Libya, Militia and Local Reconciliation

The aim of my research project was to critically examine the links between local governance and community peace building projects in Libya. Programming that focuses on building technocratic local governance structure has become a model for western donor intervention and has been used widely as a stabilisation tool to prop up state control in fragile states and conflict zones (especially in Afghanistan and Iraq). In Syria, the lack of will to engage in large scale state building and the absence of a viable central government, made this focus on local governance particularly relevant. There has been some limited research in Syria that supports the efficacy of this approach: research has identified the ability of local governance structures to exert influence on armed groups, negotiating truces between them, and negotiating limited truces and ceasefires with government forces whilst resisting encroachment of extremist armed groups into civilian space.

My research project intended to build on this work by providing a cross-country comparison with Libya, and to critically examine the hypothesis that political legitimacy can be bolstered through improving administrative governance capacity and therefore improving local mediation capacity. More substantively, I wanted to ask whether a local focus was sufficient on its own? Does building local governmental peace building capacity provide security to communities? And if it does, which section of the community does it benefit most? Is there a tendency for local mediation efforts to aim for truces between armed groups that provide immediate community security at the expense of security for marginalised groups? And finally, if a local approach is the only adequate way to deal with a highly complex conflict, are there viable strategies to scale the local up to regional or national level peacebuilding processes?

Due to the security situation in Libya I planned to conduct my research from Tunisia, where I would be able to conduct background interviews and hire researchers on the ground in Libya. I based myself with the Cairo Institute in Tunis, with which I have worked with in the past, and has ongoing projects in Libya. I focused on three case studies that would ensure a comparative approach. Tawergha and Misrata, Sabha, and Azziwiyya.

The local councils in Tawergha and Misrata had been instrumental in negotiating a truce between the two towns. A reconciliation agreement had been reached (but not implemented) that would allow the population of Tawergha to return to the town, which had been abandoned since 2011. It was possible to intensively research this agreement from Tunis, by interviewing members of the local council and civil society. In Sabha the local council, although effective, have taken a backseat, with local mediation attempts undertaken by a tribal council. As a result, these agreements were very localised and impermanent, with no signed agreements or enforcement mechanisms. Research here progressed slowly, and was dependent on hiring a researcher on the ground. Finally, although I began background interviews in Tunisia for the third region, Azziwiyya, the security situation deteriorated and it became unsafe to deploy a researcher.

Based on my initial research of these regions and conversations with researchers at the Cairo Institute, my research project shifted its theme and focus to consider the nature of the conflicts between the local councils, and how these conflicts mirrored conflicts in wider society. Moreover, it was informative to compare the current local agreements, negotiations and mediation, with the successful peace agreements between tribal groups in 1946, that lay the foundations for the formation of the modern state.

One of the most interesting questions concerns the economic incentives for conflict, with rival militias fighting for control over oil reserves, refineries and smuggling routes for oil and human trafficking. The money from these activities is channelled through political figures as well as militia, and this restricted the ability of local governance to have any real impact on truces and local reconciliation. The one exception to this was in Tawergha and Misrata, where the divisions were historical and political, rather than purely economic. In this case local councils were much more instrumental in reaching local agreements. Conversely, in Sabha, and Azziwiyya, the involvement of smugglers and militia make them much more difficult areas to research.

Castle in Sabha, Libya. Field research location. Photo credit: “Ahmed” (Field Researcher in Sabha)


Temporary accommodation for Refugees from Tawergha. Field Research site. Photo credit: Emad from Shabab for Terwergha.

I came away from this fieldwork with a greater understanding of the fundamental role of the informal economy and its role in ongoing conflict. Militias use illicit activity, such as oil smuggling and human trafficking to bolster their financial reserves, and this aspect of the conflict is very difficult for local civil society and local government institution to resolve. The economic drivers of conflict are better dealt with at a national level. However, the national government and politicians are also implicated in the informal economy, and the economic drivers are inextricably linked with other drivers, such as tension between tribal groups and pre-revolution political affiliations. For example, in Sabha mediation concentrated on resolving tribal tensions that existed from before the revolution, but nothing was done to address the problem of militias outside of the town, and linked with the tribes, engaging in conflict over trafficking routes. These economic drivers of conflict proved extremely challenging and dangerous for researchers on the ground, especially since it was a topic considered not up for discussion, unlike issues of politics and identity. People frequently said that they needed central government to take control of the areas of oil production and migration, which are fuelling the conflict, in order to neutralise them and allow other mediation mechanisms to work. This was a key theme that came up again and again. That local reconciliation was necessarily limited by lack of enforcement mechanisms. It could only provide temporary relief. Someone memorably described the process of conducting local mediation work as “We are planting seeds, but we need the rain from the government to allow those seeds to grow.”

Author: Eleanor Haisell is a second year student at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), in the Masters of International Affairs Program. As an AC4 Fellow, she travelled to Tunisia, working on research around local governance and local peace mediation interactions. With support from field researchers in Libya, she provided policy recommendations for programs supporting local governance projects in Libya.

Photos: All photos provided by author.

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