Libya’s south has long been a key area of political contestation. The region was at the heart of Col. Muammar al-Gadhafi’s support base, providing a core constituency of the regime’s armed forces and allowing the former leader to exploit tribal and ethnic divisions to cement his highly personalized form of governance.[1] His divide and rule tactics, manipulation of citizenship, and profligate stance towards the highly lucrative smuggling networks that traverse the region have left a considerable mark on the Sahel-Sahara region and continue to shape political and security dynamics following the 2011 uprising.[2]

These complex dynamics are not well understood and developments in the region often go unreported. The ongoing crises in Libya’s north, where more ideologically defined groups are battling for control of institutions, the formal and informal economy, and what remains of the fast collapsing political process has further deflected attention from developments in Libya’s Sahel-Saharan region. Disproportionate levels of reporting have also focused on the emerging presence of transnational militants. Whilst these groups are certainly present in southern Libya,[3] their intent to engage in violence in Libya is likely to be lower than key communal groups in the region.

This article argues that the current focus on developments in Libya’s coastal region and concern over the presence of transnational groups risk missing the pivotal role likely played by key domestic actors, including tribes and ethnic minorities, in determining longer-term stability in the south, and in Libya as a whole. This article focuses on two groups – the Tubu and Tuareg ethnic minorities – in order to highlight some of the key dynamics shaping stability in the region. It argues that the primarily Arab political elite’s inability to address the concerns of these two ethnic minorities, especially relating to political representation and citizenship rights, poses a critical threat to stability and risks driving these groups to engage in greater and more concerted levels of violence.

This failure risks fueling a much larger conflict, which if left unchecked has the potential to severely destabilize Libya and its neighbors, including southern Europe which remains vulnerable to increasing flows of sub-Saharan African migrants traveling unchecked from Libya’s ports. An unstable south will provide greater space in which transnational militants, as well as smugglers of illicit goods and people, are able to operate with impunity. Indeed, it is precisely the support of the Tuareg and Tubu, with their links across the Sahel, which will be essential in mitigating the threat from transnational militias. Losing this support risks losing control over the south.

Communal Dynamics in the South

Libya has two principal non-Arab ethnic minority groups that are present in the country’s Sahara: the Tuareg and the Tubu.[4] They have different degrees of intermarriage with the numerically and politically dominant Arab population, which is split into a number of tribes, including the Gadhadhfa, Warfalla, Merghara, Awlad Suleiman, Fezzanis, Hassawna, and Zuwayah.

Gadhafi manipulated tribal affiliations for his own political ends; he sought the support of a number of groups to strengthen his support base in the absence of viable political institutions, and used a patronage system under which he promoted some groups while marginalizing others.[5] Three tribal groups emerged as the backbone of his support: Gadhafi’s own Gadhadhfa tribe, which is based in Sebha and Sirte (having settled in the latter with Gadhafi’s encouragement); the Warfalla, which is Libya’s largest tribe and whose members are spread throughout the country; and the Merghara, whose members tend to be found in the south-west of the country around Sebha.[6]

Since the 2011 uprising, hitherto marginalized groups are attempting to supersede those groups that Gadhafi favored. This inversion of the previously established tribal power structures has contributed to significant communal tensions and led to frequent outbreaks of violence across Libya’s south.[7] Groups are competing to control borders, strategic assets (such as energy infrastructure and roads), and the formal and informal economy, as well as gain political supremacy over their rivals. Complex dynamics between these key groups, the growing redundancy of political institutions, and the near collapse of the transitional process has reduced the willingness of domestic actors to engage in the political process and risks encouraging these groups to engage in a more concerted campaign of violent and disruptive action to achieve their aims.

The Tubu

The Tubu were the original inhabitants of the region around the south-eastern oasis towns of Kufra, Rebiana and Buzeyma. They also inhabit northern Chad and Niger. The Tubu population in the south has grown in recent decades, primarily as a result of immigration from Chad, in particular from the Tibesti region. The relative socio-economic marginalization and political disenfranchisement of the Tubu by Arab tribes has led to increasing antagonism between the Arab and Tubu groups. This has been particularly pronounced in Kufra with the Arab Zuwayah (or Zwai) tribe, where divisions between the Tubu and members of Arab community have triggered serious and persistent violence since the start of 2012, leading to the deaths of at least 200 people.[8]

These tensions stem from Arab tribes’ economic and political dominance over the Tubu, mistrust between these groups, competition for political power, and clashes over control of lucrative smuggling networks, as well as widespread discriminatory attitudes among the country’s Arab majority towards darker-skinned Libyans and black Africans.[9] Under Gadhafi, the Zuwayah became the demographic and political majority in the south-east as well as the principal landowners around Kufra. By contrast, the Tubu have had poor access to employment opportunities and social welfare. Discrimination has intensified since 2011 because of claims that Gadhafi employed sub-Saharan African troops as mercenaries during the civil war.[10]

Since the end of the 2011 uprising, the Tubu community has expanded its influence in the southern desert region, and now has a dominant position in providing security at energy infrastructure, in border areas, and on key roads leading into Chad, Niger, and Sudan.[11] This has bolstered their position and attracted greater migration of Tubus, particularly from Chad. This has heightened tensions with the local Arab communities, who fear that these demographic patterns may lead to an erosion of their economic and social dominance in the south. Perceptions that illegally settled transnational Tubus are attempting to exploit Libya’s bulbous welfare state have stoked these tensions further.

