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Peace Lost in the Libyan Desert

KUFRA, Libya, Apr 28 2012 (IPS) - The recent outbreak of violence between the largely segregated Zwai and Tabu tribes in Libya’s remote, Saharan town of Kufra shattered the uneasy calm that held since last February’s clashes, resulting in more than 100 deaths. The clashes illustrate the challenges in building a new state.

Young militia members in Kufra. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

Young militia members in Kufra. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS.

In the power vacuum following Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow, the fighting over turf and rights at this lucrative smuggling hub – nearly 1,000 miles from Libya’s coast bordering Egypt, Sudan and Chad – threatens Kufra’s equitable participation in June’s national elections and the stability of Libya’s southeast region.

Days before Kufra’s violence reignited, adult students from both tribes gathered under a tree at a vocational institute downtown to voice fears about the town’s security, and their future in it.

“It’s not easy to get employed in Kufra, and nepotism plays a role,” says Omasayad, 26, a medical student from the Zwai tribe. “There are too many people and not enough jobs,” she adds. “From a security point of view, under Gaddafi it was better.”

Her 25-year old Tabu classmate, Kadisha Jacky, is married with four children. “Security is less than under Gaddafi,” she interjects. “But life is still better.” Jacky says priorities should be security, peace and human rights.

Kaltroun Toushi, 23, is a computer student from a Tabu family. “The tribal conflict is chronic,” she says. “I feel secure at school, but not in the city.”

Kufra’s Tabu population is an estimated 4,000 out of a total of 44,000 of mostly Arab Zwai inhabitants. Semi-nomadic, the darker-skinned Tabu tribe has ties to Sabha, a trade hub in Libya’s west, as well as to Sudan, Chad and Niger. The Zwai clan is spread north from Kufra through the oil rich desert to coastal Ajdabiya.

The Tabu suffered chronic discrimination under the Gaddafi regime, exacerbated by a violent territorial war with Chad over minerals, that Libya eventually forfeited in the 1980s.

A United Nations Human Rights Council report in July 2010 says Kufra’s Tabu, accused by Gaddafi of being Chadian, were stripped of their citizenship in 2007. They were subsequently barred from education and health services, and subject to arrest and house demolitions.

The Tabu played a crucial role in last year’s overthrow of Gaddafi. Tabu networks were activated across southern borders to block the flow of sub-Saharan mercenaries to the old regime.

Libya’s new transitional government subsequently assigned Tabu leader Issa Abdelmajid Mansur to watch over Kufra’s vast Saharan corner, with its lucrative legal and illicit cross-border trade of food, fuel, migrants, weapons and drugs.

“We are mainly concerned with the traffickers network,” says Col. Suliman Hamed Hassan, head of Kufra’s military council. “Issa Abdelmajid is with them, controlling the border points. We asked him to stop and he didn’t. He is making money from this.”

“The Tabu have made fortunes from this and the Zwai have made fortunes from this,” asserts Bill Lawrence, North Africa director for the International Crisis Group.

The death of a Tabu taxi driver triggered the current violence between the Tabu and those they accuse of the crime, the Libyan Shield Brigade. This militia, allied with the military council, was directed by the defence ministry from Benghazi to keep the peace.

“Basically, this is an old chronic problem between two tribes,” Col. Abdul Rami Kashbour, an army advisor sent to Kufra, says. “It’s bigger than before because of the availability of weapons.

“One of the causes is identity. So many Tabu have a problem with identity, and the government should resolve this. Then we control the borders.” He adds, “All conflicts only happen in border areas. It happens because every side wants to control the border.”

Bill Lawrence agrees. “The conflict between the Tabu and the Zwai is partially over control of smuggling routes, partially who is a Libyan, and partially revenge over violence.

“All conflicts in Libya share fault lines that existed throughout the Gaddafi era, but below the radar and suppressed by the authoritarian regime,” he says. “When you take the lid off, it all starts percolating again.”

Critically, Kufra’s violence has diverted attention from the difficult task of building up local democratic institutions from scratch. Unlike war-ravaged towns like Misrata that rapidly voted in its municipality, Kufra’s local council chairman is appointed, with no elections slated soon.

All students interviewed by IPS say they know little about the national constitutional elections on Jun. 19. They are not informed about registering to vote, about political parties, candidates or the critical issues.

“I know something about the national elections, but not really,” admits architecture student Fateh Hamed Mabrouk, 25. “No one is telling us what they are about. The local council is not telling us…Like our brothers in other cities, we want local community elections.”

Al Sanussi Salem Al Gommi, head of Kufra’s election committee, claims Tripoli’s government still hasn’t provided voter registration details. The town violence, he says, has affected an electoral awareness campaign, and electing a local council is postponed until a new Libyan government is voted in.

“Some Tabu have threatened to stop the election process here until they register some more families of theirs to become Libyans. They don’t have documents to prove this though,” he says.

“The issue of citizenship and documents is a massive mess,” says Fred Abrahams, an advisor with Human Rights Watch. “In south Libya you have some Tabu without documents that do deserve them, and some who do have them, but don’t deserve them.

“It’s going to cause considerable problems in the upcoming elections because the Tabu fear they may be disfranchised.”

Abrahams dismisses Tabu cited aspirations for regional homeland covering their tribal base. “At this point I think they are posturing. They are divided themselves and this is not a serious option,” he says.

“What is serious is the nervousness those claims reveal. There is a high level of distrust and suspicion, and now blood has been spilled.”

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