by Haki Abazi
The danger of Libya turning into a wholly fragmented failed state, a long-term haven of chaos run by organized crime, is real. In such a state, Libya will threaten an already fragile regional stability and generate constant threats to stabilizing efforts. The instability and violent conflicts in the region of North Africa will then have negative spillover to Europe, especially with an increased flow of migrants.
Libya is a place where the international community cannot afford to fail. It’s one of the wealthiest states in Africa as well as the subject of various geopolitical interests. At the same time, it’s a traditional transit route out of Africa for refugees and migrants, including Libyans who have lost faith in the current government and lost hope for a better state after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Currently, different armed tribal groups are fighting for control of the country. To achieve a more cohesive nation and promote a faster post-conflict transition, Libya needs a better functioning national government. The creation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) at the end of 2015, facilitated with international support, was an important first step to filling the void after Gaddafi, but it was not enough to make Libya a normal country. The GNA’s mandate should be extended in parallel with the finalizing of the constitution and the electoral law.
But there is no way that interventions from the top alone can work, for this strategy has failed in many other places. Precious time and effort have been wasted on creating a central authority to be a partner for the international community to help prevent the flow of migrants through Libya into Europe. Libya needs robust and representative local authorities that can stabilize communities and become an anchor for the GNA on the ground.
A majority of Libyans respect their municipal authorities, which are more-or-less functional. The international community should focus on strengthening capacity at that level. That means organizing elections municipality by municipality, concentrating on the monitoring of electoral campaigns and the vetting of representatives by community councils and the GNA. There’s no need to rush with this bottom-up approach. Enough time should be given for the best candidates to emerge who can be elected with the confidence of the voters.
A local sustainable development plan should have three main pillars. Local government should be functional, accountable, and transparent. Civil society organizations—including a vibrant private sector and local media with a focus on investigative journalism, should be well funded and supported. And there should be a focus on the delivery of services like education, health care, water and sewage waste management, and electricity. Donors should prioritize the rehabilitation of infrastructure across the country to deliver these services. Strengthening these three pillars of local development would decrease the space for armed conflict and the spread of the Islamic State and other illegal armed groups.
Stronger municipalities do not mean fragmented decentralization. Rather, a stronger fiscal connection between the GNA and the municipalities that results in better quality services will strengthen national cohesiveness and promote greater accountability. It’s not a quick fix. It would take at least five to 10 years for the private sector and civil society to consolidate through such an approach.
Ultimately this approach would replace the GNA with new national institutions, beginning with a parliament composed of representatives from each municipality. In such a scenario, each municipality of 50,000 to 100,000 people would have two representatives at the national level., creating a strong link between politicians and their constituents (rather than simply their parties).
At the moment, foreign aid is not going to citizen-centered approaches to development but instead merely strengthen central authority and bureaucracies. For Libyans, this all resembles the centralized authority that Gaddafi put in place and maintained for four decades. Ordinary citizens feel that they are being pressed to relinquish the power they gained after Gaddafi’s overthrow and delegate the authority back to Tripoli. Regions and cities are pushing back against Tripoli’s power grab, trying to retain as much authority and local resources as possible. Reflecting this reality, an interim strategy should empower decentralized authorities, building trust between communities and local authorities. Before authority returns to the central government in Tripoli, the grievances of people must be heard and addressed.
Six years after the ouster of the Gaddafi regime, the situation in Libya remains fragile and very volatile. Quick-fix strategies and the interventions of outside donors have inadvertently perpetuated instability. Regional divisions and tribal animosities are surfacing in the worst way. A bottom-up strategy that strengthens local capacities must precede any serious effort to rebuild a trusted central authority in Tripoli.
Haki Abazi is the CEO of the Emerging Democracies Institute in Washington DC focusing on access to energy, refugees and migrants, and electoral systems in countries in transitions. Prior to EDI, he served for over 10 years as a program director of the Western Balkans of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pivotal Place program.