Since early December 2018 the Sharara oil field in the southwest has been shut down most of the time by local tribal militia and oilfield guards who have been demanding higher pay and a share of the income earned by oil produced at Sharara. This is the largest source of oil and gas field in Libya and the frequent target of attacks for no other reason because it has always been a place where there was stuff to steal. Sharara is located about 700 kilometers south of Tripoli in the Murzuq Desert. Total Libya oil production is 1.25 million BPD (barrels per day) and Sharara accounts for a quarter of that. Another major oilfield in that area, el Feel, produces 90,000 BPD and together with Sharara accounts for a third of national production.
A month ago the LNA (Libyan National Army) and rival forces from the Tripoli government (the GNA or Government of National Accord) sent forces south to deal with the Sharara dispute. The LNA was faster and had already had negotiators down there working out deals acceptable to most of the local tribes. The LNA also represents the other Libya government, the HoR (House of Representatives) which is based in the eastern city of Tobruk. These two rival governments have agreed to allow the National Oil Company to run the oil operations but only the LNA has been regularly able to deal with the attempts by local militias to hold oil facilities for ransom. At the same time, the GNA (which was created with the help of the UN and recognized by the UN) and HoR have been unable to agree on a united government and a distribution of oil income acceptable to all. At this point, the GNA sees the LNA effort to drive the local forces out of el Feel and Sharara as a threat because then the HoR would control much of the national oil production.
The GNA has more serious problems in Tripoli where a growing number of independent (from any government) militias are refusing to behave. The UN is trying to finally get the GNA and HoR to unite via another conference in March. While the GNA still has UN support most Arab, African and European nations either support or favor the HoR and in particular the LNA. At this point, the GNA is willing to work with the HoR but there is still a dispute over the LNA leader Khalifa Hiftar who wants to remain in command of the LNA and all Libyan armed forces after a unity deal is achieved. GNA leaders are opposed to that. Hiftar created the LNA in 2013 and has led it ever since. He does not trust many of the current Libyan politicians and insists he does not want to become another dictator, like Kaddafi (who was killed in 2011 and tried to have Hiftar killed in the 1980s and 90s).
In October 2018 tribal and militia violence erupted in the south at the Sharara oil fields, which ships its oil out via the port of Zawiya. There were similar production reductions in July. Back then the attackers were local militias threatening to seize control of facilities so they could demand high paying and permanent status as PDG (Petroleum Defense Guards). This scam is usually (but not always) attempted by local tribes or militias that see nearby oil facilities (pumping, pipelines, export terminals) as an economic opportunity that is potentially worth a lot of money if you are willing to fight and get away with it. The problem is there are often competing groups willing to fight for the right to be the highly paid (and not very reliable) PDG. The only solution to this problem is a national government that can provide law and order. The most recent violence disrupted access to the Sharara facility, which is the largest oil field in Libya and before the revolution in 2011 accounted for 17 percent of national production. Currently, it can, when undisturbed, still produce the same amount, up to 340,000 BPD, as it did in 2011. The Sharara field was developed and managed by a multinational (Spain, France, Austria and Norway) effort and that means there are a lot of foreign workers there, mainly to deal with the high tech stuff.
At the moment both the GNA and LNA claim to have forces near Sharara but the local militias still occupy the oil facilities and any efforts to remove the militiamen by force risks damaging the oil facilities and shutting down Sharara for months or longer to make repairs. The LNA may already control the el Feel oil fields.
Corruption Makes Me Do It
Libya has been making some earnest and well-publicized efforts to reform its economy and government but actually changing the culture of corruption is proving difficult. One of the major problems is the government inability to clean up its own massive internal corruption. In 2018 there was some progress, driven by the increasing poverty caused by years of civil war. In 2018 Libya ranked 170 out of 180 nations in a worldwide survey of corruption. That’s up from 175 in 2017 and 170 out of 176 countries in 2016. Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Libya score is 17 (same as in 2017 but up from 14 in 2016) compared to 35 (33) for Algeria, 32 (31) for Mali, 43 (40) for Morocco, 43 (42) for Tunisia, 19 (20) for Chad, 34 (33) for Niger, 35 (32) for Egypt, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 19 (19) for Angola, 26 (23) for CAR, 26 (26) for Uganda, 56 (55) for Rwanda, 17 (22) for Burundi, 36 (36) for Tanzania and 35 (37) for Zambia, 34 (35) for Ethiopia, 27 (28) for Kenya, 24 (20) for Eritrea, 14 (16) for Yemen, 13 (12) for South Sudan, 16 (16) for Sudan, 61 (61) for Botswana, 72 (75) for the United States, 25 (25) for Cameroon, 40 (39) for Benin, 41 (40) for Ghana, 43 (43) for South Africa, 45 (45) for Senegal, 41 (40) for India, 72 (73) for Japan, 38 (37) for Indonesia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 28 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (29) for Russia and 39 (41) for China. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Libya’s corruption score has changed for the worse since 2012 when it was 21.
