Is anyone listening to National Oil Corporation (NOC) chairman Mustafa Sanalla? He has issued repeated appeals to the international community to change its approach to the crisis in Libya to help his institution to better carry out its functions and to protect the interests of the Libyan people.
At Chatham House in January, he described NOC as “the best guarantee that Libya will remain as a unitary state” and called for the international community to support its independence (AE 339/6). Starting in March, he was forced to defend NOC from new power grabs attempted both by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the rival Al-Baida-based interim government (AE 343/4, AE 346/1). In Paris in April, he called for a “high-level international initiative to secure agreement on NOC’s political neutrality” (AE 345/4).
Writing recently in the New York Times, he called on the European Union to expand the mandate of Operation Sophia to prevent the smuggling of oil as well as people and arms in Libyan waters. He also asked for amendments to the United Nations-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement to “reinforce NOC’s authority and neutrality”, to insulate its board from arbitrary changes, to guarantee its investment and maintenance budgets, and to be granted the power to negotiate new foreign investments. These messages should be heeded.
NOC governance may seem like a trivial issue compared to the complexities of a political process on life support. Perhaps for this reason the US, the UK and Italy have been unwilling to revisit the Libyan Political Agreement even though it has demonstrably failed. However, it is no exaggeration to say that as Libya’s only source of revenue, NOC is the last bastion standing between the Libyan people and total ruin. Its gas generates power. Its revenues pay for the import of staple foods, medicine and fuel and underpin the currency.
Despite Libya’s continuing chaos, NOC has increased production by 300,000 b/d over the past six months to the point where its output of nearly 1m b/d has begun to create problems for fellow members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Sanalla and his technicians have brought fields back into operation and reopened terminals despite not receiving agreed financial support from the GNA. They have also painstakingly defused local conflicts and lifted blockades on facilities. They have held Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army to its commitment to allow the Sirte Basin oil terminals to operate freely.
A brief analysis of the alternatives to supporting Sanalla illustrate even more why his vision is vital to Libya’s future. Haftar has imposed military rule in Cyrenaica and recently taken control of the military complexes at Houn, Waddan and the Jufra Oasis, as well as Murzuq in the south-west. It is doubtful, however, that he can reach into Tripolitania without provoking dangerous conflict. The feeble GNA and its backers among the Misratan and other Islamist militias who control Tripolitania provide no template for lasting peace. In a desperate search for an alternative, some Libyans have even placed their hopes on the recently released son of the former leader, Saif Al-Islam Al-Qadhafi, who is still wanted by the International Criminal Court, and whose possible access to a fortune pillaged during his father’s rule is still in question. The idea that such a divisive figure could now be held up as a symbol of unity is a fantasy.
A huge amount of diplomatic energy and effort has been frittered away over the past two years on attempts to broker and maintain a political agreement between various factions who have no real intention or incentives to agree anything meaningful. The UN and its backers must, of course, continue to search for a peaceful compromise. However, for the sake of the Libyan people and regional stability, they should start by reinforcing one of the few institutions still actively contributing to the national welfare.
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