In Libya, the rise of “kleptocracy” with “impunity”

The warning is sharp: the “kleptocracy” to which Libya is a victim at the hands of its leaders “threatens the survival” of the country’s “most essential” institutions, including its oil sector

In Libya, the rise of “kleptocracy” with “impunity”

The warning is sharp: the “kleptocracy” to which Libya is a victim at the hands of its leaders “threatens the survival” of the country’s “most essential” institutions, including its oil sector. This is the conclusion of a report, “Libya’s Kleptocratic Boom,” published in mid-November by The Sentry, an NGO specializing in investigations into “multinational predation” networks. The “corruption pact” sealed between the political-business elites backed by militias only offers an illusory lull which in no way protects the Libyan theater from the “risk of a relapse into an armed conflict”, warns The Sentry .

Since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2011, Libya, an oil and gas powerhouse, which contains Africa's largest oil deposit, has fallen into instability as the country fragmented into strongholds held by armed groups. Latest major military episode: Marshal Khalifa Haftar's aborted assault on Tripoli, stronghold of internationally recognized institutions, ended in October 2020 with a ceasefire which has generally been respected since. If a reunified government has still not seen the light of day, a certain calm is allowed by the mutual non-aggression pact concluded between the two rival camps, West and East. Each has its own executive authority: the “national unity government” of Abdel Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli and the “national stability government” of Osama Hammad, linked to Marshal Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya .

Western countries, above all concerned about the stability of this strategic region of North Africa – in light of their concerns regarding migration and terrorism – seem to be accommodating to the arrangements established by these two parallel powers. In doing so, they "turn a blind eye" to "the corruption of Libyan leaders", laments The Sentry, which warns that the business dealings between the latter "do not constitute a viable consolidation of peace". Also the authors of the report urge Westerners to be firmer towards those responsible involved in embezzlement by resorting to the arsenal of “sanctions” available. It is time to put an end, adds the report, to “the culture of impunity” from which these political-security actors have until now benefited.

“Sophistication of organized crime”

The Sentry's investigation offers a striking picture of this Libyan "kleptocracy". Its origins date back to the reign of Gaddafi and his clan management of oil revenues. The chaos following the fall of his regime only allowed “an expansion in size and sophistication” of “organized crime” which will prosper thanks to the collusion between mafia networks, militias, businessmen and godfathers. policies.

One of the factors that allowed the growth of this “illicit economy” was the civil war of 2014 which, by establishing the lasting partition between East and West, gave birth to a dual banking system aggravating the existing opacity. . As economic stagnation depreciated the value of the Libyan dinar, the emergence of a black currency market was a considerable source of enrichment for a multitude of well-connected actors. The most widely used technique was that of “letters of credit” allowing dollars to be purchased at a rather low official rate to resell them at an unofficial rate 5 to 6 times higher. If the practice ran out of steam from 2018 with the narrowing of the gap between the two indices, it allowed the construction of real fortunes.

The smuggling of diesel and gasoline, another large-scale illicit practice, comes from the same lever acting on the price differential. Acquired at a price subsidized by the State, these petroleum products are resold at a much higher price abroad, notably in Chad, Sudan, Tunisia, Albania and Turkey. This market generated around $750 million in fraudulent revenue in 2018, according to an official source cited in the report.

In constant search of new profits, Libyan predators linked to the authorities of the East and the West have launched in recent years into a new activity: the export of recycled scrap metal. Thus, public infrastructures are being stripped down to see their metal content exported, mainly to Turkey. In Cyrenaica, the Military Investment Authority – the economic arm of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – is particularly involved in this trafficking. Another growing market has recently developed around the transportation of narcotics. With cannabis coming from Morocco, cocaine from Latin America and captagon from Syria – the latter flow being favored by the rapprochement between Haftar and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – Libya has become a cargo crossing point whole of these drugs.

Human trafficking

In Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, militias aligned with political leaders are also involved in human trafficking networks. They arrest, incarcerate, extort under torture, release and then arrest tens of thousands of migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The Europeans, led by the Italians, continue to want to conclude agreements with the Libyan authorities, including funding, in the hope of stemming migratory pressure on their coastline. After having dealt in 2017-2018 with militias from Tripolitania, a traditional region of embarkations, Rome tried in 2023 to secure the collaboration of Haftar in Cyrenaica, an area that had until then been marginal in the flows but from which a increasing number of migrants to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Such an attempt is indicative of the European or American approach to Libya, where the local leaders asked, even protected, to provide strategic services (migration, terrorism) are the same ones who are involved in criminal networks. “Policymakers seeking to avert the danger of further instability in Libya (…) should urgently address the kleptocracy boom,” the Sentry report concludes. Because it not only harms the population, it also threatens neighboring countries and could affect Europe and the United States. »