on the base or driving nearby. For the northern belligerents, Sebha and the
south are strategic prizes in an ongoing conflict, and neither side will easily give
Luckily the NOC plane is flying me to somewhere else, the Sharara oil field, about
200km west of Sebha. All these places are deep in the Sahara Desert and are seldom
visited by outsiders. Analysts like me usually focus on Libya's long Mediterranean
coastline and far more populated cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, Sirte and
Misrata, which have been at the political and military core of the conflict.
When Muammar Qadhafi, the self-styled "Brotherly Leader" of Libya, was ousted in
2011, the shattering of his iron grip fractured the country into warring pieces.
There are now three rival governments and parliaments, but barely any sense of a
state anymore. The key players are a multitude of militias, none of which can control
the whole country.
I want to find out to what extent these centrifugal forces have split the tribes and
ethnic groups that live in the urban oases and arid sands of the south. And how the
local economy has evolved: while the collapse of central authority has turned the
region's desert routes to the Sahel into a crossroads for smugglers, migrants heading
to Europe and jihadists, the south is also home to Libya's great riches. These
include not just oil, but also deep aquifers of water and mines for gold as well.
One Desert, Many Factions
The main political-military actors from the north vie for influence in the south,
especially control of main roads and key infrastructure. Haftar's LNA works with the
eastern government and parliament, whereas Misrata's Third Force is nominally loyal
to the UN-backed Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Faiez alSerraj
in Tripoli. Still others are aligned with a rival government in Tripoli headed
by Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghwell. The picture is further complicated by local
factions that are loosely aligned with the above-mentioned centres of power. More
often than not, these factions are internally split, with some of their members
supporting one political-military grouping or another.
Access to this region is so limited that few foreigners, including myself, can know
with certainty what is happening on the ground. Libyan media coverage of events in
the south tends to be politically charged, and often paints a distorted picture of
After a 90-minute flight, we touch down in Sharara. From the small oval airplane
window I can see the shiny complex around the oil field. Even the oil sector workers
who travel here rarely make it out of their well-groomed compound. Frustrated local
communities often complain that those operating in Libya's lucrative oil business
have no understanding of local dynamics. One consequence is that armed groups or
protesters living close to the oil fields or along the pipeline that transports crude
oil to the north frequently shut down production as a way to lobby for their demands,
adding to strains on the already fragile Libyan economy.
At the airfield, I split off from the oil workers to follow the road less travelled.
I'm with Abderrahim, my long-time driver in Tripoli, who accompanies me on my
journeys. I speak Arabic and have known Libya for ten years, but his solid presence
is an interface and reassurance for everyone I meet -- and for me. He has a warm
smile, is soft-spoken and somehow manages to get along with all Libyan interlocutors
of different religious and political affiliations whom I meet across the country.
It is vital to have local contacts as well, ready to receive me wherever I go in
Libya. This is Tuareg country, so I have arranged for a Tuareg acquaintance to meet
and look after us on the first leg of my journey. He is a trusted and well-connected
civil society activist. We have been introduced by a very respectable Tuareg sheikh I
have known for years. Like anywhere else in the country, you need to know who you can
What I didn't expect is for my contact to be accompanied by three cars and several
gunmen. It is not uncommon for the Tuareg to carry weapons, and many residents --not
necessarily professional soldiers -- are armed. The men who escort me are discrete
and do not flash their weapons ostentatiously, but I notice that aside from the
ubiquitous semi-automatic AK-47 rifles, they also have PK heavy machine guns with
belts of bullets. My guide explains it is just a precaution against kidnapping. Two
Italian engineers were seized in a nearby town last year and he alleges that a ransom
was paid for their release. Many locals, especially impoverished youth, may seek to
replicate that to win what locally amounts to a fortune. I'm in his hands.
Given our arsenal, it's not surprising that these men would not be comfortable going
through checkpoints manned by members of other tribes. All of the checkpoints between
Sharara and Obari, where we are headed, are under the control of Tuareg in military
fatigues who say they take orders from a Qadhafi-era Tuareg commander, Ali Kana. So
as long as I stay in this area, I am able to move around easily with my escort.
We reach my first stop, the town of Obari. Under Qadhafi, Obari was a hub for any
traveller seeking to experience desert life in the Sahara. I myself had been here
back in 2008, part of an archaeological mission from Oxford University researching
rock art. Now there are battle-damaged buildings, the hotels are all closed and I am
the closest thing to a tourist anybody has seen since a handful of journalists came
here in 2016 to report on battles that broke out in the town. After I'm welcomed into
a private home, I set out to find the Tuareg guides who took care of me during that
two-week long mission in the desert plateau behind Obari. There is so little for
anyone to do now, it's not hard to track them down.