The Tuareg

The Tuareg are indigenous inhabitants of the Sahara and estimated to number between two and three million. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, they occupy a vast swathe of the Sahel-Sahara region – moving with relative ease across Libya’s southern borders. Gadhafi incorporated some Tuareg into Libya’s security forces from the 1980s onwards, and some members of the community fought for him during the 2011 uprising.[12] There are allegations – of varying degrees of credibility – that Tuareg from both inside and outside Libya fought as paid mercenaries for Gadhafi.[13] Nevertheless, some Malian and Nigerien Tuareg were long-standing members of Libya’s security forces.

Elements of Libya’s population perceive the Tuareg as mercenaries and Gadhafi ‘loyalists’ because of the ties that some of them had with the former regime. This has created considerable mistrust between the Tuareg and the broader Libyan population which, coupled with tensions over the control of borders, the informal economy, and political influence, sparked continued outbreaks of violence across the south since 2011, including in Sebha, Ubari, Ghat and Ghadames. Significant mistrust exists between the Tuareg and the inhabitants of Ghadames, where Gadhafi employed elements of the Tuareg to suppress unrest during the uprising. When the town was freed from Gadhafi control in September 2011, its Arab residents detained members of the local Tuareg population and razed their neighborhood in the town, forcing them to resettle, primarily in the towns of Dirj and Debaba.[14] Tit-for-tat attacks between Arabs in Ghadames and the town’s remaining Tuareg community continue, and socio-political tensions there remain high.[15]


Resentment over access to citizenship rights plays a significant role in fueling political disaffection amongst groups in the south. Gadhafi manipulated the granting of citizenship for his own political purposes, and made promises of citizenship to transnational Tuareg and Tubu units that fought in his security forces. For the most part, these promises did not materialize. As such, the post-uprising authorities have faced competing and unresolved demands for citizenship from these groups.

Shifting power dynamics between Arab and non-Arab groups in the region and entrenched prejudice from mainly Arab politicians towards non-Arab ethnic minorities have created a disjointed and incoherent government response that has served to deepen communal tensions and fueled disaffection towards the post-uprising political process.[16] Left unresolved, the continued denial of citizenship risks stripping a substantial number of people in the south of their rights, including access to social services and suffrage.

The increased migration of Tubus and Tuaregs from neighbouring Sahel countries following the 2011 uprising has created tensions amongst the local Arab, as well as Libyan Tuareg and Tubu, communities.[17] Given the porous nature of the desert region and the limited capacity of government institutions, many of these groups have settled illegally in towns in Libya’s south. This has led to persistent tensions over perceptions that these groups are attempting to access the benefits of Libya’s generous welfare state. Such tensions have fed into unstable communal dynamics across the south and triggered violence in several locations, including Kufra, Sebha and Ubari.

Both the Tubu and the Tuareg have long been pushing for greater political representation and citizenship rights. The transitional authorities’ reluctance to grant full identity cards to members of these communities has increased resentment and fed into perceptions that they are being marginalized during the post-uprising transition process. This was seen most recently in the June 2014 elections for Libya’s new interim legislature, the House of Representatives, when a large number of Tuareg and Tubu were unable to vote after the government ruled that people without full identity cards would not be allowed to take part.[18] Resulting violence disrupted polling in locations in the south, including in Sebha where attacks against polling stations meant that only three were able to open.[19] The High National Elections Commission also cited security reasons for its decision to only open five of the 15 polling stations in the area around Kufra.[20]

The transitional authorities have faced a multitude of competing demands from a broad range of domestic political actors, and the two Saharan ethnic minorities’ demands for political representation and citizenship have so far fallen on deaf ears and have been overshadowed by groups who have received greater publicity, such as the Amazigh (Berber) with their boycott of the constitution drafting process earlier this year.[21] However, Tubu military commanders in particular have commented that they are only willing to wait a limited amount of time before they engage in more violent and disruptive tactics in order to force a response to their demands.[22] Both groups possess the capability and intent to engage in violent and disruptive activism. As the interim authorities become increasingly redundant and the political process nears collapse, the likelihood of greater political and citizenship rights for Tubus and Tuaregs reduces. This risks driving radicalization amongst these groups and increasing their intent to engage in violence.


