Libya-The Tebu of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq; A black people in search of a nationality. Updated 30th April 2014
‘A delegation of some 36 Tebu representatives arrived in Tripoli on Tuesday 27th November 2012 to press the new Libyan government and the General National Congress on citizenship and civil rights issues for their people.’ Who are the Tebu and why are they important?
The Libyan region in which the Tebu live is rich in oil and underground water which, via the Great Man Made River, is piped to the coast where an estimated 90 per cent of Libya’s population live. It is also prime territory for illicit trade, with government-subsidised fuel and food smuggled out of the country in return for weapons, drugs, alcohol and migrants. The fall of Gaddafi triggered a minor war for control of the border trade between the black Tebu residents of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq and the white Arab tribes – the Zawiya, the Awlad Suleiman and the Warfella.
There are visible signs of discrimination against the Tebu. For example, at Kufra a wall built by the Arab Zawiya tribe encircles the small town and traffic funnels through a guarded entrance. The Zawiya are in charge of Kufra’s government, military council, the commercial centre and small airport. The minority Tebu people live in shacks surrounded by rubbish heaps in the ghetto communities of Gadarfai and Shura. They are cordoned off by checkpoints monitored by the Libyan army.
Speaking in Tripoli to the editor of the Libya Herald on 27th November the Tebu military leader, Essa Abdul Majid Mansour, pointed out that fighting in Kufra between the majority Sway [al Zawiya] tribesman and minority Tebu clans had resulted in a number of deaths. He said that relations between the Sway and the Tebu were still tense and there was an urgent need for a government delegation to go to Kufra to achieve some form of settlement, otherwise matters will get worse. “There is already smuggling of weapons to Al-Qaeda groups outside the country, as well as drugs being brought into Libya. A main issue [for the Tebu] is the question of citizenship.”
The problem for the Tebus stemmed from Libya’s 1954 citizenship law when traditionally semi-nomadic tribes lacked identification, denying them access to higher education, skilled jobs, housing and health care. Michel Cousins of the Libya Herald writes ‘Large numbers of Tebus were stripped of their citizenship by Gaddafi in 2009 following a Tebu uprising the previous year, itself the result of persecution by the regime. There were forced evictions and demolition of Tebu homes. Because of it, the Tebu joined last year’s revolution from the very beginning. Officials say that there are some 12,000-15,000 Libyan Tebus. However, Essa Abdul Majid Mansour claims that there are at least 200,000 who are now stateless, having been stripped of their citizenship.’
The Tebu people of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq are part of a wider ethnic group called the Teda, desert warriors living in the eastern and central Sahara and, effectively, a black people without nationality. The majority of them can be found in the Tibesti Mountains on the Libyan-Chad border. Their harsh environment, extreme poverty, and remote location make them a very tough people. They have often clashed with the neighbouring tribes and with the Tuareg and, like the gypsies in Great Britain, are despised by the dominant communities who see them as petty thieves and liars.
Traditionally, the Teda controlled the caravan trade routes that passed through their territory. They were widely known in the past for plundering and salve trading. Their language is Tebu and their basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into clans. They live by a combination of pastoralism, farming, substance smuggling and date cultivation.
In Libya the Tebu people of Kufra have long been marginalised. For many years, Gaddafi’s people pursued a program of ‘arabiseation’ which effectively meant the persecution of the Tebu as this report by the Human Rights Council makes clear: “Some 4,000 Toubou [Tebu] people are living in the town of Kufra, an oasis city of 44,000 inhabitants some 2,000 kilometres from Tripoli. In the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [Gaddafi’s Libya], they were treated as foreigners by the authorities. In December 2007, the Libyan Government withdrew citizenship from members of the Toubou group, stating that they were not Libyans but Chadians. Furthermore the local authorities issued decrees barring Toubou from access to education and health care services. The armed movement “Front for the Salvation of the Toubou Libyans” …. opposed these measures. Up to 33 people died in Kufra, during five days of fighting between the official security forces and the Toubou in November 2008. Despite public criticism, the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [continued] to expel Toubou people from their residential areas in Kufra. Since November 2009 dozens of families lost their homes due to forced destruction by bulldozers supervised by state security forces.”
