On a fresh, bright, sunlit, March morning in 2014, just returned from Libya and Tunisia, I was sitting outside a Golborne café struggling to concentrate. I had been commissioned to design an overseas aid project to mitigate the apparent threats to Tunisia from its border with Libya. That March morning I was attempting to finish the compulsory background reading I was required to reference – I had 300-odd pages of academic studies on trafficking between Libya and Tunisia to wade through. But I was torn between the required background reading and the insistent voice of Yusuf the Tunisian fuel trafficker I had met in a Libya/Tunisia border town 10 days previously.
Those academic reports written by experts in Washington, London and Geneva, distilled, spun and expounded on statistics and a web of articles and further studies. And they, with their mind-numbing re-interpretation of second hand material drowned out the voice of Yusuf, the voice from the ground. Yusuf, poor Yusuf, like a plaintive toddler, was being ignored, his story of the threats he saw as he crossed the border every day necessarily diluted by the academic postulation I had to digest.
The world has become much more risk averse since I first went to a conflict zone. Today, post-Iraq and its suicide bombs, aid agencies, civil servants and diplomats get to know the countries they work in from behind three inches of armoured glass and steel while being guarded and escorted by ex-soldiers on contract from security firms. It’s an ironic situation. The security firms win their fat contracts based on the levels of fear that can be whipped up, a level of fear that must be maintained in order to keep the contract. The operational experience of those ex-soldiers provides the credibility their employers need to win their contracts, but if a client is put in danger those contracts are put in jeopardy. It seems, too, that there is now a substantial trade in academic report writing to feed those same cocooned agents of government. The voice from the field now has to defeat this self-fulfilling, risk-averse security culture in order to be heard and understood.
In June 2015 British blood on a beach in Tunisia brought the threat hammering back. Thwack. A body blow worthy of any sickening lead-jacketed metaphor. We had been warned but no one had given credibility to Yusuf and his fellows. The civil servants and diplomats chose to accept the academic version, believing the jihadist threat on the Libyan border to be exaggerated scaremongering by Tunisian criminal networks using fear to leverage their advantage with the Tunisian state. They chose not to value the simple explanations from the ground over the weight of the experts in their 338 pages of precise technical assessment.
Yusuf is not alone in the soundproofed cell the bias to academia has put him in. There are more. I met Yusuf in February 2014, having spent prolonged periods of time working in Libya during the previous two years. It was my first time in Tunisia and the first time I had seen the Tunisian side of the Libyan border. Driving back to our beach hotel, after the hours we spent together in his border town, I recalled Yusuf’s story. As I pieced his information together, my perspective on what I had witnessed in Libya changed. I recalled the people I had met and I began to understand the messages they had passed to me as they spoke of the dark reality Libya has become. I realised that those people were not isolated cases. They were in fact part of a mass of connected people struggling to earn a living and look after their families in what we would term an illegal economy, but for whom circumstance was inexorably driving that economy away from the stability they needed. And Yusuf made it clear that this instability threatened Tunisia.
On each trip during those two years, racing south for a stifling 8 hours across the Libyan Sahara, we had dodged careering pick-up trucks speeding towards the coast carrying the ‘fruit of Africa’, the modern-day slaves who are stuffed under the tarpaulins stretched over the back of the trucks. Oil rich Libya has always been a lure for economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. At our destination, a Libyan desert oasis town, the prosperity of the guest houses and cafés came from those people. It was a hospitality industry based on a clientele of illegal labourers from Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, the Central African Republic and more. On a lush small holding on the edge of town we received expansive hospitality, plates of barely edible delicacies we couldn’t refuse served by indentured Egyptian Copts with bowed heads. We shouldn’t have been surprised. The Roman Empire bought slaves from the same place.
The collapse of Libya spells boom time for the traffic in people. The gradations of that trafficking economy range from the murky gray of the people who provide a cheap bed to the pitch black of the militias who rent out a captured and held-to-ransom work force as it waits to be sped north, wedged under a tarpaulin.
More felt than seen were the parallel trades in narcotics, fake pharmaceuticals and weapons. These trades are new and unpleasant extensions of existing business across the Sahara. Alongside the movement of people and goods came the growing influx of extremist religious ideology. In that Libyan desert oasis town there was no cult of omerta about the slave trade; it was so normal no one need speak of it and so they didn’t.
But the risks to that oasis town from extremism, drugs and weapons were talked about. Shaking, worried heads described the chaos. There was no palpable evidence of a legal system, the gaols were full, there was not enough food or water for the prisoners and the militias could spring anyone when they felt like it. The regional Police Chief was woefully short of men and weapons to exercise any semblance of an ordered society.
“Where are the judges?” he asked.
“That new drug ‘See You Next Tuesday’ is taking over our youth,” said a father.
“I carry a gun in my car on the way to school,” said a female student.
“We stopped going to the Mosque when the radical preachers came,” said a middle-aged man.
A long fire fight the night before had been between rival families. It had started the previous night when two drunk youths who happened to be from those families argued and shot each other. “My cousin was killed by a militia muscling in from another region,” said a farmer. “That journalist was not murdered because of journalism, they don’t care about that, it was a revenge killing,” said the journalist’s friend. “We will be flooded with people when it boils over in Mali/Sudan/Somalia/Anywhere South” said everybody.
Yusuf’s perspective joined the dots between these narratives and made the danger tangible. Yusuf is from a network of families artificially cut in half by the Libyan/Tunisian border. His trade in Libyan fuel is one component of an illegal cross-border economy worth $1 billion a year. It is an historic way of life which is tolerated because it provides income for poor communities. Yusuf’s entire family are involved – his uncle runs the local border guards. Yet Yusuf knew in 2014 that his illegal economy was being pulled in a direction he knew would end badly. Extremist groups were setting up on the Libyan side of the border extorting taxes from the smugglers and using the income to grow their influence and territory and exploit the situation for their own ends.
Then in order to spell it out, in the summer of 2014, along Libya’s coastline a faltering coup from the East preceded the decisive attack on Tripoli airport by militias from Misrata. Tripoli airport was then the lucrative export point for narcotics smuggled by sea and sand from South America and, for a long time, its ‘security’ had been managed by the Misratans’ rivals.
There was no Libyan state response to the airport attack. The oil companies evacuated, followed by the embassies and finally the Libyan government. Into that vacuum came the Islamists.
Libya is now a divided, failed state still without its primary airport. Tunisia, once the beacon of the Arab spring, is now deserted by its other economic lifeline, tourists.
During Libya’s descent into mayhem politicians, diplomats and functionaries wrung their hands. The experts had mapped the flows of illegal trade and extremist thought across the region, but did anyone see the fault lines the flows described, the areas for exploitation that they created? Well, yes, those who lived there did. It is time we listened to Yusuf.