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Libya’s enduring calamity

A new unity government seems destined to deliver neither unity nor government

Libya now has a third government – and it is about to enter the fray. The UN hopes it will restore stability to the country, but it may worsen the chaos. Either way, oil production – now at a five-year low of less than 300,000 barrels a day – is unlikely to recover soon. Islamic State (IS), thriving on the political disorder, has closed in on Libya’s last remaining onshore oil producers. 

Tired of waiting for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) to endorse a unity government, the UN, US and EU in mid-March officially recognised a new government of national accord (GNA). Libyan opponents immediately dismissed it as a “foreign imposition”.

The UN’s GNA gambit is risky. A 17 December peace deal that laid the basis for the GNA required the HoR to endorse its replacement. But the Tobruk government – which had been Libya’s internationally recognised authority – has repeatedly failed to do so. A statement from the HoR on 18 March said the UN’s move was “an abuse of Libya’s sovereignty and a lack of respect of the democratic process”, which would “shatter the political consensus”.

If any consensus exists between the HoR and General National Congress (GNC), the rival government in Tripoli, it comes in their opposition to the GNA. The Islamist-leaning GNC’s prime minister, Khalifa Ghwell, says if the GNA members try to enter Tripoli – it sits in Tunis for now – “they will be treated according to the law”.

But gaining control of Libya’s capital is essential if the GNA is to govern. Its UN-appointed prime minister, Fayez Serraj, said in mid-March he would return to Tripoli imminently. He is understood to have sought assurances from French and other foreign governments that they would provide help.

The GNA has no military of its own, so the the protection of Libyan militias on the ground will be even more important. It will also need the backing of state institutions like the Central Bank, Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) and National Oil Corporation (NOC).

The head of the Central Bank – which was recently cited in a UN report for paying money to Tripoli militias – has endorsed the GNA. Foreign pressure should persuade the LIA to fall into line too. NOC’s boss Mustafa Sanallah has backed the dialogue process for some time.

But the political backing of the Tripoli-based NOC could be troublesome. Almost all of Libya’s oil production now comes from the Sarir/Misla fields, in Libya’s east, where the HoR holds sway – and where separatists have already been trying to carve out their own oil-export business based on the assets. The threat of partition – and another eastern claim on the oil – is rising. 

Bubbling over

Militia backing for the GNA in Tripoli is also weak. Two main brigades have said they will support Serraj – the Rada force and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade. The leaders of both were recently cited by the UN as having been involved in human-rights abuses. One of them previously threatened to attack the GNA if it arrived in Tripoli.

A far bigger coalition of Islamist militias, loyal to the GNC, is also now threatening to fight any brigades supporting the GNA, and to target the Central Bank. The brewing conflict over the GNA threatens to bring more violence to Tripoli.

For the GNA’s international backers, establishing the unity government is now plainly a precursor to renewed military involvement – an open secret among diplomats. French, British and American “security advisors” are now already on the ground, coordinated from Tunis.

IS’ ability to roam Libya’s central oil crescent is the source of the international urgency. From its base in Sirte, the terror group has struck repeatedly at energy installations. All production in the centre of the country remains off line, as do the two key export terminals of Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider. A terror attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas facility, just across the Libyan border, on 18 March will reinforce the international case for action.

On 16 March, IS also carried out an assault on water facilities near Sarir, in Libya’s east. The station is part of the Great Man-Made River, which supplies water to the country. It is also just 80 kms from the Sarir/Misla oilfields, which now account for the bulk of Libya’s oil output is.

Power failures at the fields recently sent their output to around 225,000 b/d, well beneath their 2011 levels of around 350,000 b/d. The fields account for almost all Libya’s onshore output, while two offshore fields still produce 70,000 b/d.

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