To cope with a lack of functioning national institutions in Libya, foreign governments and multilateral institutions should start coordinating directly with local authorities in the country. Linking economic opportunities to security milestones can help improve security and curtail illicit oil sales, and possibly benefit the lives of Libyans.

Who makes decisions about Libya’s external relations when Libya House, the headquarters of Libya’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations on 48th Street in New York City, is all but deserted? In an era of competing governments, sovereign control of Libya and its external relations are all but clear. 

Libya, a country in North Africa, has been unstable during years of intense civil war following 2011 protests associated with the Arab Spring. A NATO intervention ousted and killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi and further plunged the country into chaos.

Despite its troubles, Libya still has productive potential—worth more than $20 billion annually, based on average crude oil prices last year. The National Oil Corporation (NOC) oversees some 70 percent of national production, but its chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, noted last June that the force meant to protect oil infrastructure “…has devolved into local fiefs.”

Conflict between and among armed groups—legitimate and otherwise—is stymieing Libya’s productive potential. The allegedly independent NOC is stuck between the Government of National Accord, who can legally sell oil, and the Libyan National Army among other factions, who cannot. The Islamic State and other armed groups attack oil infrastructure and profit from illegal sales, while the Libyan National Army controls several tanker terminals itself.

Libya’s best chance to realize its productive potential is for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to broker a joint naval effort to help the NOC prevent sales from the rogue Libyan petroleum outlets. Ships from several other nations, already at work under European Union auspices addressing migration across the Mediterranean with the Libyan Coast Guard, could expand operations to determine which tankers entering Libyan waters are unsanctioned or are working with unauthorized sellers.

Local-external partnerships could broaden efforts to safeguard oil sales. Some of fiefs Sanalla described could be brought into the fold; Libya itself might not have control of its territory but small powers within it might have control of theirs. Those deemed friendly by UNSMIL could cooperate directly with the navies of Egypt, Italy, or the United States. A precedent for local-external partnerships has been set by Libyan mayors and the interior minister of Italy, who have been coordinating the curbing of migrant outflows since August 2017.

Local leaders would need incentives to cooperate, such as a share of Libya’s legitimate oil sales. Some communities currently turn to smuggling and human trafficking for want of revenue sources.  Oil sales can generate relatively reliable income, including bonuses for those who assist in stopping illegal oil sales by removing or competing with the hostile actors trying to sell.

Local leaders could spend oil revenue payouts from the NOC, combined with other fees raised locally, on projects to improve the lives of citizens in their area. Earmarks and direct aid programs, if capacity exists to manage them, can help prevent the emergence of warlords. Decentralized reconstruction would establish trust between Libyans and municipal administrations, crucial in the absence of a universally accepted national sovereign government. Corruption is a real risk with networks of local authorities, but building stronger institutions can be part of a peacebuilding process once Libya is stabilized.

UNSMIL’s efforts to engage local leaders in the protection of oil production could help regulate relationships between local leaders and external powers, which are already growing unchecked. Such regulation, soft or hard, could be used to reduce arms trafficking into Libya to zero, a rule enforceable by powers supervising ports. Libya’s situation is intractable in part because countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, vying for regional influence, directed resources and weapons to opposing groups, escalating local rivalries into a proxy war. This needs to stop. 

Instead of external states exerting militaristic influence over local partners, UNSMIL can help them negotiate terms of access to Libyan markets, such as duty-free imports or exports, plus intelligence and targeting assistance helpful to anti-terror campaigns. Stabilized Libyan municipalities can also address the migration issue before it becomes a costly humanitarian crisis that other nations must bear. Local authorities in Libya have demonstrated interest in coordination in recent months, and experts have noted that nation-building must begin with areas of agreement in local municipalities. 

Back in New York, Libya House could eventually be staffed by appointees of a federated national government of Libya. Its structure and laws are mysteries 2025 or 2030 could reveal, after local leaders, empowered today by UNSMIL and external partners, reestablish some semblance of sovereignty.


Marc Dominianni is a second year master’s student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs focused on political development, African institutions, and conflict resolution. Before returning to graduate school, he worked in agricultural development in rural Tanzania and in the private sector in Anguilla. He is originally from Pennsylvania.