Libya, the battle of Fezzan
With hunger on the rise in North Africa, Libya’s southern region could provide food and employment. There is no shortage of cooperation projects, but the atmosphere in Fezzan is volatile

17 July 2023 | by Antonella Mautone, Fabio Papetti

The World Food Programme estimates that «at least 44 million people in 38 countries are teetering on the edge of famine» since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The two countries are major exporters of agricultural commodities. Africa and the Middle East are among the hungriest regions of the world. To avoid threats to global food security, in May 2022 Russia, Ukraine and the United Nations began to open “Solidarity Corridors” to facilitate the export of grain from Ukraine’s ports to the rest of the world. The so-called Black Sea Grain Initiative – a diplomatic initiative led by the UN and Turkey that allowed the export of grain, flour and other products from Ukrainian ports – dates back to 22 July 2022 and ended on 17 July 2023, after the Kremlin’s decision to «suspend» the agreement. The potential consequences of this move on the agricultural goods market are still uncertain: there is a risk that prices will start to rise again.

The article in a nutshell
  • Libya was among the recipients of agricultural shipments within the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The country’s food supply depends on imports
  • Fezzan is the vast Southern region where the Libyan government is seeking to increase agricultural production. Traversed by migrants, militias, terrorist groups and local tribes, it lies at a crossroads between the Sahel and the Mediterranean
  • Several cooperation projects, some of which led by Italy, aim to boost agriculture and employ migrants in the fields
  • In May 2023, several people linked to Ara Pacis, an Italian NGO involved in an agricultural project in the area, were detained and later released by a Libyan militia on charges of embezzlementThey had allegedly turned a farm into a migrant centre. Libyan militia ISA has been accused of torture and arbitrary detention
  • Ara Pacis has been particularly active in southern Libya in peace-building processes since Marco Minniti became Interior minister in 2017. Many initiatives are supported by groups such as Luiss, Eni and Terna, but their results are unclear
  • Since 2019, the interests of new emerging militias in Libya, such as the Tariq Bin Ziyad (TBZ), led by General Haftar’s son, have also focused on the south

According to the UN portal, which monitors the effects of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a total 32.8 million tonnes of corn (51% of the total), wheat (27%), sunflower meal (6%), sunflower oil (5%) and other agricultural products (11%) were exported while the programme was in effect. The main destination countries for cargo were China (8 million tonnes), Spain (6 million), Turkey (3.2 million) and Italy (2.1 million). At the bottom of the list were countries at severe risk of food insecurity, including Libya, which received around 560 thousand tonnes of products from Ukrainian ports. In the North African country, agriculture accounts for 1.3% of GDP and only 12% of its 15.4 million hectares of land is arable. Libya relies heavily on imports (up to 90%) for its cereal consumption. According to data provided by FAO in its 2022 Global Information and Early Warning System Country Brief, «[b]etween 2016 and 2020, the country sourced over 30 percent of its wheat imports from Ukraine, and 20 percent from the Russian Federation».

Fezzan grain

To limit dependence on foreign countries, the National Unity Government in Tripoli stressed the need to focus on activating public-private partnerships to increase domestic agricultural production, but according to FAO data, «[a]lthough 470 000 hectares are suitable for irrigation, only some 240 000 hectares are currently irrigated due to concerns over the depletion of underground water».

Some of Libya’s main agricultural areas are located in Fezzan, a 550,000-square kilometre region bordering Chad, Niger and Algeria. Over the years, it has been traversed by sub-Saharan migrants to Libya’s coastal cities, militias engaged in civil war, jihadists and criminal groups, as well as by the tribes (both nomadic and settled) that have always inhabited it. Earlier in June, the European Union launched an assistance programme for 21 municipalities within Baldiyati, a project financed with €72.6 million from the Trust Fund for Africa. First launched in 2018 to promote development and employment opportunities in different areas of Libya, the project was meant to benefit 3 million people, according to its implementers: UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS).


Between 2021 and 2023, AICS also implemented EWA4E, a 300,000-euro project jointly managed with CIHEAM, the International Center for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies. The initiative aims at improving the living conditions of the Fezzan population through better management of energy and water resources and an assessment for the reactivation of agro-food facilities to enhance local employment.

CIHEAM Bari is also involved in the 2-phase project Enhancing Farming Employment for migrants in Fezzan (EFEF and EFEF Plus), alongside Ara Pacis, another Italian NGO. The project’ goal, among others, is to employ migrant workers who cross the region in an attempt to reach the Libyan coast and then sail for Europe. The programme EFEF Plus, which will conclude in December 2024, has received 5 million euro from the Africa Fund, first established by the 2017 budget law, with 200 million euro allocated for «extraordinary interventions aimed at fostering dialogue and cooperation with African countries of primary importance for migration routes».

