• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: 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 south-east, 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 continues, with less intensity

For Libya, 2020 represented a continuation in the backdrop of civil war that has negatively affected the population’s living conditions. The risks of a loss of life or injury are still present and public infrastructure (health, education, communication infrastructures, etc.) has been destroyed or seriously damaged, especially in the cities.

The country still has two parliaments and two governments, one in Benghazi in the east of the country and the other in Tripoli, the two waging a merciless war with disastrous consequences for the population. In addition to these two major players, there are dozens of armed militias controlling different territories and economic interests (oil and gas fields, export ports, etc.).

This war is largely being fueled and exacerbated by interference from foreign states such as Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and others, all seeking their share of the country's natural resources. These countries provide soldiers, equipment, funding, and logistical and diplomatic support to the warring parties. Some are even testing their new weapons, such as guided missiles and drones, in the country. Stephanie Williams, the UN Special Envoy in Libya states that: “Libya is turning into an experimental field for all kinds of new weapons systems, with foreign supporters of its warring parties shipping in arms and fighters in violation of an embargo”.[1]The UN arms embargo on Libya[2] has never been enforced.

On 19 January 2020, Germany hosted a “Libya Conference” in Berlin under the auspices of the UN, bringing together the main governments involved in Libya: Russia, Turkey, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. The participants promised “a permanent ceasefire”, respect for the “arms embargo” and an end to all foreign “interference” in the country. Apart from this solemn declaration, however, no timetable or methodology for its implementation was decided upon. The general public see this as a mere declaration of good intent without any real political will to solve the Libyan crisis.[3]

Indigenous communities have adopted different strategies depending on whether they live in urban areas or in their traditional territories. In the city of Tripoli, the Amazigh – who make up about a quarter of the population – have been forced to participate in the war in one way or another, alongside the Tripoli government. In their territories, both in the north and in the south, they have more or less adopted a strategy of withdrawal and self-organisation as a way of protecting themselves from the effects of war and meeting the collective needs of their members.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020 reduced the number of armed clashes, and the intensity of the civil war has subsequently decreased significantly. Indigenous communities have, however, found themselves facing a new danger: that of the coronavirus pandemic.

A precarious life for Libya’s Indigenous Peoples

In the absence of a government capable of protecting them and taking care of their needs, Indigenous communities have attempted to self-organise in accordance with their autonomous traditions in order to collectively face up to the challenges ahead.

In the Amazigh territories west of Tripoli, it is thus the local authorities that form the decision-making power and are providing essential public services (health, education, security, etc.) as best they can.

And yet even during this multidimensional crisis, the Amazigh continue to face discrimination. In a public speech in August 2020, the Prime Minister of the Tripoli government declared that it was time to reactivate the draft constitution of 2014, rejected by both Amazigh and Toubou because it discriminated against them. A government circular was likewise sent to all local authorities reminding them not to include non-Arabic first names in the register of births. Faced with strong protests from Amazigh representatives, this circular was finally withdrawn. Amazigh and Toubou are also discriminated against in terms of accessing jobs and obtaining positions of responsibility in companies and the state administration. For example, in the gas port of Melitta, near At-Willul (Zwara), in Amazigh territory, only 10% of the 1,300 employees are Amazigh.

In the south, the Kel-Tamasheq (Tuareg) and the Toubou suffer specific discrimination dating back to Gaddafi's time: that of the administration's refusal to grant Libyan nationality to more than 100,000 inhabitants of this region. Following the “revolution” of 2011, the government introduced a national identity number for all Libyans[4] but this is denied to tens of thousands of people belonging to the Kel-Tamasheq and Toubou communities. This means these Libyans are “undocumented” and therefore have no identity cards and thus no access to school, public health services, or any other public service, nor can they obtain a salaried job. The complaints addressed to the Libyan administration since 2011 have fallen on deaf ears.

The other challenge for the inhabitants of this region is the poverty caused by their socio-economic marginalisation. This region has oil wells controlled by the government or northern militia but the local population receives none of the income generated by these resources, which are exploited with the help of foreign companies. They are entitled only to take on menial jobs in the extractive industries.

Citing security reasons, Algeria regularly closes its border with Libya for long periods of time, preventing trade between the Kel-Tamasheq communities living on both sides of the border. Family visits and traditional trade between the areas of Ghat in Libya and Djanet in Algeria are often abruptly interrupted, preventing the exchange of basic necessities such as food and medicines. This problem results in repeated food and health crises, causing stress and further deterioration in the families’ living conditions.

