ARAB-TUBU CLASHES IN SOUTHERN LIBYA’S SABHA OASIS
Following deadly clashes between Tubu and Arab tribesmen in the Libyan oasis of Kufra in February, another round of fighting between the Tubu and Arabs using automatic weapons, rockets and mortars erupted in late March in Libya’s strategic Sabha oasis. Tubu residents in Sabha reported Arab tribesmen torching the homes of Tubu residents or expelling them at gunpoint while Arabs warned of Tubu snipers (Libya Herald, March 28; AFP, March 29). Three hundred Transitional National Council (TNC) soldiers arrived in Sabha on March 26, with more arriving in the following days. Without a national army that can be called upon to restore order, the TNC instead called on Arab militias from northern Libya to deploy in Sabha, including militias from Misrata, Ajdabiya, Zintan and Benghazi (Libya Herald, March 28; Tripoli Post, March 29). Though a dispute over a stolen car was said to have ignited the fighting, others have cited rising tensions over the distribution of $4 million earmarked by the TNC for use in Sabha (Financial Times, March 29).
Sabha, a city of 210,000 people about 400 miles south of Tripoli, is the site of an important military base and airfield as well as being a commercial and transportation hub for the Fezzan, the southernmost of Libya’s three traditional provinces. Many of the residents are economic migrants from Niger, Chad and the Sudan, while the Qaddadfa (the tribe of Mu’ammar Qaddafi) and the Awlad Sulayman are among the more prominent Arab tribes found in Sabha. One of the last strongholds of the Qaddafi loyalists, Sabha was taken by TNC militias in light fighting over September 19-22, 2011.
By March 29, the fighting had begun to ebb as tribal elders met to negotiate a ceasefire and the oasis town began to fill with some 3,000 TNC-backed militia fighters from northern Libya (Jordan Times, March 30). The clashes are believed to have left 50 dead and 167 wounded while revealing the continuing fragility of the post-Qaddafi Libyan state (Tripoli Post, March 30).Though active fighting between the Tubu and Zuwaya Arabs in Kufra eased in March, tensions remain high as the Zuwaya claim Tubu from Chad have infiltrated the oasis and supplied weapons to the Libyan Tubu in an effort to take control of the borders and smuggling. Local security officials have warned it would take “only one shot for things to degenerate.” (Now Lebanon, March 22; for Kufra see Terrorism Monitor Brief, February 23). Bashir al-Kabit, the head of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, said the fighting in Kufra was only an isolated incident, blown out of proportion by the media, while suggesting the Tubu were still in the pro-Qaddafi camp: “There are some tribal problems. Some tribes were in favor of the [Qaddafi] regime, and some others were against it. Some skirmishes are taking place. There is also a fifth column that is still active in the country; they belong to the al-Qaddafi group. They are trying to carry out some operations to prove to the world that Libya is not stable" (al-Sharq al-Awsat [Cairo], March 9).
The Tubu are an indigenous Black African tribe following a semi-nomadic lifestyle in what is now southern Libya, northern Chad and northeastern Niger. The fiercely independent Tubu were renowned for their stiff resistance to the encroachments of the French Colonial Army in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, often conducted in cooperation with Libya’s Sanusi Sufi order, which had established an anti-colonial Islamic confederation in the Sahara. The Tubu are divided into two groups speaking different dialects of a common Tubu language, the Teda group of southern Libya and the larger Daza group now found in Chad and Niger. Tubu politician and guerrilla leader Goukouni Oueddei (president of Chad, 1979-1982 and son of the derde [chief] of the Teda), was backed by Libyan forces in his struggle for control of Chad in the 1980s against the French-backed Hissène Habré, a member of the Anakaza branch of the Tubu and a former defense minister in Goukouni Oueddei’s government. Qaddafi’s price for this support was control of the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip in northern Chad, which was eventually returned to Chad by a decision of the International Court of Justice in 1994. Many Daza Tubu migrated north into Libya to work in the oil industry with the encouragement of Qaddafi. Arab Libyans continue to identify these migrants as pro-Qaddafi foreigners even though the local Teda Tubu were subject to repressive measures from the Libyan leader, who liked to suggest that the indigenous Tubu had only arrived in Libya during the Italian occupation or later.
During the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, some Tubu formed the rebel-allied “Desert Shield Brigade,” which conducted long-range raids (a Tubu specialty) on Murzuk and al-Qatrun (Ennahar [Algiers], August 20, 2011; AFP, July 23, 2011). The Brigade was led by veteran Tubu militant Barka Wardagou, the former leader of the Niger-based Tubu movement Front armé revolutionnaire du Sahara (FARS), which has worked in cooperation with Tuareg militant groups in the past.
The Libyan Tubu claim that, rather than facilitating the entry of foreign militants, the local Tubu have formed their own border patrols to ensure Libya’s sovereignty in the absence of an effective central authority. According to Tubu representative Muhammad al-Sanusi, “Libya’s borders are a red line” (Now Lebanon, March 1).