They and others fill me in on the downward spiral of commercial collapse, the gradual
shutting down of links with the outside world and two years of war between two
groups: the Tebu, a dark-skinned people who live in Sudan, Chad, Niger and Libya; and
the Tuareg, a historically nomadic Berber people who straddle the borderlands of the
Sahara across Niger, southern Algeria and Mali. In 2014, the Tuareg accused the Tebu
of attempting to impose themselves militarily on Obari, which the Tuareg consider
historically their territory. For their part, the Tebu claim that they had to attack
Obari, where some Tebu also live, because it had become a hotbed for jihadists. The
war ended in the summer of 2016 with a ceasefire but without a clear winner.
On the surface at least, life seems normal. But the town is falling through the
cracks of post-revolutionary Libya. Municipal services like electricity, water or
schools barely function. Under Qadhafi, most Libyan Tuaregs served as a military
force, paid for by the central state. But he didn't give them official citizenship,
and after the revolution their salaries were abruptly cut off. Unlike the Tuaregs of
popular imagination, in their everyday life the Obari Tuaregs don't wear mysterious
wrappings of indigo-dyed desert robes or habitually ride camels. Some don military
uniforms, reflecting the reality that most inhabitants align with one militia or the
other simply in order to get paid. My friends wear tight jeans and sandals, and feel
The irony, though, is clear. There is great wealth in the southern oil fields, but it
is funnelled to the north, helped by those same NOC flights that lift workers far
above deprived locals' heads.
After two days in Obari, my contact passes me over to my next helper. My new guide is
from a respected southern Arab tribe and is able to travel between Tuareg-controlled
Obari and Sebha, which is mainly controlled by other factions. We set off on what is
still a good asphalt road. The occasional checkpoints wave through ordinary cars, but
trucks are getting stopped and their drivers have to pay tolls for their loads. This
is the illicit economy in action.
The Cracked Jewel of the South
Sebha is not suffering from active conflict during my visit, but it looks battered
after experiencing five rounds of local war between Arab tribes like the Qadhadhfa
(Qadhafi's tribe), the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebu. There are burned-out cars on the
streets. The former main hotel sits lifeless and derelict. Migrants can be seen
passing through, crowded onto the back of pickup trucks. Small wonder, perhaps, that
on the road in from Obari I see green flags painted on the gates of some homes,
showing occasional nostalgia for the old Qadhafi regime.
There are no central government security forces. Fuel is being sold on the black
market on many street corners. The city is carved up into neighbourhoods, with
makeshift barriers serving as de facto border demarcations between various militias.
No single faction is fully in command. Very few international organisations are now
present in Sebha, just one or two offices stripped back to a nominal local presence.
Despite the divisions and uncertainties, there is a kind of normality too. I am able
to rent a flat for our stay. In my light veil and long clothes, I move about most
parts of the city to meet the various factions and commanders. I don't meet the
people traffickers themselves, but speak to others who know what's going on. I'm free
to ask as many questions as I like about all aspects of the huge rise in the
smuggling economy. Sebha's residents know that in theory smuggling -- including of
people -- is illicit, but most consider it legitimate, normal and profitable. These
are just jobs, indeed the only way to make ends meet now that Libya's economy is in
ruins and cash is hard to obtain.
A municipal council operates in an imposing building in downtown Sebha, but tensions
among councillors are so high that some prefer to meet me in a more informal setting.
Other friends arrange for me to pass into the shanty town dwellings of their poor
quarter of Tuyuri, divided into one section where Tebu live and another with Tuareg.
Others again are keen to show me Sebha's old city, now uninhabited but once the heart
of this oasis town. They even show me where the Italian school was in the 1930s.
When there is no fighting, like now, schools and the local university are
functioning. Electricity comes and goes (at times for more than 12 hours), but while
I am there power seems steady. Drinking water still flows to many houses thanks to
Qadhafi's "Great Man-made River", connected to fossil aquifers deep under the Sahara.
Surrounded by desert, I even see some gardens that are lush and blooming.
Some illegal immigrants can be seen in the streets, but they are evidently the lucky
few. Many are kept across town in large warehouses, often in atrocious conditions,
until they change hands to other smugglers who take them one step further north in a
long supply chain that ends in southern Europe. Others, unable to pay for their trip,
are forced to stay put to cultivate land, load trucks or undertake other labourintensive
work to earn money for their onward journey. Organisations like the
International Organization for Migration (IOM) report that in Sebha sub-Saharan
migrants are being sold and bought by Libyan traffickers, a trade they denounced as
being comparable to "slave markets". I did not see this and heard many Sehba
residents complain that these accusations are exaggerated. But there is no doubt that
these migrants I see have already endured a lot, and could suffer even beatings and
rape in the next leg of their trip.
