The UN-recognised GNA and its Unholy Alliances
In spite of the “peaceful state” being advertised by foreign actors to the rest of Libya and the world, western Libya is a geography where the strong rule over the weak and where militias have institutionalised corruption schemes. This has enabled them to control huge chunks of Tripoli where they not only hand verdicts but also implement them by acting as judge, jury and executioner.
The UN-recognised Government of National Accord and its unholy alliances
The clashes that erupted in Tripoli on August 27th, 2018 acted as a wake-up call to the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the international community. On this date, Tarhoona’s 7th Brigade decided to rebel against the status quo in western Libya and attacked Tripoli. In spite of its “peaceful state” being advertised by foreign actors to the rest of Libya and the world, western Libya is a geography where the strong rule over the weak and where militias have institutionalised corruption schemes. This has enabled them to control huge chunks of Tripoli where they not only hand verdicts but also implement them by acting as judge, jury and executioner.
The August 2018 Tarhoona-led attack on Tripoli exposed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s makeshift solutions to the issues facing his government in the west of Libya. Indeed, in an attempt to solidify his legitimacy beyond the de facto recognition by the international community, Sarraj relied on local militia in Tripoli to protect him and provide him with the freedom to move and loosely govern. In doing so, Sarraj absorbed prominent armed groups such as the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade into the government and recklessly initiated the rise of a culture that we doubt he understands the repercussion of, even to this day.
It took Sarraj no time to deteriorate the situation as he soon realised that the particular armed group he counted on only had control over a part of the capital. That realisation, coupled with other groups wanting similar access to state funds, resulted in him having to mimic the same agreement he struck with the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, this time with the three remaining militias controlling the rest of Tripoli. These parallel security arrangements resulted in a well-organised cartel structure in the capital, with each militia gaining access to different institutions based within the territories under their control.
By 2018, this system reached its most efficient form, with militia leaders dictating their demands to ministers within the GNA, taking control of government-issued tenders from their respective ministries and enjoying full authority over their territory as no other militia was allowed to meddle in their jurisdiction. This shaky but effectual arrangement was all managed by Hashim Bishir, who was dubbed the ‘Godfather’ by the four Tripoli-based militias. To ensure the safety and coordination of Sarraj, Bashir’s office was in the same building as the Prime Minister.
Of Militiamen and Ministers
The most infamous example of militia ministerial control is that of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade over the GNA Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Siala. In the last months of 2017, the militia presented Mohamed Siala with a list of its members it wished to see sent as heads of consulates around the world, particularly, countries crucial to the militia’s international money laundering plans.
Refusing at first, Siala fled to Tunis where he carried out his duties for two months until he broke under pressure coming from the Presidential Council as well as death threats.Since then, about 80% of consulate generals stationed in Libyan consulates have either been handpicked by the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade or are simply former militia commanders. These preferential treatments and corrupt practices further developed into security attaches and medical attaches being militia-affiliated as well.
Overall, absorbing militias into the government has been a prime strategy of the GNA used throughout its years of rule over the western region of Libya. Indeed, whenever a militia got in the GNA’s way, Sarraj preferred to co-opt that militia by turning it as its city or town official authority, thus preserving short term stability at the cost of long-term sustainability and further frittering away Libya’s sovereignty.
Government Tenders and the Cartel
Halfway through 2018, the institutionalisation of crime in Libya became painfully apparent, and had heavily impacted the country’s economy. With government tenders for crucial goods such as medicines, food and basic services becoming completely controlled by inexperienced militias with no background in trading and business, millions of dollars would be signed off in questionable deals, only to end up with no goods being imported to Libya. As a result of rising prices and depleting supply, products such as bread became too expensive to purchase by average income households.
Libyans eventually got fed up with the ridiculous levels of corruption when the Audit Bureau issued its Annual Report for 2017. This report stated that between 2012-2017, a staggering 277 billion Libyan dinars (200 billion USD at 1.39 rate) were spent by the Tripoli-based government throughout the years. This acted as a shocking wake up call for Libyans everywhere, who could not process how so much money was spent, when people had gone months without getting their salary, and no visible accomplishments could be seen to justify such an absurd amount being spent.
This anger materialised on August 27th when the Tarhoona-based 7th Brigade carried out a full scale attack on Tripoli to “cleanse it” of criminal gangs that were holding Tripoli and the government hostage. This movement was met with public support as social media was targeting militia leaders, exposing their crimes and sharing photos of the lavish lifestyles they and their families enjoyed outside of Libya, while the everyday Libyan could not afford basic commodities.
To come back to the point made in the opening statement of the article, the August attack on Tripoli carried out by the 7thBrigade was a wake-up call to whoever believed that Tripoli’s worse days were behind it. More so, the GNA’s Sarraj was left exposed when all fighting militias claimed the legal authority to attack the 7thBrigade, as they were all provided with official papers signed by Prime Minister Sarraj himself. It is at that time that the international community realised that the GNA was completely at the militias’ mercy, and that Sarraj had been pleasing anyone that came his way to avoid any form of confrontation, which eventually developed into a joke amongst Libyans, who coloquially claim that “Sarraj never says no”.
Thanks to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salame’s intervention and mediation, the conflict was eventually fixed, and each militia returned to its original location. More so, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) took advantage of the chaos and lack of interference from militias — as the latter licked their wounds from combat — to push the GNA to pass urgent policies and reforms that acted as a noticeable relief to the everyday Libyan.
Why is all of this relevant today? Particularly at a time when a full-scale war rages on around Tripoli?
Libya Desk wants to bring urgent notice to an issue that is being grossly overlooked by national and international observers alike. The upcoming Issue #2 of Libya Desk’s Political Risk Dossier series will delve into greater detail regarding the extent of Tripoli’s institutionalised corruption, looking into the risk of Sarraj repeating previous mistakes in his defensive war for Tripoli against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), including the further co-optation of militias, the resurfacing of extremists and even a looming power grab by Musrata.