Led by Isa Abd al-Majid, some Libyan Tubu organized resistance to the Qaddafi regime in 2007 by organizing the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL), though al-Majid emphasized at the time that the movement was not seeking separation, only “the restitution of our rights” (al-Alam TV [Tehran], August 15, 2007). In light of the fighting in Sabha and the clashes between the Tubu and the Zuwaya Arabs of Kufra Oasis in February, al-Majid expressed the exasperation of the Libyan Tubu by announcing “the reactivation of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya [TFSL] to protect the Tubu people from ethnic cleansing… If necessary, we will demand international intervention and work towards the creation of a state, as in South Sudan” (Libya Herald; March 28). With the TNC struggling to establish national institutions, separatist threats have even spread to the TNC’s powerbase in Cyrenaica. In mid-March, 3,000 representatives gathered in Benghazi to form an autonomous region in eastern Libya under the “Congress of the People of Barqa [the Arabic name for Cyrenaica)” led by Ahmad al-Zubay al-Sanusi, the grandson of King Idris al-Sanusi (1951-1969) (Jomhuri-ye Eslami [Tehran], March 22). The new autonomous region would hold about three-quarters of Libya’s known oil reserves.
According to Ahmat Saleh Boudoumi, a Tibesti Tubu and author of Voyages et conversation en pays toubou, "Relations between the Arabs and Tubu have always been bad. To be integrated with the Arabs… he must renounce his identity, [something] that the Tubus have always refused. Hence their marginalization in Libya” (Tahalil [Nouackchott], March 31).
IS A MILITARY INTERVENTION POSSIBLE IN MALI?
As the political and military situation deteriorates in Mali following a poorly-planned coup by junior officers and the subsequent occupation of nearly all northern Mali by Tuareg rebels and various tribal allies there is increasing discussion of the possibility of a military intervention to restore order and prevent Mali’s unrest from spilling over its borders.
The most likely source of a military intervention would be the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its military arm, the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).
ECOWAS has put 2,000 troops on standby (Le Proces Verbal [Bamako], April 2). The military chiefs-of-staff of the ECOWAS states are meeting in the Ivoirian capital of Abidjan on April 5 to discuss the creation of an intervention force (AFP, April 3).
The African Union has endorsed the ECOWAS decision to activate the planning process for a possible deployment of a brigade of troops to “protect the unity and territorial integrity of Mali” (PANA Online [Dakar], April 4). In the meantime ECOWAS has instituted a comprehensive embargo on the Malian regime. According to the ECOWAS chairman, Côte d’Ivoire president Alassane Dramane Ouattara: "All the diplomatic, economic, and financial measures are applicable as of today and will be lifted only when the constitutional order is actually restored” (L’Essor [Bamako], April 4).
The ECOWAS chairman has stated that several West African states have already pledged troops for an intervention force, adding that: "We would like to ensure the integrity of Malian territory. We shall use all means at our disposal to stop this rebellion, and to restore Mali’s territorial integrity. It is the sub-region’s duty” (Le Patriote [Abidjan], April 2).
Junta leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo announced the restoration of the 1992 Constitution on April 2, but so far this appears to be an attempt to mollify international opposition rather than return Mali to its democratic course (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], April 2; L’Essor [Bamako], April 2). In an especially troubling development for the coup leaders, Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou, the military chief-of-staff in Kidal region and a highly capable leader of a pro-government Tuareg militia, has declared his allegiance to the MNLA rebels (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], April 2). The rebels appear to have already seized large stockpiles of arms from captured garrisons in the north.
ECOWAS is demanding a return to constitutional order and a transfer of power to the Speaker of Parliament, Professor Dioncounda Traore, in accordance with article 36 of the Malian constitution. For now, however, there is every sign that the junta plans to remain in power. Despite the crisis in the north, the military junta in Bamako is insisting on going ahead with prosecutions of President Amadou Toumani Touré and other leading political figures on charges of treason and corruption.
ECOMOG has been involved in three previous military interventions with varying degrees of success – Liberia in 1990, Sierra Leone in 1997 and Guinea-Bissau in 1999.  There was also a brief ECOWAS deployment in Liberia in 2003. In the past, ECOMOG has been dominated by Nigeria’s military, the largest and most powerful in the region, usually in partnership with the militaries of other Anglophone West African nations. An intervention in Mali, a Francophone state and former French colony, would require larger participation from West African Francophone states, probably with Senegal in the lead.
With Mali increasingly isolated financially and diplomatically and a growing rift between Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist rebels of Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement, there seems little possibility of an internal solution being found for Mali’s difficulties in the near future.
Despite pursuing an alarmist interpretation of the Malian crisis in which al-Qaeda controls the rebels and is planning an invasion of southern Mali to implement a Shari’a state, French foreign minister Alain Juppe has said there is no possibility that France would intervene directly in Mali, though it could provide logistical support to an ECOWAS force. Juppe has also urged a greater role for Algeria, which is constitutionally prohibited from participating in military interventions outside its borders (AFP, April 3). France maintains garrisons in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, but according to Juppe, “We can help with logistics or training but there is no question of putting French soldiers on Malian soil" (AFP, April 2). Washington has supported ECOWAS interventions in the past and may also provide logistical support in the event of a military intervention in Mali.
1. See Andrew McGregor, “Quagmire in West Africa: Nigerian Peacekeeping in Sierra Leone (1997-1998),” International Journal 54(3), Summer 1999, pp. 482-501.