The preceding analysis has shown that dynamics in the south do not occur in a vacuum divorced from northern-centric political developments. Yet continued exclusion from the rights associated with political representation and citizenship risks fueling rising discontent, reducing the willingness of groups to engage in the political process, and increasing their intent to engage in violence. Although much of the focus surrounding the country’s deepening political crisis and institutional fragmentation has rested on quasi-military operations in Tripoli and sustained violence in Benghazi, the south could yet be the greatest casualty of the current political malaise.

Tackling the question of citizenship will also help to keep a lid on simmering ethno-nationalist tensions between the Tuareg and Tubu, divisions that relate to historic relations under Gadhafi, and relations between transnational and domestic groups.[23] There are already signs that these divisions are beginning to mirror political tensions between rival factions in Tripoli.[24] Continued perceptions of marginalization are likely to encourage groups to engage in violence, or potentially encourage separatist sentiment.

Geoffrey Howard is Control Risks’ lead Libya analyst, conducting in-depth research into political, security and operational dynamics in Libya and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Howard travels regularly to the region and has lived in both Libya and Syria. Prior to joining Control Risks, Mr. Howard worked in Tripoli for a number of leading Libyan institutions.

[1] See Dirk Vandewalle ed., Libya since 1969 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[2] See “Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts,” Report No.130, International Crisis Group, September 2012.

[3] These details are based on the author’s interviews and research conducted in Libya in 2013 and 2014; see Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional instability,” SANA Dispatches, February 2014.

[4] A third non-Arab minority group, the Amazigh (Berber), resides mainly in coastal areas and parts of the Nafusa Mountains.

[5] Wolfram Lacher, “The Rise of Tribal Politics,” in Jason Pack ed., The 2011 Libyan Uprising and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

[6] Hanspeter Mattes, “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya Since 1969,” in Dirk Vandewalle ed., Libya since 1969 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[7] See Geoffrey Howard and Henry Smith, “Will Terrorism in Libya Be Solely Driven by Radical Islamism?” CTC Sentinel 7:2 (2014).

[8] See “Libya Clashes Kill Scores in Al-Kufra,” BBC, February 21, 2012; “Fresh Violence Flares in Kufra,” Libya Herald, April 10, 2013; and various articles at

[9] Henry Smith, “The South,” in Jason Pack ed., The 2011 Libyan Uprising and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

[10] “Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts,” Report No.130, International Crisis Group, September 2012. Wolfram Lacher, “Fault Lines of the Revolution,” SWP Research Paper, May 2013.

[11] These details are based on the author’s interviews and research conducted in Libya in 2013 and 2014.

[12] See Ronald Bruce St John, Libya from Colony to Revolution (London: Oneworld Publications, 2012).

[13] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional instability,” SANA Dispatches, February 2014.

[14] Rebecca Murray, “Tackling Conflict on Libya’s Margins,” Al-Jazeera, August 10, 2012; Rebecca Murray, “Tribal War Simmers in Libya’s Desert,” Inter Press Service, October 11, 2012.

[15] “Ghadames Local Council Says Town is Besieged,” Libya Herald, January 19, 2013.

[16] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional instability,” SANA Dispatches, February 2014.

[17] “Libya: The Demographic-Economic Framework of Migration,” Migration Policy Centre, European University Institute, June 2013.

[18] “Elections in Libya,” International Foundation for Electoral Systems, June 23, 2014; also see Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional instability,” SANA Dispatches, February 2014.

[19] Kareem Fahim and Suliman Ali Zway, “Violence and Uncertainty Mar Libyan Election for a New Parliament,” New York Times, June 25, 2014.

[20] “Libyan Elections: Low Turnout Marks Bid to End Political Crisis,” BBC News, June 26, 2014; “Kufra Elections Stalled But No Tebu Boycott,” Libya Herald, June 25, 2014.

[21] Ulf Laessing, “Libya’s Berber to Boycott Committee Drafting Constitution,” Reuters, November 13, 2013; Taziz Hasairi, “Amazigh Supreme Council Continues Boycott of Constitutional Assembly,” Libya Herald, April 12, 2014.

[22] Based on the author’s interviews and research conducted in Libya in May, June, and July 2014.

[23] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional instability,” SANA Dispatches, February 2014.

[24] Tuareg militias on November 5, 2014 stormed Libya’s major El Sharara oilfield, looting equipment, firing shots, and forcing the facility to close. Local media reported that the attack formed part of a wider attempt by Islamist groups that support the General National Congress to secure control of oilfields in the south-western desert. Local media also reported that some Tuaregs have sided with the Misratans and the Islamist Operation Dawn, and that some members of the Tubu have sided with the anti-Islamist forces. See Feras Bosalum and Ahmed Elumami, “Gunmen Storm Libya’s El Sharara Oilfield, Shut Down Production,” Reuters, November 5, 2014.

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