Libya’s Toubou and Ouled Sliman tribes are currently caught in a raging ethnic conflict. Or so it has seemed. Upon closer observation, our correspondent finds the feud is less about ethnicity and more about the control of strategic routes and migration flow.
By Frédéric Bayol, Sebha
In the Tayouri neighbourhood of Sebha in central Libya, Barka, Ahmed and their friends show us the bomb debris scattered around them. In late March, violent clashes between their tribes – Toubou and Ouled Sliman – claimed more than 70 lives, according to various sources.
“See what they dropped on us, on our neighbourhood, even though we haven’t done anything wrong?” shouts Barka, pointing to rockets, pieces of artillery and gun shells.
According to some sources, the clashes were triggered by a murder allegedly perpetrated by members of the Toubou tribe. In post-revolution Libya, it is hard to tell authentic information apart from propaganda.
“The Toubous kill people, they steal cars and create problems,” rails Youssef Khalil, an Ouled Sliman tribesman in another part of the city. He says that the troublemakers are mostly Toubou people from other regions.
In the southern city of Koufra, clashes between the Toubou and other tribes have also claimed hundreds of lives this year. Toubou in this part of the country consider themselves victims of “genocide”, explains Barka Youssef, one of the tribe’s members from Obari near Sebha. He is following the developments in Koufra and believes that his “brothers” have been targeted by ethnic cleansing campaigns.
The Toubou originally come from neighbouring sub-Saharan countries. In an Arab country like Libya, they are easily distinguished by their dark skin. They are often the victims of racial abuse by some Libyan citizens.
But the root of the conflicts, in both Koufra and Sebha, may not be limited to simple tribal issues. In the south of Libya, the Toubou have traditionally controlled international trade: goods but also human trafficking. Under Gaddafi, they managed the influx of migrants looking to work in Libya or in transit to Europe.
Today, the situation has changed. The trans-Saharan routes in the south have become coveted strategic assets which various groups and tribes want to control. The Toubou population has lost its exclusive control in the region.
A few kilometres south of Sebha lies the city of Mourzouq. Until 1920, it was the transit point for slave caravans. Today, slaves have been replaced by illegal migrants who are held by the Toubous in squalid camps under miserable conditions. The migrants thought they would be welcome in Libya, as was the case before the revolution, where they constituted a much-needed workforce for the country.
Sébastien, a Beninese citizen who migrated to the North African country to work as plumber, does not understand why he is stuck here, eating a meagre lunch under the scorching midday sun. “This is a nightmare. If they don’t want me to enter Libya, they should send me back home. But instead they keep me here like this,” he says. Sébastien is unable to get in touch with his three children back in Benin.
What’s really at stake
Having lost their pre-revolution privileges, the Toubou people are now holding more than two thousand illegal migrants in various camps. They claim to be helping the embattled oil-rich country.
What appeared to be an ethnic conflict turns out to be a battle for the control of trade routes and migration flow. This reality is difficult to see from the outside. But on the ground, it is clear that neither the Toubou population of Sebha nor the Ouled Sliman people understand what is really at stake in these conflicts. Meanwhile, for both ethnic groups, last week’s elections carry high hopes.