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Africa/Europe: Mediterranean Trajectories

AfricaFocus Bulletin
June 19, 2017 (170619)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"On July 5, 2016, a 36-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker named Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was beaten to death by Amedeo Mancini, a 39-year-old Italian soccer ultra associated with a local chapter of the neo-fascist CasaPound Italy political movement. Emmanuel and his wife Chinyery had fled the violence wreaked by the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria after losing their parents and a two-year-old daughter when their village church was set on fire. They undertook the dangerous journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean on a smuggler's boat, during which Chinyery suffered a miscarriage, finally arriving in Palermo. The harrowing story of Emmanuel and Chinyery is far from an isolated case, however." - Camilla Hawthorne, "In Search of Black Italia"

Migration, whether of those now legally defined as refugees or other migrants, is a universal phenomenon, throughout history and on all continents. In today's world, this takes on increasing prominence, both in news coverage and in political debate. Yet news and politics are tilted unequally, toward the sensational and toward those cases that are privileged because of geopolitical or other bias. Yet the lives of refugees and migrants, whether of today or from previous generations, are far more complex than the images most often viewed.

The AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from two articles that go beyond the surface: (1) Camilla Hawthorne's article quoted above, on Black Italians of different generation; and (2) a recent first-hand account of the complex situation in Southwest Libya, one of the least visited crossroads of the migration within Africa and through Africa to Europe. by Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.

To go directly to these excerpts, both with links to the full articles, click on Italy or Libya.

Other recent commentaries that step beyond the iconic images of migrants dying on boats in the Mediterranean, to explore the complex human realities and identities in the trajectories of migration across the "African Mediterranean," include:

Nunu Kidane, "Stepping back from sensationalist stories on African migration," OpenDemocracy, May 4, 2017

Laura Delle Femmine, "Room in the middle: the Africans repopulating Spain's Dying Villages," The Guardian, June 11, 2017

Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, "Elementi per un esposto nei confronti del governo italiano a seguito dell'applicazione del Memorandum d'intesa sottoscritto con il governo di Tripoli il 2 febbraio 2017", Associazione Diritti e Frontiere (Rights and Borders Association), June 14, 2017 – Google translation to English is at

Exile Guayla, Eritrean Music in Switzerland, 8-minute video Afropop, June 16, 2017

Stuart A. Thompson and Anjali Singhvi, "Efforts to Rescue Migrants Caused Deadly, Unexpected Consequences, "New York Times, June 14, 2017
Includes very revealing interactive map of location of rescues at sea, nearer each year to the coast of Libya.

Goldsmiths (University of London), Forensic Oceanography research team, "Blaming the Rescuers: Criminalising Solidarity, Re-enforcing Deterrence," June 9, 2017
But headline in previous New York Times report is misleading, notes this new report.

Brennan Weiss, "Ghana is safe and stable, but its young people are still risking their lives to cross to Europe," Quartz, June 13, 2017

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit


AfricaFocus Bulletin will be taking a break from publication for the next two weeks. The Bulletin will resume in early July.
The AfricaFocus website and Facebook page will continue to be updated during this break.

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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

In Search of Black Italia : notes on race, belonging, and activism in the black Mediterranean

Camilla Hawthorne

Transition, 2017

On July 5, 2016, a 36-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker named Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was beaten to death by Amedeo Mancini, a 39-year-old Italian soccer ultra associated with a local chapter of the neo-fascist CasaPound Italy political movement. Emmanuel and his wife Chinyery had fled the violence wreaked by the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria after losing their parents and a two-year-old daughter when their village church was set on fire. They undertook the dangerous journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean on a smuggler's boat, during which Chinyery suffered a miscarriage, finally arriving in Palermo. The harrowing story of Emmanuel and Chinyery is far from an isolated case, however. UNHCR estimates that in 2016, over 37,000 Nigerians arrived to Italy via the Mediterranean. That year, Nigerians made up approximately 21% of sea arrivals, followed by Eritreans at 11%.