The hostility between the black Tebu people and the white al Zawiya tribe has long been endemic in Kufra and has escalated into open warfare since the heavy hand of the Gadaffi regime was lifted after the 2011 civil war. Traditionally practicing nomadic pastoralism of sheep and camels in a triangular area with its apex at Ajadabia, the Zawiya conquered Kufra, in 1840, subduing the indigenous Tebu. The Zawiya tribe owns most of the date palm groves of the Kufra oases, employing the Tebu tribesmen as labourers. The Zawiya might not be the biggest tribe in Libya, but they are still a considerable force because of the vast size of its homeland. Its members are spread out across the areas around the oil export facilities on the Gulf of Sidra to the interior regions around the oil deposits, as well as the Kufra oasis. The Zawiya are known as a fierce and xenophobic tribe and they intend to control the trade, legal and illegal, that passes through the Kufra oasis complex.
On the 23rd of February 2012, the Jamestown Foundation published its report entitled “The Battle for Kufra Oasis and the On-going War in Libya”. It states, in part: “An escalating tribal conflict in the strategic Kufra Oasis has revealed once more that Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) is incapable of restoring order in a nation where political and tribal violence flares up on a regular basis, fuelled by a wave of weapons liberated from Qaddafi’s armouries. Though this is hardly the first clash between the African Tebu and the Arab Zawiya tribe that took control of the oasis from the Tebu in 1840, it is certainly the first to be fought with heavy weapons such as RPGs and anti-aircraft guns, an innovation that is reflected in the various estimates of heavy casualties in the fighting. Fighting began on February 12 and has continued to the present [22nd February]. Well over 100 people have been killed in less than two weeks; with many hundreds more wounded (Tripoli Post, February 22).”
Essa Abdul Majid Mansour told Michel Cousins; ‘The stability of Libya depends on the stability of the south and the stability of the south depends on the stability of the Tebu. The stability of the Tebu also affects Europe, he added, referring to the need to secure Libya’s southern borders to prevent sub-Saharan migrants using the country as a gateway across the Mediterranean to Europe.’ He may well be right.
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Update 18th December 2012. There is some hope at last! Read this:
Update 19th December 2012
This is part of an article in the Libya Herald which throws an interesting new light on this complex problem:
‘According to immigration officials, an estimated 40,000 non-Libyans, the majority of them Africans, were granted Libyan nationality during last year’s uprising in exchange for their support for the Qaddafi regime. As part of a broader power-struggle, some Arab tribes have exploited this situation, branding the black African Tebu, many of whom supported last year’s revolution, as part of the problem.’
Read the full article:
Update 8th January 2013
An interesting interview from the Tebu point of view:
Update 9th January 2013
Inter-tribal killings continue:
Update 15th January 2013
An excellent in depth piece about the Tebu and Libya’s south;
Update 14th February
News of attempts to reconcile the Zawiya and the Tebu in Kufra. The attachment to the Senussi sect is invoked:
Update 10 April 2013
Reports of more killing in Kufra despite the cease fire:
In contrast this next is an outstanding and sympathetic report about the Tebu and deserve a wider audience.
Update 29th May 2013
The Tebu’s are now blockading one of Libya’s major oil fields. They have a list of grievances. See the flowing piece in the Libya Herald;
Update 21st June 2013
A detailed and well written piece from the Libya Herald on the situation in Sothern Libya where fears that a terrorist group has set up shop are growing;
Update 3rd July 2013
News that Tebu protesters have shut down the ‘Elephant’ oil field west of Muzuk:
Update 20th July 2013
The Tebu, Tuareg and Berber minorities in Libya have protested that they are under-represented on the Congressional Constitution committee and have threatened to take direct action. The Tebu action in the ‘Elephant’ oil field is already affecting Libya’s oil exports.
See this in the Libya Herald:
Update 17th March 2014
The Tebu of Kufra still appear to be threatened by the majority Sway.
Update 30th April 2014
These pieces brings the issue of the Tebu and of minority rights in Libya up to date: