If ever there was a Libyan city which remains haunted by the ghost of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, it is Bani Walid. Located approximately 140 kilometres south-west of its rival, Misrata, the city of roughly 80,000 is still struggling to define a place for itself in post-revolutionary Libya. Often tarnished as a town sympathetic to the former regime, Bani Walid’s residents remain forever anxious that they will face the brunt of revenge attacks from those nearby cities which suffered the full wrath of Gaddafi’s forces. These anxieties are not without warrant. In fact, the longstanding divide between Misrata and Bani Walid appears to be growing ever deeper, leading to fears of a potential eruption of violence. So why such heightened tensions? Although the two cities have suffered a decades-long antagonism with one another, it is the kidnap, torture and later death of Misrata native Imran Juma Shaban allegedly at the hands of a Bani Walid militia, which may have finally pushed Misratans over the edge.
Bani Walid vs. Misrata
Shaban, who is believed to have been abducted along with his friend by the largely Gaddafi loyalist Khamis Brigade on 12 July 2012, was released in poor condition on 18 September 2012, and airlifted to a hospital in Paris, where he later died on 24 September 2012. The news of Shaban’s death quickly spread to Misrata, and on 25 September 2012, dozens of men surrounded the body of Shaban whilst it was being repatriated to his hometown, many of whom were recorded shouting “the blood of the martyr won’t go in vain!”. Following the delivery of his body, leaders in the city hosted a high-profile funeral for Shaban, which was attended by thousands (some reports even claimed as many as 25,000), in the city’s Sports Centre.
The situation brewing between Misrata and Bani Walid represents more than the kidnapping of a Misratan by an “illegitimate” brigade. Shaban was considered a hero of Misrata. A revolutionary fighter during the 2011 uprising, Shaban served a key role during the fight against loyalist forces in the last days of the Gaddafi Regime. On 20 October 2011, Shaban battled Gaddafi’s henchmen in Sirte’s District 2 area, and along with a group of fellow revolutionary fighters, found the dictator himself, hiding in a drainage pipe. Given Shaban’s status as a liberator, his death and the circumstances surrounding it, the deep-seated mistrust between the citizens of Misrata and Bani Walid may ignite into full-scale violence. Indeed, some Libyans have claimed that Shaban is Misrata’s “Stevens”, a reference to the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens, which led to the rampage on the compounds of the Al Sharia Brigade, a group blamed for the American’s death on 11 September 2012. And the outrage does not stop there. Adding fuel to the fire were rumours that yet another three Misratans had been kidnapped by an unknown Bani Walid-based brigade on the night of 25 September 2012, a move which, if proven true, is only likely to increase anti-Bani Walid sentiment, as militia groups in the city are still reportedly holding three other Misratan hostages. These and other indiscretions perpetrated against Misrata have understandably led to further criticism of the new Libyan Government for failing to take the “appropriate” course of action on Bani Walid during the 2011 uprising. A number of Libyans have contended that following the capture of Sirte, the revolutionary forces should have surrounded Bani Walid, forced the city to surrender through military strength, arrested the remaining Gaddafi remnants and confiscated all weapons. Instead, NTC forces simply allowed the city to surrender on its own terms, and in effect, the interim government backed by revolutionary fighters gave confidence to many Bani Walid brigades who felt that they were never “truly” defeated.
Such concerns have not gone unheeded by Libya’s General National Congress (GNC). On paper at least, the GNC appears to have responded. In a late night decree issued on 25 September 2012, the GNC authorised the use of force to enter the city and bring justice to the alleged kidnappers. Although it remains unclear when or if forces will be mobilised (there were reports that a “special convoy” comprised of members of the Souq al Juma’a Brigade, was preparing to enter the on 27 September 2012), it is possible that members of Misrata’s elite may take efforts into their own hands: Misratan leaders are said to be meeting on 28 September 2012, to discuss an appropriate course of action. But whilst Misratans debate a potentially military deployment in Bani Walid, the question remains, how do the citizens of Bani Walid feel about the ongoing turmoil?
The Reopening of Old Wounds…
As of 28 September 2012, the city of Bani Walid reportedly remains “on high alert”, whilst residents have expressed concern that they are being unfairly painted with the same “pro-Gaddafi” brush. Some residents have also been keen to point out that they, too, suffer from attacks from local militias, many of whom are allegedly loyalists of the former regime. (Some in the city claim that those responsible for Shaban’s death, for example, belong to a minority group of roughly 200, who are said to be holding the rest of the city “hostage”). The GNC’s decree itself has also been attacked, as photographs have widely been publicised via social media of a small contingent of Bani Walid residents, who were reportedly refusing to acknowledge the GNC’s decision, holding posters in support of the Warfallah tribe, a group which makes up the vast majority of the city’s population. As previously highlighted by The Inkerman Group, this is not simply a case of a pro-Gaddafi city attacking a revolutionary city for spite. In particular, members of the Warfalla tribe are resentful of the fact that the international media, the government and Libyans themselves have arguably failed to grasp the nuanced nature of their own life under Gaddafi. Although the Warfallah were traditionally considered the pillars of Gaddafi’s rule, dominating the security services and the ranks of the military, Gaddafi’s relationship with the Warfalla was far more complicated than has been portrayed. At first glance it appears that Gaddafi favoured the group, however, he simultaneously pitted members against each other, playing out the tribe’s internal divisions for his own gain. Such manipulation resulted in a disastrous coup attempt by Warfalla members against Gaddafi in 1993. The failed coup cumulated in the execution of seven tribal officers. Gaddafi did not stop at ordering the execution of coup generals, he also forbade Libyans from employing or helping coup plotters’ families, leaving many in the Warfalla tribe impoverished. Underscoring the muddled allegiances within Warfalla and thus the city of Bani Walid, Akram al Warfalli, a leading figure of the tribe, called for Gaddafi to be removed in February 2011, saying “We tell the brother, he’s no longer a brother, we tell him to leave the country”.
A Chance to Heal
It is these grey areas which underscore the true nature of post-revolutionary Libya, and leave the new Libyan Government in a difficult situation. Should the GNC proceed with a military offensive against Bani Walid? If it does so, it will be lauded for its security efforts, and it will undoubtedly bring respect for the embattled Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur as well as GNC President Mohamed Magariaf who have been criticised (perhaps unfairly) for their country’s recent spate of Salafist attacks. Whilst some call for blood to be spilled, others have tried to bring calm. Indeed, human rights organisations have time and time again called for reconciliation, whilst Local Council leaders in Bani Walid have even offered their condolences for Shaban’s death. Although it remains unknown what course of action the GNC will take, it is perhaps best to let calmer heads prevail by arresting the “illegitimate” Bani Walid militias, whilst encouraging reconciliation with the rest of the citizens of Bani Walid.
(Image: Inkerman personnel)