Students from University of Southern Mississippi meet with African
migrants at hostel in Ponte Felcino, Perugia, Italy, in study visit
led by Bob Press and Joshua Hill.
Credit: Barbara Pilati.   

Emmanuel and Chinyery had been living at the bishop's seminary in a small Italian seaside town, Fermo since the previous September, and were married in January. Six months later on the afternoon of July 5, the couple was going for a walk when two men began shouting insults at them. At one point, one of the men grabbed Chinyery and called her "una scimmia africana [an African monkey]." When Emmanuel intervened to defend his wife from this assault, Mancini attacked him with a street sign ripped out of the ground nearby. Emmanuel fell into an irreversible coma from the beating, and died the following day. The murder of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi rapidly, albeit fleetingly, brought together two groups in Italy who were normally not in direct dialogue, at least not at the level of formal political activism--that is, newlyarrived migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa on the one hand, and the Italian-born or raised children of African immigrants on the other. This is because the brutal attack made shockingly apparent the precariousness of what Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) famously called the "fact of blackness" or "the lived experience of the black man" in Italy which, in many ways, transcends immigration and citizenship status--arguably, the primary ways in which questions of "difference" are framed institutionally in Italy.

And indeed, the outpouring of horror, grief, and anger that was expressed in the wake of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi's murder over private text message exchanges and phone calls, and across public-facing social media postings and calls to action, always condensed to a single, nightmarish point: This could have been any one of us. Merely for committing the violation of being black in public, Nnamdi's name had been added to the ever-growing roll call of black victims of racist violence in Italy-- one that stretches from Jerry Masslo (the South African political asylee murdered near Naples in 1989), to Abdul "Abba" Guibre (the 19-year- old Burkinabe who grew up in Italy and was beaten to death in Milan in 2008), to Samb Modou and Diop Mor (the two Senegalese migrants murdered in Florence in 2011 by another member of the CasaPound). This, in the land of Italiani, brava gente [good Italian people]: the perpetrators of a supposedly more "gentle" and "mild" form of colonialism in Africa, the "underdogs" of Europe who, thanks to their own national experience of large-scale emigration and history of being racialized as "Mediterranean," had less of an innate capacity for racism. Or so the story goes . . .

As anti-racism protests erupted in cities across Italy that hot and sticky summer, from Fermo to Milan to Rome, demonstrations under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter were also mushrooming across the United States and in European cities such as London, Paris, and Amsterdam in response to the state-sanctioned murders of black men and women at the hands of police officers. Many young black Italians earnestly followed these global struggles against anti-black violence from the international window afforded to them by Facebook, noting to me the ways in which their struggles against everyday and institutional forms of racism in Italy seemed to be so clearly intertwined with the mobilizations of their sisters and brothers in other countries. The issues that interested activists in Italy may not have precisely mirrored the main violations that were mobilizing protesters in other corners of the black diaspora (instead of--or perhaps in addition to--police brutality, there are restrictive citizenship laws and the deaths of black migrants in the Mediterranean due to the violence of Fortress Europe's border regimes). Still, my friends and interlocutors in Italy expressed a shared sense of their very blackness being under siege in the context of both micro-level interactions and large-scale bureaucratic encounters. In Milan, an anti-racism and anti-fascism protest was organized less than a week after Nnamdi's death with the help of the youth organization Il comitato per non dimenticare Abba e per fermare il razzismo [The Committee to Remember Abba and Stop Racism]. This group formed by a multiracial collective of young people in 2008 in response to the racially motivated murder of Abdul Guibre, still organizes language workshops and public events in Milan about the relationship between racism, xenophobia, militarism, border fortification, and capitalism. The Milan-based DJ Marvely Goma Perseverance expressed the continuities (and disjunctures) stretching from Abdul Guibre to Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi in a wrenching open letter addressed to the deceased Abba, published on July 9 in the Italian web magazine GRIOT:

A lifetime spent with a finger pointed at us, condemned to excel so that we don't fall into the category of the "usual immigrants" or the "usual blacks," as if we had chosen to be born "black," as though we had chosen that label--which, among other things, I never under- stood. . . . Goodbye Abba, I miss you so much and here nothing has changed. The other day they beat and killed Emmanuel. I didn't know him but unlike you, who was born Italian, he had a different story that was similar to that of our parents, a refugee in search of Christian charity and calm where he could nurture his own hopes.

