US ‘offering to support’ AU’s efforts to stabilise Libya, says Richard Norland

By Sherif Tarek
Posted on Monday, 12 December 2022 09:39

The US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland. REUTERS

The US is "offering to support" the African Union's (AU) efforts to stabilise Libya as it can be instrumental in accelerating the country's long-sought transition to democracy, US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland tells The Africa Report ahead of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which runs from 13 to 15 December.

The US special envoy sees the Government of National Unity (GNU) lifting the force majeure on oil and gas explorations early this month as “a good sign”. However, Norland says Libya can only realise the full potential of its energy sector once it ends its protracted political stalemate.

The Tripoli-based GNU’s announcement earlier in December came after recent deadly violence subsided. Confrontations in Libya had been recurring in the past months, stoked by the eastern-based parliament’s refusal to acknowledge the GNU.

Chosen by the UN-picked leaders of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), the GNU was installed last year as an interim government with a mandate to oversee the build-up to the election that was slated for December 2021.

The GNU remained in place after the poll was called off on fears of violence. Parliament later appointed another government based in the eastern side of the country.

Currently ruled by two opposing authorities, Libya has been suffering political turmoil since an uprising in 2011 toppled long-lived leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed later in the same year after his capture.

The Africa Report: Do you think a civil war in Libya is probable these days, with violence recurrently erupting lately? 

Richard Norland: The killing of 32 people in Tripoli last August was a wake-up call for all the involved parties. Unless there is progress on a long-term solution, the risk of violence, which could escalate, is always going to be there.

No progress will be made with such deadly violence, and it’s important everyone commits themselves to an exclusively political solution.

Do you think the UN/US pushing for elections last year was a mistake?

I wouldn’t call pushing for the election last year a mistake. It wasn’t just the US calling for it, the UN and the whole international community was onboard and so were all the Libyan political forces including 2.8 million Libyans who registered to vote. One lesson from all this is to make sure there is commitment from all Libyan leaders to accept the results of the elections even if they don’t win.

Everyone has interests in this election. The disappointment was huge when it was called off.

What is the logic in accepting that Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh extends his rule despite the end of the GNU’s mandate?

Prime Minister Dabeiba is talking more intensively now about the importance of holding elections. Of course everyone would like to see more progress and it is not just up to the GNU – the House of Representatives, High State Council and others all have a role to play as well.

We see him as an interim prime minister and Libya does not need another interim government – we have made clear to all parties that Libya needs to move to elections as soon as possible.

How can the African Union contribute to resolving Libya’s political crisis? 

With the US-Africa Leaders Summit taking place in DC this month, it’s important to highlight that the AU can play an important role in breaking Libya’s political deadlock, in support of UN Special Representative of the Secretary General Abdoulaye Bathily, yet this possibility is often underestimated.

African leaders have a great understanding of the Libyan situation and an interest in stabilising regional conflict. They are capable of making a difference, and we would like to work with them on this. For example, the AU is actively working with Libya’s Presidential Council on a reconciliation forum that could bring opposing sides together, and the United States is offering to support this forum.

With political stability, how do you think Libya’s energy sector could evolve? 

Libya’s daily energy revenue has significantly increased recently, but the management of these funds is of the utmost importance and our view is that as the revenue comes in, all parties need to agree on a mechanism for how those funds can be spent, how they can be tracked, and not diverted to partisan interests or militias.

In order for that to happen there has to be coordination between Libyan authorities, and we have seen that the GNU, the High Council of State, and the House of Representatives each has introduced its own proposal. Along with partners in the Berlin Process Economic Working Group (EU, Egypt and UNSMIL) the United States is prepared to help Libyans synchronise these approaches.

Is it possible for the US to pull off new energy deals with the Libyan authorities?

The Government of National Unity has recently announced lifting the force majeure on oil and gas exploration activities and called on international companies to resume their operations, which is a good sign.

There have been American companies that are interested in energy discoveries in Libya, but those companies also look at the issue of political stability so the sooner the situation can be stabilised, the sooner Libya can make the most of its hydrocarbon resources.

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