Libya's Wild West
After three nights in Sebha, I'm on the road again, fortunately this time without an
armed escort. The next destination is Murzuq, in territory that is dominated by the
Tebu and which has not seen any fighting in recent years. A good Tebu friend in
Tripoli sends his cousin to take me there.
We pass many trucks filled with goods on their way to Chad and Niger. The Libyan
government imports refined fuel and then subsidises it for local use, which makes
onward sales to sub-Saharan Africa highly profitable for smugglers. I expect to see
many more vehicles with migrants, but I am told that though we are also driving in
the direction of the border to Niger, smugglers transporting migrants to Sebha take
another route, slightly further east from where we are.
As soon as we enter Murzuq, it's clear the town is better off than Obari and Sebha.
Luxurious houses rise in some streets and the atmosphere is clearly calm. An Ottomanera
fortress dominates the town. There are no hotels here, as in Sebha and Obari, so
visitors like me have to stay in people's homes. This works out better for me too, as
I learn far more about daily life there than on my own or in hotels.
The city has enjoyed relative stability primarily because there is just one dominant
group, and also because the town's two security chiefs -- one loyal to Haftar, the
other to Ghwell -- have gone on with their respective jobs without picking a fight.
The boom in gold mining in the area bordering Chad and Niger is also boosting the
local economy, probably more so than human smuggling. My hosts here say as much as
seven kilos of gold (worth nearly $300,000) passes through town daily on the way to
outside markets, adding to a sense that this is Libya's Wild West.
As I travel through the south, I am constantly aware of reports of Islamic State
fighters transiting through the south, fleeing the major setback they were handed by
a coalition of Misratan militias that drove them out of Sirte in December 2016 after
a six-month battle. I see no sign of jihadists, but so many people tell me about them
that it's clear that some are passing through discreetly and most likely heading to
one of the countries to the south, through the Salvador Pass on the Libya-Niger
One reason for this could be that few southerners seem interested in ISIS ideology.
Some young women I meet in Obari say that some of their relatives are with the
Benghazi Revolutionaries' Shura Council, a group that is fighting alongside the
Islamic State against Haftar's LNA. But they say these men are mainly motivated by
anti-Haftar sentiment, and had already joined another anti-Haftar coalition formed in
Tripoli in 2014. Few, if any, seem to have joined ISIS themselves, though some admit
that, in the immediate aftermath of Qadhafi's fall, they had joined armed groups that
they later discovered were associated with al-Qaeda.
With all the shifting allegiances, people find it difficult to work out who is
supposed to be "good" and who is "bad". They tell me that they want to be with the
legitimate factions, but don't know which those might be. They don't see the strings
being pulled behind the greater daily rush of political chaos. They have people they
have to feed, and inadvertently risk aligning with a terrorist group or an
illegitimate armed faction, just because that's all what's on offer at that time.
A Libyan Enigma
An easy return to Obari, then on to the Sharara oil field airfield, and a quiet
flight back to Tripoli affords me time to reflect on what I've seen. The ethnic and
tribal patchwork I have just criss-crossed seems chaotic, but it is not exponentially
different from the rest of Libya. In fact, there is much that is still shared. Even
if the economy is all about smuggling to neighbouring countries, it is based on
Libyan factors like a policy of subsidising fuel imports that make reselling it so
lucrative, a national currency that everyone uses and nationwide lines of supply for
most of the goods in the shops.
Many of the local ethnic and tribal groups remain at loggerheads despite ongoing
efforts to heal these rifts. Indeed, local leaders tell me that they meet more often
at conferences outside the country than at home. But these are still conferences
about the south's place in Libya, and it seems to me that rather than promoting an
active separatist dynamic, tribal leaders and local military actors are simply
filling a power vacuum. Government officials mostly sit at home, waiting for the
political struggles in the big cities on the Mediterranean coast to produce a
functioning state again.
The bottom line for southerners is that they have an irresistible financial incentive
to continue illicit economic activities, at least compared to the moribund legitimate
economy. Profitability trumps legality wherever there are mouths to feed. Unless the
legal economy is put back on track, it will be very difficult for interested powers
to tackle the smuggling of goods and people. People are in need of salaries, services
and security, and they await the moment a central state can once again offer that.
If there is one thing that my trip confirms to me once again, it is a paradox.
Despite all the divisions and neglect, Libya is not just a country of two halves,
three governments and countless tribes. The Libyans I meet still see themselves as
belonging to one country. When the right moment comes, ethnic and tribal divisions
can one day be bridged again.
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