On the day of the protest organized by the Comitato in Milan, I was walking with my friend Evelyne, who was that day clad in her trademark red dashiki and a fresh twistout, as we headed to make handmade posters near the iconic Piazza Duomo. Evelyne, a plucky 29-year-old Italian-Ghanaian woman who grew up in nearby Brianza, is widely known in Italy as the creator of the first Italian-language Facebook page and blog addressing the care of natural Afro-textured hair, Nappytalia. Evelyne has, in the last two-and-a-half years, rocketed to mini stardom in Italy--she has been invited to give TEDx talks and speak at universities, she has won numerous entrepreneurship awards both nationally and internationally, and she is often recognized on the street as "la ragazza di Nappytalia [the girl from Nappytalia]."

As Evelyne and I commiserated about the social and logistic chal- lenges of organizing political demonstrations in Italy, she proceeded to whip out her smartphone, open up the Facebook application, and proudly swipe through photos of a #BlackLivesMatter march that had taken place not long ago in London. We took refuge from the beating sun in the shade of a portico near an empty café, huddled over her phone near a teetering stack of chairs, while she explained to me that the black-clad activists posing solemnly with raised fists in the photos before us were actually black Italians living, working, and studying in London. Several had met each other for the first time through their involvement in the U.K. demonstration.

Evelyne, like so many other young black Italians born or raised in Italy, had found some inspiration in the model of autonomous black political action represented by #BlackLivesMatter. She saw it as an incitement to build similar types of anti-racist movements in Italy, even if the specific contours of anti-blackness in Italy differed from the primary issues centered by activists in the United States and in the emerging U.K.-based offshoot of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But for other black Italians, the connection between these struggles was far less self-evident. A prominent Ugandan-Sudanese blogger based in Milan, who over the last year has gained a substantial online following for her smart social commentary, slickly produced anti-racism videos, and curation of beauty tutorials for black women, posted an incitement to Facebook that brought to a head the unspoken tensions within a new generation that has only very recently (and very tentatively) begun to collectively refer to itself as Afro- or black Italian:

Guys, we are not in America and we are not Americans #chill you're more concerned, shouting, and crying for the injustices suffered by African Americans than for things that are happening in the country where you live, your country of origin, and many other places where injustice and discrimination run rampant . . . #blacklivesmatter here blacklivesmatter there.

A heated debate quickly ensued under the blogger's aforementioned, indignant message, one I heard directly referenced in passionate conversation over countless aperitifs and coffees in the subsequent weeks. But on that sleepless summer night, I was affixed to my laptop screen as I tried desperately to piece together news reports of racist violence and black resistance from Minnesota, Louisiana, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Fermo.

And with each new and increasingly irate addition to the discussion about black Italians and their connection to #BlackLivesMatter, my browser emitted an incongruously cheery two-tone notification alert. BA-BING! "I am half American, so I feel the injustices and hypocrisies of both countries," replied one woman from Reggio Emilia, the daughter of an African American father and an Italian mother. BA-BING! "Afro-Italians simply need to stop emulating African Americans . . . Afro-Italians can create something better, which hopefully won't be based on skin color and the stupid 'one-drop' rule," retorted another commenter. BA-BING! "This is why I don't agree with the use of the term 'Afro-Italian,'" responded an Italian-Afro-Brazilian student activist from Rome. "It refers to African Americans, but here in Italy and in Europe . . . there is no 'Afro' in common," she continued, arguing that Afrodescendants in Europe tend to identify with their or their parents' country of origin. A Ghanaian-Italian medical student from Verona with a keen interest in the black diaspora attempted to mediate between the various positions that had been expressed earlier: "It is true, yes, that we and black Americans swim in different waters. Just as it's true that we are able to take our first steps thanks to them. They are different waters, but at the end of the day we are all drowning in the same sea."

