The demographics of instability

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 3 Nov 2021

The presence of African mercenaries in Libya threatens security across the Sahel

The demographics of instability
The demographics of instability

The 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) concluded a two-day UN-sponsored meeting in Cairo on Monday attended by representatives from Sudan, Chad and Niger. Libya’s neighbours all expressed willingness to cooperate in the processes of removing foreign fighters and mercenaries from Egypt’s western neighbour.

The meeting was consultative in nature, with participants agreeing to establish effective channels of communication to pursue the matter further. The Sudanese, Chadian, and Nigerian representatives said they were fully prepared to cooperate on the effective removal from Libya of fighters from their countries, and coordinate to ensure that they would not return to Libya or destabilise any of Libya’s neighbours.

In a statement issued on the first day of the 5+5 JMC meeting, UN Special Envoy for Libya Ján Kubiš said: “Our meeting today, and the meetings and consultations that will follow, are only the first steps on the way to preparing a concrete implementation plan for the withdrawal of all mercenaries, foreign fighters, and foreign forces from Libya” which is crucially important given forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

From this and other statements, it is clear that the meeting is intended as the first in a series aiming to layout a roadmap for the removal of foreign fighters. It was the first meeting to deal with the foreign fighters in terms of nationality, with the focus on Libya’s African neighbours. Other groups, most notably those from Syria or Russia which operate primarily in the north, were not discussed.

The participants said that African fighters present in Libya either belonged to transnational ethnic groups, such as the Toubou people or the Touareg, or are members of rebel groups from Chad and Darfur.

Some of these groups are engaged in human trafficking and smuggling across the Sahel states. Their vying interests and the frequent outbreaks of violence between them have been a major source of instability in southern Libya which Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups have been able to exploit. Because of the general lack of security and porous borders, Libya had become an ideal location for terrorist training camps and recruitment, with the terrorist organisations able to benefit from arms smuggling and human trafficking.

Libya’s African neighbours are keen to avoid becoming victims of the way Turkey and Russia are using the mercenaries they introduced into Libya as bargaining chips in negotiations with each other and with other international parties, fearing that their own rebel groups based in Libya will attempt to take advantage of the situation. This explains why, for example, Chad’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) is so focussed on Chadian political opposition groups led by Mahamat Mahdi Ali operating in the area straddling southern Libya and the Tibesti region in northern Chad. Members of the alliance Ali formed in April have been accused of assassinating Chadian President Idriss Déby, and are determined to march on N’Djamena and topple the TMC.

According to reports by UN experts, the Toubou and Tuareg have been engaged in gold prospecting and have accessed hitherto unknown sources of wealth in southern Libya, with some reports suggesting the Russian Wagner group has aided these endeavours.

The ethnic/tribal demographics that are interwoven with Libyan politics complicates the removal of African fighters and mercenaries. The Toubou and Touareg peoples span Libya, Chad, and Niger, taking advantage of porous borders. Gaddafi-era policies, such as supporting southern Libyan Arab tribes — the Maqarha and Awlad Suleiman — in their disputes with the Toubou and Touareg, helped shaped post-revolutionary alliances and tensions. As the alliances fluctuated, so tensions and inter-tribal/inter-ethnic violence in the south increased.

Some Libyans, including participants in the Cairo meeting, claim up to a million people have infiltrated Libya since the revolution, creating demographic distortions and demanding citizenship rights and a share of power and wealth, citing the demands recently aired by the Toubou Congress as evidence of this phenomenon.

The presence of mercenaries and foreign fighters from African countries threatens not only Libya’s stability and security ahead of the elections but also the stability and security of Libya’s neighbours, which is why the UN is promoting a mechanism to deal with such mercenaries separately from Russian and Syrian fighters. Some European powers also perceive a greater threat to their own security from the illicit activities of African groups than from those of Syrian and Russian mercenaries.

Given the complexities of the security situation in Libya it is hard to conceive that the problems posed by the presence of mercenaries will be resolved ahead of elections. Nor do the current situations in Sudan and in Chad bode well for the process: indeed, the threats to regional security and stability are looking, if anything, more intractable.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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