Libya’s central government shouldn’t be held hostage to regional interests

The UN-backed national unity government is just the latest example of regional tensions marring the formation and eventual performance of Libyan central government. This isn’t to deny the raft of other issues that may impact the unity government, but the issue of projecting local power/interests to the national stage is a critical one.

Tracing the history of conflict in Libya over the past years it’s very clear that local rivalries have been a massive driver of conflict. But this is exacerbated by a terrifying fear that ones rivals might take control of a key slice of central government and use it to push opponents. This has a key political and ideological component, but local interests are the real underpinning for this, with towns, tribes and regions pilling their weight behind political factions who provide them the best advantages.

The remedy thus far, including within the UN-backed unity government has been to construct a fragile division of ministries between each region of the country. This has already fallen foul of ‘regional’ members threatening to resign at the drop of a hat. Assuming the unity government actually manages to take the reigns of power in Libya, these issues will only be exacerbated, and the inherently fragile nature of this ‘multi-region’ structure to the government will paralyse it. This combined with the prolonged civil conflict in the east and the collapse of oil production and prices presents a real risk of disintegration of the Libyan state.

The real solution lies in genuinely addressing the obscenely top heavy nature of the Libyan state, and massively empowering local regions/cities. A realistic realisation that Libyans will not trust an omnipotent central military force is also required. This makes the notion of a traditional and centralised army problematic. In fact the army is currently split with forces based in different regions pledging allegiance to local cities/tribes not central government.

It would be much better to pragmatically push existing local militias (not those involved in criminal activity) into becoming official local security directorates. A national guard body could be formed, with trusted local forces established as regional branches of this force. With their own local command structure and funding. Army units based in different areas could be converted into local national guard branches (retaining their structure). Military assets like jets and naval ships could present an issue, but effectively these have already been used and incorporated into local military forces. If done correctly this process could establish trust based on a relative balance of power. At the national level a council of local commanders could co-ordinate efforts between regions. A common uniform, credo and even facilities, benefits and mixed events/retreats would boost trust and esprit de corps.

It is possible that a truly national force (built with equal numbers of members from various towns/regions or perhaps via a national conscription programme) could then be built along side this for specific tasks like border control. Importantly funding for these local security groups should be channelled through local councils, and not central government. The national ministry of defence/interior could even be combined and serve more as co-ordinator and facilitator rather than a potentially biased dictator in the making.

A parallel approach would be taken in the economic sphere, perhaps with larger component units of regional governance. Assets should be devolved to regional control where possible. Even oil and gas facilities could be considered for devolution at a regional level (say if Libya split into it’s historical three provinces). Taxes and duties could also be devolved and importantly the job of payment/retention of local government employees. Local regions should be allowed to engage in foreign direct investment projects and to generally take a bigger responsibility for their local affairs. Legislative issues could also be better managed locally although Libyans would have to agree on a common set of pan Libyan rights (economic and civil).

In general the objective would be to pair down central gov to focus on pan-national projects and international relations, clipping it’s claws and muzzling its jaws so it can no longer threaten local/regional groups. Of course this radical localisation will have issues, it could fuel more local tensions and fighting but with a wider distribution of cash and arms, the hope would be that this tendency would be mitigated. The fact is that this could be the only alternative to a permanent disintegration of the Libyan state. Pretending that Libya remains (or ever was) a powerfully centralised state with omnipotent central institutions is a dangerous delusion. It’s time for the politics and rules of the game to better match the reality on the ground.