* * *

This debate about the relationship between black Italians and African Americans, while a small snapshot in time, actually encapsulates several fundamental questions about racial politics and blackness in contemporary Italy.

[Article continues with analyses of identity and a special section of photographs: available at]

Traversing the Tribal Patchwork of Libya's South West

Claudia Gazzini -- Direct URL:

Our Senior Analyst Claudia Gazzini travels to southern Libya and finds neglect, smugglers, a gold rush, and simmering tensions among a patchwork of ethnic, tribal and militia actors on the edge of the Sahara Desert. She also discovers much longing for a united, well-governed Libya.

Sebha, Libya -- To understand the full extent of the impact of the civil war that has fractured the rest of the country into warring fiefdoms, it is critical to visit southern Libya. In April, I had my first chance in two years to get there. There are no commercial flights, no foreign aid missions and traveling 800km by car through a maze of militia-run checkpoints and eager kidnappers is simply not an option.

By a stroke of luck, I am offered a lift by one of the few organisations still operating in south Libya and one of the most important players there: the National Oil Corporation (NOC). Despite recurrent fighting for control of oil fields, export terminals and pipelines, the NOC sustains the north-south flight link to maintain oil fields and keep production flowing.

I check in at a now-bustling former military airfield in Metiga, in Tripoli's eastern suburbs to join a shift of mostly northern Libyan oil workers on a 100-seat commercial jet. Since fighting in 2014 crippled the capital's main airport, all domestic and international flights operate from here. My fellow travellers are quiet on what for them is a routine journey.

But south Libya is hardly calm. A plane from the south's main city, Sebha, was hijacked last year, forcing the closure of that airport. Indeed, the cycles of violence can be bewildering.

Before my trip, the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, threatened to attack another Sebha airport, the Tamenhint air base, which at the time of my visit to the south was controlled by another faction, the so-called "Third Force", originally from the northern city of Misrata. Tamenhint was subject to recurrent attacks by a militia backed by the LNA.

Shortly after my trip, the Third Force took apparent revenge by attacking Haftar's forces in the Brak al-Shati air base, 80km north of Sebha. They killed between 80 and 130 people (numbers are still disputed), mostly LNA soldiers, but also some civilians that were on the base or driving nearby. For the northern belligerents, Sebha and the south are strategic prizes in an ongoing conflict, and neither side will easily give up control.

Luckily the NOC plane is flying me to somewhere else, the Sharara oil field, about 200km west of Sebha. All these places are deep in the Sahara Desert and are seldom visited by outsiders. Analysts like me usually focus on Libya's long Mediterranean coastline and far more populated cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, Sirte and Misrata, which have been at the political and military core of the conflict.

When Muammar Qadhafi, the self-styled "Brotherly Leader" of Libya, was ousted in 2011, the shattering of his iron grip fractured the country into warring pieces. There are now three rival governments and parliaments, but barely any sense of a state anymore. The key players are a multitude of militias, none of which can control the whole country.

I want to find out to what extent these centrifugal forces have split the tribes and ethnic groups that live in the urban oases and arid sands of the south. And how the local economy has evolved: while the collapse of central authority has turned the region's desert routes to the Sahel into a crossroads for smugglers, migrants heading to Europe and jihadists, the south is also home to Libya's great riches. These include not just oil, but also deep aquifers of water and mines for gold as well.

One Desert, Many Factions

The main political-military actors from the north vie for influence in the south, especially control of main roads and key infrastructure. Haftar's LNA works with the eastern government and parliament, whereas Misrata's Third Force is nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Faiez alSerraj in Tripoli. Still others are aligned with a rival government in Tripoli headed by Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghwell. The picture is further complicated by local factions that are loosely aligned with the above-mentioned centres of power. More often than not, these factions are internally split, with some of their members supporting one political-military grouping or another.