February 10, 2019: In the south, an LNA jet fighter forced a transport, which had taken off from an el Feel airport without LNA permission, to land at Sabha airport for inspection. The transport was found to be carrying oil field workers and was allowed to proceed.
February 9, 2019: In the south, the LNA carried out four airstrikes against rebel militia positions around the el Feel oil production facilities that are currently being held hostage by the militias. LNA ground forces are headed for the area.
In the east Derna (250 kilometers east of Benghazi) is nearly clear of outlaw and Islamic terrorist groups. Derna was the last major coastal city to have a major Islamic terrorist and rogue militia problem and while the LNA has eliminated major opposition there are still less visible outlaws in like Derna who continued to cause problems. After a year of effort the LNA appears to have eliminated all the outlaw groups and soldiers are now searching buildings in neighborhoods where most of the civilians have fled. The LNA is seeking weapons and any remaining outlaw gunmen.
February 8, 2019: In the south, near the Sharara oil fields, a local militia force tried to halt the advance of LNA troops. After a brief battle (that left four soldiers and ten militiamen dead) the militia force fled and the LNA force continued.
The LNA warned all airports in the south in areas controlled by rebellious militias that they could not conduct any takeoffs or landings without first obtaining permission from the LNA (which has air surveillance radars and warplanes based in the area). The airports in question were ones that services oil facilities, usually to move foreign personnel in or out and to bring in supplies. The LNA also carried out airstrikes against rebel militias, some of them Chad mercenaries, in the area.
February 7, 2019: In the south, on the border with Chad, French airstrikes over the last three days destroyed or scattered a convoy of 50 rebel vehicles fleeing into Chad to escape the advancing LNA forces. Chad reported that its forces captured over 200 of these mercenaries/Chad rebels who made it into Chad. France carried out these air attacks as part of its counter-terrorism effort throughout the Sahel, which includes northern Chad and southern Libya. France has long had a liaison group with the LNA, to coordinate operations against Islamic terrorists and independent militias in southern Libya. France and Chad have long worked together on counter-terrorist operations as well. French and American aircraft and spy satellites provide regular surveillance of the Sahel and southern Libya in general. The LNA apparently got some of this air surveillance data.
February 1, 2019: In Tripoli, rival militia coalitions are using a new tactic against each other; going public with details of rival militia financial supporters. Most of these “supporters” are local businesses that pay a militia for security but the supporter lists also include local government officials, including those working for the CBL (Central Bank of Libya).
January 21, 2019: In Tripoli, rival militias fighting each other south of the city agreed to a ceasefire. The fighting has been intense in the last week and there were over a hundred casualties. There has been militia violence in and around Tripoli since August 2018 and the GNA has been unable to end it.
January 17, 2019: In the east, LNA forces moving south clashed with a group of al Qaeda gunmen and one of the three dead Islamic terrorists turned out to be a wanted al Qaeda leader. LNA forces began moving towards the Sharara oil fields, two days ago, from several directions. For several years now the LNA has been the only government authority in the south. Even the GNA was unable to control areas due south of the capital, Tripoli. In part, this was because much of the territory south of Tripoli was controlled by Berber militias which tended to favor the LNA and the Tobruk government in the east.
January 15, 2019: In Egypt, the government has increased its efforts to clear Islamic terror groups and arms smugglers operating along the Libyan border. As part of that effort, Egypt again imposed a curfew in some parts of Sinai to make it more difficult for Islamic terrorists to move at night. The government (actually parliament) also extended the nationwide “state of emergency” another three months (until mid-April). The state of emergency is similar to martial law and unpopular for obvious reasons. The state of emergency gives the government nearly unlimited power to investigate anyone anyway they can, arrest and hold people without warrants or obligation to bring charges and basically run the country like a dictatorship. The three decades of Mubarak rule, which ended in 2011, was made possible by a permanent state of emergency and getting rid of that was one of the main demands of the 2011 rebels. The current state of emergency began in April 2017 because of increased Islamic terrorist activity, especially efforts to attack Israel from Egyptian territory. So far Egypt has continued to uncover and attack or arrest Islamic terrorists all over Sinai and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the country. There has been more Islamic terrorists activity coming out of Libya apparently because of recent defeats ISIL and other Islamic terror groups have suffered there. But the martial law is generally unpopular and the government is under growing popular pressure to end it.