Each year, only a handful of hardcore tourists or intrepid business people would venture down to Ghat, a small town that seems to lie on the very edge of the known world. From here you can make out the Jebel Acacus mountain range that cuts through south-western Libya. An Ottoman-era fort briefly occupied by the French after the second world war overlooks a jumble of abandoned mud houses, their former residents now occupying newer bungalows in this isolated Saharan outpost.
It was through this forgotten corner of the country that a caravan of Mercedes carrying Muammar Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two of his less politically active sons crossed into Algeria in late August. Last week, another armed convoy – this time carrying senior Gaddafi regime members – probably passed through Ghat on its way to Niger.
Both getaways demonstrate that Libya’s remote southern areas are still largely out of Tripoli’s control, complicating not just the hunt for Gaddafi but the new government’s efforts to impose its authority on the whole of the country. While the Transitional National Council (TNC) focuses on stabilising the capital and quelling resistance in Bani Walid or Sirte, these southern areas threaten to become even more lawless than they were before.
The bottom half of Libya shares borders with Niger, Chad, Sudan, Algeria and Egypt. The region is home to a mix of featureless plains, otherworldly landscapes and mythical oases that have captured the imagination of trans-Saharan explorers for centuries.
Emptiness is one of their defining characteristics. The governorate of Kufra, bordering Sudan in the south east, officially contains 0.1 resident for each of its 433,611 sq kms of land. With few asphalted roads, travellers must rely on well-worn 4×4 tracks, GPS, satellite phones and the knowledge of local drivers to navigate between remote settlements without running out of fuel or water.
The region is also extremely difficult to monitor. Some have asked how Nato could have failed to spot the convoy of vehicles that crossed into Niger last week. But fleets of battered trucks have criss-crossed Libya’s porous borders for years, transporting human and commercial cargo along what is essentially a 21st-century caravan route. Without trusted spotters on the ground – practical on the coast, less so in the desert – it is hard to tell whether they are friend or foe.
In June, it emerged that the Sudanese army had intervened by land to help expel Gaddafi’s forces from the town of Kufra, which is closer to Khartoum than it is to Tripoli. There is little love lost between the Sudanese government and Gaddafi, who it accuses of aiding anti-government rebels in the troubled Darfur region, which borders Libya.
As Niger’s recently appointed president Mahamadou Issoufo pointed out this week, it is impossible to simply “close the border”. For one thing, most of Niger’s perimeter with Libya straddles the Murzuq Sand Sea, an epic expanse of shifting sand dunes that is about the same size as Switzerland. For another, Niger is one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries, lacking the substantial resources required to effectively monitor the frontier.
The informal economy dominates in most parts of Libya’s south. Incomes are lower, and unemployment higher, than on the coast. Yet Gaddafi’s government had embarked on ambitious plans to develop tourism in a region that had become a hotspot for European adventure travellers and boasts a collection of prehistoric rock art in the Jebel Acacus, one of five Unesco world heritage sites in the country.
Libya’s under-construction rail network was meant to run southwards from the coast to Sebha, then ultimately down to Niger, providing a new export route for landlocked countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Aquifers deep under the desert feed the Great Manmade River, vital to supplying water to Libya’s big towns in the north.
The region’s strategic importance, and its potential, is undermined by security challenges. In the south west, semi-nomadic Tuareg have long wandered freely from country to country across artificial borders that exist only on maps.
Not all Tuareg are or were pro-Gaddafi, but his regime had some success in winning loyalty by supporting their often violent campaign for greater autonomy in Niger and Mali, or by integrating them into Libya itself, sometimes through naturalisation or recruitment into the military. Many are now moving out of Libya and into neighbouring countries, where some believe they pose a threat to stability – especially if combined with hardline elements of the Gaddafi regime seeking refuge or a new base of operations.
By all accounts, six months of smuggling looted weapons out of Libya has fuelled a bustling free-trade zone for arms in the Sahara. An entire dismantled military helicopter was found on a pick-up truck on the border with Niger a few weeks ago, while heavy weaponry has vanished from abandoned barracks. Some will doubtless end up in the hands of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a group whose capabilities are unclear, but which has recently stepped up its activities in Algeria.
Business is also likely to be brisk for people traffickers, whose clients are now keen to take advantage of the power vacuum to return to Libya and make a dash for Europe. The UN office in Niamey talked this week of “significant cross-border movements” in northern Niger as migrants who fled the fighting earlier in the year now seek to return.
While it may be diplomatically problematic for any of Libya’s southern neighbours to harbour the most-wanted members of the Gaddafi regime, they are essentially unable to police large parts of their territory. That is a problem not just for Libya’s new leaders, who must extend their control far beyond Tripoli, but also for its neighbours and those foreign powers that may have underestimated this particular consequence of removing Gaddafi.
Source: The Guardian