Access to this region is so limited that few foreigners, including myself, can know with certainty what is happening on the ground. Libyan media coverage of events in the south tends to be politically charged, and often paints a distorted picture of reality.

After a 90-minute flight, we touch down in Sharara. From the small oval airplane window I can see the shiny complex around the oil field. Even the oil sector workers who travel here rarely make it out of their well-groomed compound. Frustrated local communities often complain that those operating in Libya's lucrative oil business have no understanding of local dynamics. One consequence is that armed groups or protesters living close to the oil fields or along the pipeline that transports crude oil to the north frequently shut down production as a way to lobby for their demands, adding to strains on the already fragile Libyan economy.

At the airfield, I split off from the oil workers to follow the road less travelled. I'm with Abderrahim, my long-time driver in Tripoli, who accompanies me on my journeys. I speak Arabic and have known Libya for ten years, but his solid presence is an interface and reassurance for everyone I meet -- and for me. He has a warm smile, is soft-spoken and somehow manages to get along with all Libyan interlocutors of different religious and political affiliations whom I meet across the country.

It is vital to have local contacts as well, ready to receive me wherever I go in Libya. This is Tuareg country, so I have arranged for a Tuareg acquaintance to meet and look after us on the first leg of my journey. He is a trusted and well-connected civil society activist. We have been introduced by a very respectable Tuareg sheikh I have known for years. Like anywhere else in the country, you need to know who you can trust.

What I didn't expect is for my contact to be accompanied by three cars and several gunmen. It is not uncommon for the Tuareg to carry weapons, and many residents --not necessarily professional soldiers -- are armed. The men who escort me are discrete and do not flash their weapons ostentatiously, but I notice that aside from the ubiquitous semi-automatic AK-47 rifles, they also have PK heavy machine guns with belts of bullets. My guide explains it is just a precaution against kidnapping. Two Italian engineers were seized in a nearby town last year and he alleges that a ransom was paid for their release. Many locals, especially impoverished youth, may seek to replicate that to win what locally amounts to a fortune. I'm in his hands.

Given our arsenal, it's not surprising that these men would not be comfortable going through checkpoints manned by members of other tribes. All of the checkpoints between Sharara and Obari, where we are headed, are under the control of Tuareg in military fatigues who say they take orders from a Qadhafi-era Tuareg commander, Ali Kana. So as long as I stay in this area, I am able to move around easily with my escort.

Disinherited Tuaregs

We reach my first stop, the town of Obari. Under Qadhafi, Obari was a hub for any traveller seeking to experience desert life in the Sahara. I myself had been here back in 2008, part of an archaeological mission from Oxford University researching rock art. Now there are battle-damaged buildings, the hotels are all closed and I am the closest thing to a tourist anybody has seen since a handful of journalists came here in 2016 to report on battles that broke out in the town. After I'm welcomed into a private home, I set out to find the Tuareg guides who took care of me during that two-week long mission in the desert plateau behind Obari. There is so little for anyone to do now, it's not hard to track them down.

They and others fill me in on the downward spiral of commercial collapse, the gradual shutting down of links with the outside world and two years of war between two groups: the Tebu, a dark-skinned people who live in Sudan, Chad, Niger and Libya; and the Tuareg, a historically nomadic Berber people who straddle the borderlands of the Sahara across Niger, southern Algeria and Mali. In 2014, the Tuareg accused the Tebu of attempting to impose themselves militarily on Obari, which the Tuareg consider historically their territory. For their part, the Tebu claim that they had to attack Obari, where some Tebu also live, because it had become a hotbed for jihadists. The war ended in the summer of 2016 with a ceasefire but without a clear winner.

On the surface at least, life seems normal. But the town is falling through the cracks of post-revolutionary Libya. Municipal services like electricity, water or schools barely function. Under Qadhafi, most Libyan Tuaregs served as a military force, paid for by the central state. But he didn't give them official citizenship, and after the revolution their salaries were abruptly cut off. Unlike the Tuaregs of popular imagination, in their everyday life the Obari Tuaregs don't wear mysterious wrappings of indigo-dyed desert robes or habitually ride camels. Some don military uniforms, reflecting the reality that most inhabitants align with one militia or the other simply in order to get paid. My friends wear tight jeans and sandals, and feel abandoned.

