Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Tebu (also spelled Toubou or Tubu) are traditionally nomadic, black tribes found in Libya, Chad, Sudan and Niger. There are at least 12,000-15,000 Tebu in Libya, though community representatives claim their numbers could be much higher, up to several hundred thousand. Most Tebu live in the Tibesti mountain range and the southern towns of Sabha, Kufra, Murzuq and Qatrun. Though converted to Islam by Sanussi missionaries in the nineteenth century, Tebu retain many of their earlier religious beliefs and practices. They speak a language belonging to the Nilo-Saharan family.
Centred in the Tibesti Mountains and other parts of southern Libya, the early Tebu economy was based on pastoralism with the margins of survival widened by caravanning, slavery and raiding. The town of Kufra was located strategically on trading routes between central and northern Africa. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Tebu mobility was curtailed by conquest and policing of the southern desert, first by colonial powers and later by the independent states of Libya and Chad.
At the time of Libya’s independence, many Tebu living in isolated desert areas were not registered to receive civil documentation and became effectively stateless. The problem was exacerbated during the Gaddafi era, when Tebu fell victim to the regime’s Arabization policies which saw many of them expelled from their lands and deprived of citizenship. Beginning in the 1970s, Libya became embroiled in a territorial dispute with Chad over the mineral-rich Aouzou strip, which it was attempting to control. After the Libyan military invaded the strip, they registered the local population as Libyan citizens. At this time, Libyan Tebu from other parts of the country were forced to come to Aouzou to re-register for documentation. After years of conflict between Libya and Chad, the International Court of Justice ruled in 1994 that the Aouzou strip should be returned to Chad, and Libya agreed to comply with the decision. In 1996, Gaddafi issued Decree No. 13 (1485), declaring that all those holding identification issued in Aouzou would be considered foreigners.
In 2007, Gaddafi began a renewed campaign of forcibly depriving citizenship from Tebu, whom they labeled as Chadians. At the same time, new decrees banned Tebu from accessing state healthcare and education. This direct targeting by the regime prompted the Tebu Front for the Salvation of Libya, an armed group, to launch an uprising against the government. In November 2008, fighting between government security forces and the Tebu led to the deaths of 33 people in Kufra.
In 2009, the government began expelling Tebu from Kufra and destroying their homes. Those who opposed the evictions were beaten or arrested. Tebu also found that they could not renew their passports and were prevented from registering children’s births. As a result, many Tebu joined the rebels fighting against Gaddafi in 2011.
Many Tebu remain effectively stateless in post-Gaddafi Libya. Although at some point during the revolution Gaddafi appears to have cancelled the 1996 decree that revoked Libyan nationality from all those associated with Aouzou, it is not clear how far this was implemented. Reportedly, Tebu still face problems applying for documentation and accessing public services, especially in towns where state institutions are dominated by the Arab majority.
Tebu also continue to face racism and discrimination in Libya because of their dark skin colour. Xenophobic rhetoric continues on account of their ethnicity, fuelled by resentment against black mercenaries who supposedly fought with Gaddafi against the rebels in 2011. Some Libyans see black people as inferior, viewing them as descendants of slaves.
Main Tebu demands since 2011 have centered on securing greater political representation at both the local and national level, and more economic development in their areas. Many areas inhabited by the Tebu suffer from economic isolation and neglect. In contrast to the oil-rich eastern region, the southeast of Libya has fewer resources and economic opportunities. Tebu protestors have demanded, among other things, that the town of Rebyana be connected to the nationality electricity grid. Politically, Tebu have asked for new local governance mechanisms to allow them greater political representation in Kufra, where the local council has long been dominated by Arabs. At the national level, Tebu representatives have two seats on the Constitutional Drafting Committee but have intermittently boycotted the process for the same reasons as the Imazighen and the Tuareg.
Due in part to the lack of viable alternative sources of sustenance, some Tebu have become heavily involved in smuggling of arms, drugs and migrants across the southern border, bringing them into conflict at times with other communities. Beginning in September 2014, clashes with Tuareg militias led to the displacement of 18,500 people from the town of Awbari, most of whom were women, children and the elderly. In July that year, a week of clashes between Tuareg and Tebu in the town of Sebha left over 40 people dead. A peace agreement, brokered with the help of Qatar in November 2015, was finally implemented in May 2017 with the withdrawal of militias from both sides from the town. Tebu have also clashed with members of the Arab Awlad Suleiman tribe. The military force of the Awlad Suleiman tribe is known as the sixth division; it was involved in armed clashes with Tebu communities in February and March 2018, especially around Sebha.
There were civilian casualties as well as reports that over a thousand people had to find shelter in schools when fleeing the fighting in Sebha’s Tayuri district. Given reports that the sixth division is aligned with the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA), there are fears that the rivalry between the latter and the internationally recognized Tripoli-based government is spilling over into the south and increasingly affecting communities such as the Tebu.
Updated July 2018