• Indigenous peoples in Libya

    Indigenous peoples in Libya

    The Tuareg and the Toubou live in the south of the country; they are generally nomadic, moving from one place to another with their livestock and living in tents. Libya voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous World 2020: Libya

The Amazigh form the Indigenous population of Libya. They are estimated to number some one million people, or more than 16% of the country’s total population.

They live in various areas of Libya in the north, east and south of the country albeit without any geographical continuity. To the west of Tripoli, on the Mediterranean coast, they live in the town of At-Wilul (Zwara) and in the Adrar Infussen (Nefoussa) mountains, on the border with Tunisia; in the southeast, on the border with Egypt, they live in the oases of Awjla, Jalu and Jakhra; in the south, the Fezzan region is traditionally Kel-Tamasheq (Tuareg) territory, including the areas of Murzuq, Sebha, Ubari, Ghat and Ghadamès. Libya’s Kel-Tamasheq are naturally linked to other Kel-Tamasheq communities living across the borders with Niger and Algeria. Tripoli is also home to a significant Amazigh community.

In addition to Arab and Amazigh communities, there is an ethnic minority in Libya known as the “Toubou”, comprising some 50,000 individuals. They are originally from the Tibesti plateau in Chad and they live along the Libya/Chad border. They live a nomadic way of life and practise pastoralism across an area that extends from northern Niger to the Sudan.

During the time of Gaddafi (1969-2011), Libya was declared an exclusively “Arab and Muslim” country. The 1969 Constitutional Proclamation states in its first article that “Libya is an Arab republic (…), the Libyan people are a part of the Arab nation and its aim is total Arab unity. The country’s name is the Arab Republic of Libya”. Article Two adds that “Islam is the state religion and Arabic its official language”. Government policy since then has always relentlessly persecuted anyone who does not recognise Libya’s “Arab-Islamic identity”.

Following the 2011 “revolution”, a “Provisional Constitutional Council” submitted a draft new Constitution in 2017 that in no way changed the country’s identitary foundations. Article Two still provides that “Libya forms part of the Arab nation” and that “Arabic is the state language”. Article Six notes that “Islam is the state religion and Sharia the source of its law”. Other discriminatory articles then follow prohibiting a non-Muslim Libyan from standing for election to the Chamber of Representatives (Article 69) or as President of the Republic (Article 101) and stating that justice shall be passed down “in the name of Allah” (Article 189). These articles are clearly aimed at imposing an Islamic republic, to the detriment of the diversity of cultures and beliefs in Libya. Due to Amazigh and Toubou opposition, however, and also because of the war, this draft constitution has not yet been adopted.

Libya voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Civil war sows disaster and confusion

Since 2011, Libya has been unable to elect legitimate governing bodies recognised by the Libyans themselves. Since 2014, two parliaments and two governments one in Benghazi in the east of the country and the other in Tripoli have been at war with each other, with disastrous consequences for the population. To these two major players must be added dozens of armed militia controlling different areas of the country and centres of interest.

Despite the UN embargo on arms sales to Libya, renewed in June 2019,1 military equipment and munitions are continuing to arrive in the country, primarily by sea. On 3 July 2019, Amnesty International stated: “The UN embargo on arms is intended to protect civilians in Libya. And yet Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, among others, are clearly flouting it by providing armoured vehicles, guided missiles and other weapons.”2

Libya has consequently been plunged into a civil war that has resulted in thousands of dead, wounded and displaced together with the destruction of homes and infrastructure. The Amazigh regions to the west of Tripoli have been affected by this war, particularly the town of At-Willul (Zwara), which was bombed on 15 August 2019 by the Benghazi-controlled Libyan Air Force.

The armed conflict and the lack of a legitimate government recognised by all has meant that climate change as an issue has been totally neglected in the country. The different political/military groups are far too consumed in a power struggle and the people far too concerned by the insecurity and water/food shortages caused by the civil war to consider the issue of global warming. 

Libya’s Amazigh endeavour to meet their own needs 

Against this backdrop of a lack of state presence and of legitimate authorities, each community – including the Amazigh – is living in relative autonomy on its land. In the Amazigh territories, the municipal authorities thus represent the legitimate public authority recognised by the people.

All municipal authorities in the Amazigh territories have, for example, decided to take responsibility not only for public security but also for education and culture by teaching Tamazight in the schools and supporting cultural programmes that promote Amazigh culture and heritage. They have also decided to revive the use of Tamazight within the administration and, in 2019, began to officially celebrate Yennayer, Amazigh New Year, and to implement a programme of reviving Amazigh place names, etc.

The government in Tripoli has also supported the creation of a “Libyan Centre for Amazigh Studies” based in the Libyan capital. Nonetheless, on 10 July 2019, the Tripoli government’s Ministry of the Interior sent a letter to the local authorities demanding that they use only the Arabic language and that they ban Amazigh first names.3 Unanimous protestations from the Amazigh people, however, led the Ministry of the Interior to send a further letter on 9 December 2019 authorising the Amazigh and other Libyan communities to “give their children first names in accordance with their culture and ancestral traditions”.

On a socio-economic level, the natural resources found in the Amazigh territories (oil and gas in the Fezzan region to the south and in the Mediterranean Sea off At-Wilul) have completely escaped Amazigh control. The Kel-Tamasheq populations in the south of Libya are, along with the Toubou, among the poorest people in the country.

It is also important to note that the Gaddafi regime refused to grant Libyan nationality to non-Arabs and that nothing has changed in this regard since the 2011 revolution. Consequently, more than 10,000 Kel-Tamasheq families in Libya are  undocumented,  depriving  them of access to public services such as health care and education. One Kel-Tamasheq stated: “Officially, we  do  not  exist  and  this  is  clearly a huge barrier to receiving medical care or sending our children to school.”4 This is serious and ongoing discrimination and the continuing chaos in Libya means that nothing is likely to be done to resolve this problem in the near future.


Notes and references

  1. Resolution No. 2473 passed on 10 June 2019 by the UN Security Council
  2. “Libye. Les Violations De l’embargo Sur Les Armes Mettent Gravement en Danger Les 1,2 Million de Civils de Tripoli”. Amnesty International, 3 July 2019: https://www.amnesty.org/fr/latest/news/2019/07/libya-un-arms-embargo- violations-put-tripolis-civilians-in-grave-danger/
  3. Letter referenced 13.3/254 and dated 10 July 2019
  4. Zurutuza, Karlos “Libye. L’exode des Touaregs, citoyens sans papiers”. Courrier International, 11 January 2019: https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/ libye-lexode-des-touaregs-citoyens-sans-papiers

Belkacem Lounes holds a PhD in Economics, is a university lecturer (Grenoble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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