The irony, though, is clear. There is great wealth in the southern oil fields, but it is funnelled to the north, helped by those same NOC flights that lift workers far above deprived locals' heads.

After two days in Obari, my contact passes me over to my next helper. My new guide is from a respected southern Arab tribe and is able to travel between Tuareg-controlled Obari and Sebha, which is mainly controlled by other factions. We set off on what is still a good asphalt road. The occasional checkpoints wave through ordinary cars, but trucks are getting stopped and their drivers have to pay tolls for their loads. This is the illicit economy in action.

The Cracked Jewel of the South

Sebha is not suffering from active conflict during my visit, but it looks battered after experiencing five rounds of local war between Arab tribes like the Qadhadhfa (Qadhafi's tribe), the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebu. There are burned-out cars on the streets. The former main hotel sits lifeless and derelict. Migrants can be seen passing through, crowded onto the back of pickup trucks. Small wonder, perhaps, that on the road in from Obari I see green flags painted on the gates of some homes, showing occasional nostalgia for the old Qadhafi regime.

There are no central government security forces. Fuel is being sold on the black market on many street corners. The city is carved up into neighbourhoods, with makeshift barriers serving as de facto border demarcations between various militias. No single faction is fully in command. Very few international organisations are now present in Sebha, just one or two offices stripped back to a nominal local presence.

Despite the divisions and uncertainties, there is a kind of normality too. I am able to rent a flat for our stay. In my light veil and long clothes, I move about most parts of the city to meet the various factions and commanders. I don't meet the people traffickers themselves, but speak to others who know what's going on. I'm free to ask as many questions as I like about all aspects of the huge rise in the smuggling economy. Sebha's residents know that in theory smuggling -- including of people -- is illicit, but most consider it legitimate, normal and profitable. These are just jobs, indeed the only way to make ends meet now that Libya's economy is in ruins and cash is hard to obtain.

A municipal council operates in an imposing building in downtown Sebha, but tensions among councillors are so high that some prefer to meet me in a more informal setting. Other friends arrange for me to pass into the shanty town dwellings of their poor quarter of Tuyuri, divided into one section where Tebu live and another with Tuareg. Others again are keen to show me Sebha's old city, now uninhabited but once the heart of this oasis town. They even show me where the Italian school was in the 1930s.

When there is no fighting, like now, schools and the local university are functioning. Electricity comes and goes (at times for more than 12 hours), but while I am there power seems steady. Drinking water still flows to many houses thanks to Qadhafi's "Great Man-made River", connected to fossil aquifers deep under the Sahara. Surrounded by desert, I even see some gardens that are lush and blooming.

Some illegal immigrants can be seen in the streets, but they are evidently the lucky few. Many are kept across town in large warehouses, often in atrocious conditions, until they change hands to other smugglers who take them one step further north in a long supply chain that ends in southern Europe. Others, unable to pay for their trip, are forced to stay put to cultivate land, load trucks or undertake other labourintensive work to earn money for their onward journey. Organisations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) report that in Sebha sub-Saharan migrants are being sold and bought by Libyan traffickers, a trade they denounced as being comparable to "slave markets". I did not see this and heard many Sehba residents complain that these accusations are exaggerated. But there is no doubt that these migrants I see have already endured a lot, and could suffer even beatings and rape in the next leg of their trip.

Libya's Wild West

After three nights in Sebha, I'm on the road again, fortunately this time without an armed escort. The next destination is Murzuq, in territory that is dominated by the Tebu and which has not seen any fighting in recent years. A good Tebu friend in Tripoli sends his cousin to take me there.

