Libya must learn from Somalia to progress

Failure to tackle self-interest in status quo is making UN's Ghassan Salame’s monumental task all the tougher

Migrants sit at a naval base after they were rescued by Libyan coastguard, in Tripoli, Libya October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
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Marco Minniti is that rarest of figures, an effective Italian cabinet minister making an impact beyond the country’s borders.

The former communist is Italy's interior minister. He has unusually close ties to the country’s intelligence services. These have been used to great effect since taking up his job at the beginning of this year.

In particular, the minister struck a deal with tribal communities involved in people-smuggling on the Libya coast. Within weeks, there was an 87-per cent drop in migrants loaded on boats anywhere between Zuwara and Sabratha that then sail to Lampedusa and Sicily.

We know quite a lot about the smuggling kingpins of the area. Two years ago, an Italian newspaper published revealing raw intelligence intercepts of Tripoli-based middle men who rounded up African migrants to supply the coastal trade.

Italian intelligence has deep knowledge of its former colony and Mr Minniti has shown no qualms in using Rome’s assets to alleviate the worst aspects of the crisis.

The bigger picture – that Libya remains a failed state – has not fundamentally changed. Ghassan Salame, the UN Libya special representative on Libya, ended his first round of consultations with the country's factions in mid-October without making the progress he had hoped. Diplomatically, he observed that parties to the talks (and presumably their backers outside the room) were benefiting from the stalemate. Self-interest was preventing progress. One obvious group profiting from the chaos is the rich and empowered people-smugglers.


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A recent report from Britain’s Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) estimated that trade generates revenues of US$1 million (Dh3.68 million) per day. In making deals with the Libyans, the Italians have compensated their allies for the loss of revenue they suffer from reducing the boatloads.

A G7 meeting in Italy earlier this month endorsed the Minniti initiative and the EU has offered European funds for the Italians to channel more money across the Mediterranean.

There is no doubt that the Italians have suffered a massive migrant influx since the collapse of Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime. The CMEC report from Sicily detailed both the trauma suffered by migrants who had paid as much as $1,800 a head for the voyage. It also found deep fears among the locals who had borne the brunt of an influx of 700,000 since 2011.

On the face of it, paying to stop the flows makes tactical sense. However, paying to sustain the incomes of the mafia-like overlords is a profoundly wrong decision.

We know this because we have seen a G7 and UN-endorsed model of how to stop illegal and lucrative costal brigandry in a failed state. And after the practice was disrupted and broken up, the way was clear to rebuild the political system.

That country was Somalia and the lessons of the global campaign to shut down the Somali pirates could and should be applied to Libya. Somali piracy now only exists in the realms of Hollywood movies, a sharp contrast to the situation at its peak in 2008.

First of all, countries coalesced around a United Nations resolution late that year that recognised the scale of the threat to world trade routes from the industrial piracy out of the Horn of Africa. The urgency of the need to act was compounded by the country's onshore disarray and consequent destabilising impact on global security.


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A contact group of many nations formed the following year. An international naval coalition was assembled that hunted down the pirate operations throughout the Indian Ocean. Sanctions targeted the warlords growing rich from the trade. G7 summits provided political and economic support for resolving the issue. The privately-run shipping lines and other boats moving across the area developed techniques to thwart any attacks. In short there was coordination on a massive scale to resist the spread of piracy.

Precisely none of those conditions exist in the Mediterranean. The EU-led naval coalition does not effectively target the on-shore and near-shore people-smuggling operators. Instead, there is a lot of money spent on a Libya coastguard expansion. Private boats, especially those operated by charities, such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children, rescue hundreds of migrants at a time from the perilous sea. But officials view them as being a "pull factor". By reassuring migrants they will safely reach Europe (no matter how rickety the boat), the charities encourage the outflow.

Such is the distrust so poignant, Italian intelligence has resorted to planting agents on charities' boats to gather evidence of collusion with the people smugglers.

But Europe, through Italy, is also paying off the very people who should be facing sanctions or even military action, such as raids by the marines and other special forces.

The lessons learned in Somalia are not being applied to Libya despite the parallels. And that is making Mr Salame’s Herculean task all the more tough.