The ISA crackdown in Sebha

The Africa Intelligence website reports that in May 2023 «several people linked to Ara Pacis» were detained and released in Sebha, the historic capital of Fezzan, on charges of embezzlement. The detention was allegedly conducted by the Internal Security Agency (ISA), a police force made up of civilians aiming to «preserve the entity of the state, protect its political, social and economic security, and combat terrorism, destructive phenomena, dangers and threats that target its religious and social values ​​and undermine its standing or its international relations».

It is divided into two branches, operating under different authorities in eastern and western Libya. The Tripoli branch that carried out the operation in Sebha formally cooperates with the ministries of the UN-recognised government. In a Facebook video posted by the ISA, two of the arrested linked to Ara Pacis, whose faces are blurred out, explain in Arabic that they work for the Italian organisation, whose mission, they say, is to train migrants in farm work and communicate with young people in Fezzan. The two were allegedly responsible for drawing up the contracts of the farm workers, but according to the ISA they are among those who turned the local farm into an illegal migrant reception facility.

The ISA is a controversial organisation to say the least. In its March report, the Fact-Finding Mission on Libya (FFM) stated that its members are «curtailing the rights to assembly, association, expression and belief to ensure obedience, entrench self-serving values and norms, and punish criticism against authorities and their leadership». The ISA, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in 2022, have targeted «atheist, areligious, secular and feminist» men in particular as threats to «Libyan and Islamic values». Earlier in April, an American citizen was arrested for «proselytising Christianity», the Libya Herald wrote. The ISA often posts “confessions” from those arrested on its social media.

Amnesty International called in 2021 for the Libyan government not to recognise the legitimacy of the ISA, which includes former Gaddafi-era officers who have been accused of torture. It is unclear, however, why the agency would target people working with Italian cooperation.

Many initiatives, unclear results

Ara Pacis Initiative was founded in Rome on 21 April 2010 and is led by Maria Nicoletta Gaida, a former actress who has been involved in dialogue between religions through art for years. The NGO has several ongoing projects in Libya, including mediation meetings between the main tribes in Fezzan: the Tebu, the Tuareg and the Awlad Souleiman. Ara Pacis started work in the country in 2012 with the Libyan Initiative, a cultural mediation project that began in the midst of the civil war. Activities in the country, particularly in the south, have become more prominent since 2017, when Marco Minniti became the Italian Minister of the Interior in the Gentiloni Cabinet. Gaida shares with Minniti an interest in the “expanded Mediterranean”, a geopolitical concept that stretches as far down as the Sahel.

Minniti, currently president of the Med’Or Foundation, has focused his efforts on the region with the aim of ensuring greater security in Italy. The former minister, who signed the Memorandum of understanding, has always believed that Italy could play a role in the stabilisation of Libya and the Sahel, and therefore always sought to maintain an Italian presence in the country. To this end, Ara Pacis has launched several dialogue initiatives: from the Sahara Triangle to the goodwill agreements signed by the Libyan tribes in 2019. With support from the LUISS Guido Carli University, Eni, Sky TG24, Terna s.p.a. and Coldiretti, Ara Pacis launched the Pax Humana Hub in April 2021, which became a foundation the following year.

Beyond the ideals of peace and dialogue, it is unclear from the Ara Pacis website what distinction is made between the different initiatives and what results they have achieved. Maria Nicoletta Gaida’s association did not answer questions from IRPIMedia on the subject. Far from being pacified, Southern Libya remains to this day a hotly contested area.

Armed gangs fighting in the South

The Libyan context in general, and that of the South is no exception, is characterised by a multitude of ethnic groups and militias whose boundaries and alliances are not easy to decipher. In addition to the Tebu, the Tuareg and the Awlad Suleiman gangs, two other groups made a move on the South in 2019: the Zintan and Tariq Bin Ziyad (TBZ) brigades. They hail from Cyrenaica, the eastern region under the influence of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. The militiamen have infiltrated various activities, legal and illegal, to ensure financing. The expansion of TBZ has been particularly significant, partly due to the power and ambition of Saddam Haftar, Khalifa’s son and head of the brigade. The group is currently active in southern Libya, controlling the desert borders from Algeria to Sudan. They are also involved in the trafficking of migrants all the way to Benghazi and Tobruk, where local TBZ units then act as intermediaries with the traffickers. Moreover, they sell gold, electrical components and cars, mostly between Libya and Chad.

«The TBZ has established military posts in major southern cities such as Ghat and Sabha, more to expand its activities than for political control», says a spokesman for Libyan crimes watch (LCW); perhaps a sign of Haftar’s interest in profiting from illegal activities, rather than seeking recognition in the area.

Photo: Lake Umm El Ma near the city of Erg Awbari in the Fezzan region, Libya – VW Pics/Getty
Editing: Lorenzo Bagnoli
Translation: Francesco Graziosi
In partnership with: ActionAid Italy

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