By Eden Almasude and Mazigh Buzakhar
On March 17th, Kurdish parties declared a federal system of governance in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria which has been functioning as a de facto autonomous region since early in the Syrian conflict.
While it is no surprise that this move was rejected by the Assad government or Turkey, a New York Times editorial noted that “the Syrian Kurds are in a stronger position to press their case for political autonomy because they have emerged as a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State.” Meanwhile, 2016 has already begun with the renewal of several independence movements in Europe, including a new push by the Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon, and developments in the Catalan pro-independence parties.
In this global context, another autonomy movement is beginning to gain ground in the southern Mediterranean: the Amazigh region in Libya.
Nefusa, also known as Infusen, is a mountain range in the western part of Tripolitania, Libya. The region is the stronghold of large Amazigh communities (plural Imazighen), the indigenous people group of not only Libya, but all Tamazgha (North Africa). There are several major towns and cities in Nefusa such as Lalut (Nalut), Kabaw, Jadu, and Ifran. Yet another important coastal Mediterranean city, Zwara, is close to the Tunisian border and inhabited by an Amazigh community called At Willul.
Nefusa and Zwara played essential cultural and political roles in the region both throughout history and in post-revolutionary Libya.
Amazigh communities had suffered for decades under the Arabo-Islamist regime of Gaddafi, from exclusion and marginalization at the hands of the authorities and their instruments of oppression to the systematic imprisonment of intellectuals and writers.
The regime practiced a forced system of Arabization for decades through its media and education policies. Since the 2011 uprising, Imazighen emerged as key actors in shaping the geopolitics of Libya through their participation in the revolution and their own campaigns to protect newly-won cultural and linguistic freedoms.
After the first post-revolutionary elections in 2012, forming the General National Congress (GNC), protests and other forms of demonstrations continued as the Amazigh movement mobilized to protect their rights in the midst of state structural changes.
This was a turning point for the movement, to play a role that was not only cultural but exerted real political pressure on all the state authorities formed from 2012 – 2016.
Given the current political context in Libya, why is regional autonomy a better answer than participation in a central government?
The short political history of Libya is limited to tribal and religious models roughly sewn together to create the appearance of a modern state, yet weak institutions and strong regional interests continued, resulting in a fragile central government maintained only through the Gaddafi regime’s ideology.
The conflicts in the Cyrenaica region between Islamist and federalist movements, along with political instability both in Tripolitania and Fezzan, lead to a political situation in which there is no concrete solution without considering decentralization. That is why Imazighen now have a real opportunity to launch their own project of governance in an autonomous region, by controlling their own territorial borders, creating a functional economy, protecting language and cultural identity in an era in which religious radicalism spreads in the Muslim world.
All this requires taking our future into our own hands; after post-2011 governments systematically excluded our communities, there is no reason for Imazighen to wait for a future government to hand us a viable option for our political future.
Development of an Amazigh autonomous region would have a strong economic base due to rich resources of oil and gas, minerals, agriculture, tourism, and marine resources. Economic control ensures that we guide the direction of our own future as an Amazigh nation within global geopolitical change.
The aftermath of the 2011 uprisings resulted in the collapse of several authoritarian regimes in both Tamazgha (North Africa) and the Middle East, but this left behind a political vulnerability in which reactionary religious extremism is now fostered.
The U.N.-backed government’s arrival in Tripoli threatened the political dynamics in Libya, leading to a further push for autonomy, or even separation, by the eastern Cyrenaica region. Despite repeated attempts to form a central, unified government in Libya, it remains essentially a failed state, and U.S. President Obama stated that the intervention “didn’t work.” In the midst of this instability between rival governments, Islamic extremism has been left to thrive and Libya is quickly becoming a harboring ground for religiously-motivated terrorism.
Continued exclusion of Amazigh communities from political governance -especially after the history of the Gaddafi regime’s intent to eradicate the indigenous Amazigh identity- will only further the current instability. Rather than fracturing the state, the establishment of an autonomous Amazigh region will strengthen the development of a democratic, post-revolutionary Libya.
An autonomous Amazigh region would act as a locus of stability not only for Libya but the broader region of Tamazgha (North Africa). Like the Kurds of Rojava, this Amazigh region would be a prime ally in the global fight against Islamic terrorism and in the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
Beyond these practical considerations, the Amazigh communities of Libya have the fundamental right to self-determination. Moving towards autonomy is the first step of the manifestation of that right, to create an environment in which the indigenous Amazigh culture can finally develop freely after decades of oppression.
Only if such a space is created will Amazigh communities in Libya have the freedom to preserve and fully express our identity.
We call for the support of our fellow oppressed nationalities around the world, whose struggles have inspired our own liberation.
Mazigh Buzakhar is an Amazigh activist from Ifran, in the Infusen (Nefusa) region. He is the co-founder of TIRA Research and Studies.
Eden Almasude (@EAlmasude) is an Amazigh-American activist and medical student.