We pass many trucks filled with goods on their way to Chad and Niger. The Libyan government imports refined fuel and then subsidises it for local use, which makes onward sales to sub-Saharan Africa highly profitable for smugglers. I expect to see many more vehicles with migrants, but I am told that though we are also driving in the direction of the border to Niger, smugglers transporting migrants to Sebha take another route, slightly further east from where we are.

As soon as we enter Murzuq, it's clear the town is better off than Obari and Sebha. Luxurious houses rise in some streets and the atmosphere is clearly calm. An Ottomanera fortress dominates the town. There are no hotels here, as in Sebha and Obari, so visitors like me have to stay in people's homes. This works out better for me too, as I learn far more about daily life there than on my own or in hotels.

The city has enjoyed relative stability primarily because there is just one dominant group, and also because the town's two security chiefs -- one loyal to Haftar, the other to Ghwell -- have gone on with their respective jobs without picking a fight.

The boom in gold mining in the area bordering Chad and Niger is also boosting the local economy, probably more so than human smuggling. My hosts here say as much as seven kilos of gold (worth nearly $300,000) passes through town daily on the way to outside markets, adding to a sense that this is Libya's Wild West.

Elusive Jihadists

As I travel through the south, I am constantly aware of reports of Islamic State fighters transiting through the south, fleeing the major setback they were handed by a coalition of Misratan militias that drove them out of Sirte in December 2016 after a six-month battle. I see no sign of jihadists, but so many people tell me about them that it's clear that some are passing through discreetly and most likely heading to one of the countries to the south, through the Salvador Pass on the Libya-Niger border.

One reason for this could be that few southerners seem interested in ISIS ideology. Some young women I meet in Obari say that some of their relatives are with the Benghazi Revolutionaries' Shura Council, a group that is fighting alongside the Islamic State against Haftar's LNA. But they say these men are mainly motivated by anti-Haftar sentiment, and had already joined another anti-Haftar coalition formed in Tripoli in 2014. Few, if any, seem to have joined ISIS themselves, though some admit that, in the immediate aftermath of Qadhafi's fall, they had joined armed groups that they later discovered were associated with al-Qaeda.

With all the shifting allegiances, people find it difficult to work out who is supposed to be "good" and who is "bad". They tell me that they want to be with the legitimate factions, but don't know which those might be. They don't see the strings being pulled behind the greater daily rush of political chaos. They have people they have to feed, and inadvertently risk aligning with a terrorist group or an illegitimate armed faction, just because that's all what's on offer at that time.

A Libyan Enigma

An easy return to Obari, then on to the Sharara oil field airfield, and a quiet flight back to Tripoli affords me time to reflect on what I've seen. The ethnic and tribal patchwork I have just criss-crossed seems chaotic, but it is not exponentially different from the rest of Libya. In fact, there is much that is still shared. Even if the economy is all about smuggling to neighbouring countries, it is based on Libyan factors like a policy of subsidising fuel imports that make reselling it so lucrative, a national currency that everyone uses and nationwide lines of supply for most of the goods in the shops.

Many of the local ethnic and tribal groups remain at loggerheads despite ongoing efforts to heal these rifts. Indeed, local leaders tell me that they meet more often at conferences outside the country than at home. But these are still conferences about the south's place in Libya, and it seems to me that rather than promoting an active separatist dynamic, tribal leaders and local military actors are simply filling a power vacuum. Government officials mostly sit at home, waiting for the political struggles in the big cities on the Mediterranean coast to produce a functioning state again.

The bottom line for southerners is that they have an irresistible financial incentive to continue illicit economic activities, at least compared to the moribund legitimate economy. Profitability trumps legality wherever there are mouths to feed. Unless the legal economy is put back on track, it will be very difficult for interested powers to tackle the smuggling of goods and people. People are in need of salaries, services and security, and they await the moment a central state can once again offer that.

If there is one thing that my trip confirms to me once again, it is a paradox. Despite all the divisions and neglect, Libya is not just a country of two halves, three governments and countless tribes. The Libyans I meet still see themselves as belonging to one country. When the right moment comes, ethnic and tribal divisions can one day be bridged again.

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