Arab-Tubu Clashes in Southern Libya’s Sabha Oasis

Andrew McGregor

April 5, 2012

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). 

Tubu Tribal Fighters in Sabha Oasis

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 armérevolutionnaire 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). 

This article was originally published in the April 5, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.