The Toubou are a non-Arab community in Libya, as are the Kel-Tamasheq, their neighbours in southern Libya. As a result, they have been victims of racism and marginalisation since the time of Gaddafi. They do not have access to the resources on their territory and have to resort to weapons to defend their territory.[5] They sometimes form their own militia for the autonomous defence of their lands or sometimes they ally with the Kel-Tamasheq or with either the army of General Haftar or that of the Tripoli government.

The Toubou and Amazigh of Libya are also excluded from political affairs. Whenever representatives of the communities and regions of Libya meet to discuss a way out of the country’s ten-year-long crisis, representatives of the Amazigh and Toubou communities are never invited. This remained the case for the inter-Libyan meeting that took place in Tunis in November 2020. Hicham Ahmadi, member of the High Council of the Amazigh of Libya noted on this subject: “Despite our numerous meetings with representatives of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), we were not invited”.[6] The Amazigh and Toubou therefore formed an alliance in September 2020 called the “Union of Indigenous Peoples of Libya” aimed at taking forward their demands and defending their rights.

The non-Arab Indigenous communities in Libya propose and desire a federal state with autonomous status for their territories within the context of the right to self-determination. This could be a solution that would preserve the rights and interests of each party as well as ensure peace.

Indigenous communities in Libya in the context of COVID-19

Amnesty International is alarmed that:

Libya’s public health system has been undermined by years of armed conflict and insecurity, including attacks on medical facilities, the exodus of qualified medical personnel and frequent militia interference in the provision of medical services. In addition to these general risks, pre-existing discrimination against ethnic minority groups such as the Tabu and Tuareg create additional barriers to their access to healthcare.[7]

The presence of numerous rival armed groups and fighting for control of territory and wealth makes travel to healthcare centres dangerous. Moreover, they are all controlled by one militia or another. As a result, the fear of violence discourages patients from attending medical consultations. Hospitals and dispensaries lack equipment and hygiene conditions are deplorable. No special government welfare measures have been enforced. Members of the Toubou and Tuareg communities face additional barriers in accessing public healthcare as they do not possess identity documents.[8]

Libya’s Indigenous communities have, however, been successful in limiting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by establishing their own autonomous services for organising and monitoring the lockdown, limiting access to their territories and using traditional medicines.


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 35th 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 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Reuters Staff. “Libya turning into 'experimental field' for arms as war heats up -UN.” Reuters, 23 April, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/libya-security-idUSL5N2CB738

[2] United Nations Security Council. “Security Council resolution 2473 (2019).” 6 October, 2019.  https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3808759?ln=en

[3] Courrier International. “Libye: à la conférence pour la paix à Berlin, le bal des hypocrites [Libya: at the Peace Conference in Berlin, the hypocrites’ ball].”  20 January, 2020. https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/opinion-libye-la-conference-pour-la-paix-de-berlin-le-bal-des-hypocrites

[4] Law 8 - 2014, Article 7: “All ministries and administrative units of the government and institutions, civil and military bodies, public companies and the like shall use the national number assigned to each Libyan citizen in the payment of all salaries and remuneration of all administrative, financial and economic procedures related to the Libyan state. All the parties mentioned shall suspend the salary, bonus or financial entitlement of any Libyan citizen in case he fails to submit the national number assigned to him. The aforementioned parties shall not complete any financial, administrative or economic activities for any Libyan citizen except by the national number”

[5] Said, Asma. “Libye: Le Fezzan, une région en lutte contre sa marginalisation [Libya: Fezzan, a region struggling against its marginalization Orient] XXI, 24 December, 2020. https://orientxxi.info/magazine/libye-dans-le-fezzan-toubous-et-touaregs-entre-division-et-abandon,4379

[6] Bakir, Assia. “Sans les Amazighs et les Toubous, il sera impossible de construire une stabilité politique en Libye  [Without the Amazigh and the Toubou, it will be impossible to build political stability in Libya].”El-Watan, 14 November, 2020. https://www.elwatan.com/edition/international/hichem-ahmadi-membre-fondateur-du-haut-conseil-des-amazighs-de-libye-hcal-sans-les-amazighs-et-les-toubous-il-sera-impossible-de-construire-une-stabilite-politique-en-libye-14-11-2020

[7] Amnesty International. “Libya: Historic discrimination threatens right to health of minorities in the south amid COVID-19.” 20 April, 2020. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/libya-historic-discrimination-threatens-right-to-health-of-minorities-in-the-south-amid-covid19/

[8] Ibid.



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

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