Interviews with activists: Ahamat Molikini says Tibu minority still face oppression in post-Arab Spring Libya
MRG: Who are the Tibu?
Ahamat: The Tibu are black Africans who live in Southern Libya and are also found in parts of Sudan (Darfur), Chad and Niger. Colonial borders separated them and divided them between countries. In Libya, Tibus live mainly in the Sebha, Kufra, Awbari, Qatrun and Murzuq regions. They are Libyans and were in the region before the Arabs.
MRG: What language do they speak?
Ahamat: Their language is also called Tibu.
MRG: How many of them are there?
Ahamat: Around 200,000 in Libya.
MRG: What was life like for them before the ousting of the Gaddafi regime?
Ahamat: Tibu people were marginalized by Gaddafi for 42 years. When Gaddafi came into power, Libya was declared an Arab state. Arabic was the only official language, even though minorities such as Tibu and Amazigh people had their own language. Minority languages were prohibited in official places such as schools and hospitals.
Gaddafi’s position on Tibu shifted often – sometimes he would claim ‘we are all Libyans’ and other times he would incite clashes between the different ethnic groups. This was continuous for decades. His initial plan was to erase the Tibu identity – those who resisted and rebelled were imprisoned and some were killed. Gaddafi’s subsequent plan was to remove their citizenship by telling them they are not Libyan.
There was also a process of Arabization, Gaddafi would say things like “Amazigh are originally Arab, Tibu are Arab mixed with others.” We also had to have Arabic names. For example my grandfather’s name is not related to any Arabic name. They said it couldn’t be our family name; we had to change it and give an Arabic name.
As a result of war with Chad, the government suspended registration of Tibu people and said that they were Chadians. Gaddafi also asked the Tibu people to move, he evicted them, supposedly to build a road. But the road was never built; I think this was just a way to move them out of Kufra and spread them out throughout Libya and force them to assimilate.
He never directly told them to leave Libya, but the situation he created caused plenty of Tibu people to leave Libya – to Europe, Chad, etc.
MRG: What problems are they facing now? How has life changed?
Ahamat: Since the fall of Gaddafi, there has been increasing conflict between Arabs and minorities such as Imazighen and Tibu. When the protests began, all marginalised people rose up in the belief that they would get their rights, democracy, etc. Tibu people armed themselves and took part in the revolution.
During the Gaddafi era Gaddafi used Arabs who are living with Tibu as a tool to oppress Tibu people. Even in a village where the majority were Tibu, Gaddafi would appoint Arabs as local government representatives. And even when the regime changed, those people still believe, you know, that we have to live in the same state that we lived in during Gaddafi times. This is in Sebha and Kufra.
Many from the Zawayya and Awlad Suleiman tribes want the Tibu people out before they create a new Libya, before it becomes a democracy. They provoke Tibu with these new attacks and killings, they create conflict to evict them.
Fighting began between the Tibu and Zawayya tribes in Kufra. This fighting took place in civilian-populated areas; they burnt houses and killed children. I had to cross the border, I went to Chad. People don’t have access to medical equipment. From 9-20th February there was fighting, they were shelling the villages. They had heavy weaponry. I saw this for myself. And the National Transitional Council (NTC) – there are 2 Tibu in the NTC – they lobbied the government to do something but the government didn’t act. The NTC doesn’t have control over the militias.
The Red Cross evacuated people in Kufra. And when this happened, the Arabs from the Zawayya tribe said ‘listen, these people are from Darfur.’ They told the media, they said ‘come join us, these aren’t Libyans. These are Africans from Darfur, Chad, Niger, they want to take over all of Libya.’ And the militias in Benghazi believed this to be true, so they came. Because they believe these are people from Niger and Chad. They looted houses, burnt them, they even took animals like cows and sheep.
And then there was the conflict in Sebha where the Awlad Suleiman started fighting with the Tibu. Again this was similar, they said we are not Libyans, they said ‘those are foreign mercenaries with an agenda to make southern Libya an independent country.’ They burnt entire neighbourhoods.
There is no change between now and before the ousting of Gaddafi – if anything it’s worse.
MRG: What are their hopes for the future, what needs to be done to improve their situation?
Ahamat: We hope for security. People who have oppressed the Tibu people both during the Gaddafi era and now should be brought to justice. The government must protect minorities under the constitution – the constitution needs to clearly stipulate minority rights.
The NTC does not say that Arabs discriminate against minorities; they just say that there is ‘conflict.’ The NTC has also been very slow to assist when people have called for help; they failed to evacuate people. We want organizations and the international community to put pressure on the NTC and lobby them to act.
Photo: Ahamat Molikini
Interview by: Shahenda Suliman