Who should get Libya’s fabulous oil and gas wealth, an amount that could be equivalent to several million dollars per Libyan? With NATO leaving Libya Monday, the West should prepare for the aftermath. The coming chaotic months will see infighting, and perhaps a renewal of civil war, among the many rival tribal and ideological groups. The West should now consider whether to influence — or impose — a just resolution.
If the West takes a hands-off approach, Libya is likely to fall into the hands of another strongman, as all Arab countries have in the Middle East. Does the West want another Gaddafi to control these riches? Or should the riches be divvied up among Libya’s many tribes? Should Libya — a new country conjured up by Western powers 60 years ago — even exist in its present form? Or should some other borders be created, to better reflect the traditional lands and cultural differences of its indigenous populations?
This immense country — the fourth largest in Africa, in area equivalent to 25 Irelands — had but one million people on its independence day in 1951, when the United Nations merged together one French and two British-administered territories to create Libya. Few among those one million had any notion of nationhood — they largely hailed from nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, some 20 tribes among them of various racial stock, typically with fierce allegiances to their own clans and little else.
The three territories that became Libya had few economic prospects at the time — they were believed to have no commercial supplies of oil or water — making them a cost to their British and French masters. To rid themselves of these costs, these Western powers, with UN approval, installed a local dignitary as king and walked away.
Prior to the Second World War, the territories had been colonized by Italy’s Fascists. Prior to the First World War, they had been colonies of the Ottoman Turks, who had taken them from the Arabs, who had taken them from the Romans, who had taken them from the Greeks. “Libyans” had never ruled themselves.
Today, Libyans still have little notion of nationhood. Shortly after Libya’s creation, Esso (now known as Exxon) discovered oil, making Libya a prize worth seizing. Gaddafi then overthrew the monarchy that the UN had created and dismantled parliament, political parties and all other institutions that might challenge him. Over his 42-year rule, he used Libya’s wealth, as Arab dictators often do, to buy off some tribes and oppress the rest. Today no tradition of democracy exists in Libya, except as vestiges of tribal governance, which Gaddafi also attempted to destroy.
Libyans, by any credible measure, are ill-prepared to govern themselves, and some minorities may prefer to live apart from the dominant Libyan tribes. The Tuareg in the country’s remote southwest, for example, call themselves “the free people” and live up to their name: These dark-skinned people from the Saharan interior are famed for having fought the French Foreign Legion and other colonizers in the past; today they oppose the interim leaders that NATO and the West have empowered in Libya.
Fortunately, the United Nations has a mechanism to deal with people such as the Tuareg, and immature states such as Libya — the United Nations Trusteeship System. After the Second World War, this system oversaw the transition of 11 territories to self-determination. Each transition was unique, because the local circumstances were unique, but they all had as their goals the promotion of domestic development, along with international peace and security. In some cases, self-determination took the form of outright independence, as with the Cameroons; in others, it involved a merger, as with Togoland, which joined the Gold Coast to become Ghana; in still others, it involved separation, as with Ruanda-Urundi, which voted to divide into the two sovereign states of Rwanda and Burundi.
In the case of Libya, a UN trusteeship that gave its peoples a say over their own destiny could well see a split-up of the country. The country might divide into the three parts that existed prior to independence, or into a larger number of sovereign states, as the various tribal groups considered their cultural and economic self-interest.
Decentralization is likely to be positive in financial terms because under the highly centralized Gaddafi dictatorship, as with most dictatorships, the economy stagnated. His decision to expropriate the foreign-owned oil industry in favour of an inefficient and corrupt state oil company all but halted development of one of the world’s largest, cleanest, and lowest-cost reservoirs of energy — most of Libya’s vast energy potential as a result remains unexplored and untapped.
The UN trusteeship could also dispense reparations by using part of Libya’s oil wealth to compensate Gaddafi’s victims. These exist in good number domestically, in the tribes and political prisoners that he ruthlessly subdued, and externally too, in the neighbouring countries he attacked. The trusteeship could also compensate the Libyans forced to flee the country, both the political refugees and Libya’s once sizeable Jewish community, which was forced to leave en masse, its property expropriated.
Finally, reparations could also include the US$1-billion to US$2-billion that NATO spent to liberate the country from its tyrant. If compensated, NATO countries would more readily intervene in other tyrannies, and the tyrants, knowing this, would less readily send their tanks in against their own people.
The alternative to giving Libya’s people the right to determine their future is bleak. The interim leaders — chiefly a trio associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda — have strongly held views, as do those NATO defeated on their behalf. But NATO leaves at 11:59 p.m., Oct. 31.