The chairman and members of Libya’s national oil company have reacted with dismay to a visit UN special envoy Martin Kobler paid last Thursday to Ibrahim al-Jadhran, the head of an armed force guarding oil facilities in eastern Libya. Jadhran caused controversy for spearheading a lengthy oil port blockade from 2013 to 2014 in exchange for political and financial concessions.
The visit, during which Kobler is said to have given Jadhran assurances that he will not be held accountable for his deeds, is part of the UN envoy’s efforts to rally backers of the unity government in Tripoli and ensure their continued support in the war against the Islamic State Group. But owing to Jadhran’s legacy, many in Libya see the visit as a bad precedent in terms of ceding ground to actors who use force to further their aims.
“Back from Ras Lanuf. Economic development of Libya requires security, political stability and unity. Glad to hear support of [the Government of National Accord – GNA] from Ibrahim Jadhran and tribal leaders”, Kobler tweeted after his day-trip to the Oil Crescent on 21 July.
Ras Lanuf is home to one of Libya’s largest oil ports, alongside the neighboring Sidra (Essider) terminal. Both facilities are guarded by the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) – Central Region, the oil guard unit under Jadhran’s command. After Jadhran ended the blockade in 2014 the terminals resumed oil shipments, but technical problems and attacks by IS militants brought exports from the Oil Crescent to a renewed standstill last year.
Jadhran has since rallied himself with the GNA Presidency Council after it took seat in Tripoli in March, and briefly joined the GNA-mandated war on IS, retaking Bin Jawad, Nofliya and Harawa – three small towns located between the Oil Crescent and Sirte that IS militants had seized last year. For the GNA, Jadhran is an important ally, especially given that the army leadership in the east does not recognize the new government’s authority. Authorities in the east dismissed Jadhran from his position as PFG commander earlier this year, but were unable to enforce the decision, and the GNA later reappointed him.
Days after the Ras Lanuf visit, Mustafa Sanallah, the head of the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC) management, sent a scorching letter to Kobler, accusing him of ignorance and threatening to derecognize the UN-backed GNA.
The Tripoli-based NOC management was one of the first institutions to recognize the GNA when it settled in the capital earlier this year.
On its part, the GNA endorsed Sanallah as official NOC Chairman following an agreement between Sanallah’s team and the NOC’s Benghazi-based and HoR-appointed management headed by Naji al-Maghrabi. As part of the deal, which was brokered in Ankara at the end of last month, Al-Maghrabi agreed to renounce to his claim to chairmanship and to just be a member of the united NOC’s management board.
“I learned yesterday with dismay of your meeting in Ras Lanuf with the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard for the Central Region, Ibrahim Jadhran. I understand you are about to announce an agreement to open the ports Jadhran has blockaded for close to 3 years at a cost to Libya of over $100 billion in lost revenue”, Sanallah wrote, adding “The NOC board is dismayed because you are providing recognition to an individual who has caused more damage to the country than any other. It sets a terrible precedent and will encourage anybody who can muster a militia to shut down a pipeline, an oil field, or a port, to see what they can extort.”
Sanallah also condemned the alleged deal to pay Jadhran off for reopening the ports, claiming that the GNA is at the same time withholding payments to the NOC and its subsidiaries.
With the issue still high on the public agenda, Sanallah and Maghrabi were both guests on Libya Channel’s Newsroom debate Tuesday night, where they reiterated their rejection of the GNA’s and Kobler’s position.
“I condemn Kobler’s surprise visit to Ras Lanuf even if he got prior clearance from the GNA Presidency Council”, Naji al-Maghrabi said.
Sanallah warned that the GNA’s decision to back Jadhran would severely damage its image. “The Presidency Council was invited to celebrate in Ras Lanuf. How can we celebrate a funeral?”, he exclaimed.
The NOC Chairman also recalled the NOC’s troubled history with Jadhran. “The ports [of Ras Lanuf and Essider] were not closed, they were hijacked for three years”, he said, recalling also the Morning Glory incident in March 2014, in which Jadhran attempted to ship oil outside NOC channels. The attempt ultimately failed when US Special Forces intercepted the vessel and returned it to the Libyan authorities.
In the summer of 2014 the Libyan authorities at the time – the General National Congress and the Government in Tripoli – made substantial concessions to Jadhran’s PFG unit to reopen the oil ports, including a payment of millions of Libyan dinars in “unpaid wages” to the petroleum guards. The blockaders had demanded 377 million dinars, but it never transpired how much they actually received.
“No on knows what was paid to Jadhran from public money in 2014, and it was not subject to regulatory agencies”, Sanallah claimed on Newsroom.
Also on the Newsroom Tuesday night was Naji Mukhtar from the State Council in Tripoli, who in 2013 and 2014 was member of the GNC Energy Committee, and part of the team that negotiated the oil port deal. “His demands were limited to money”, Mukhtar told. “We paid Jadhran 3 million LYD, which he has not returned until now. By paying him you only make him raise the ceiling.”
Now, so Sanallah, the GNA is turning a blind eye to this episode, and Jadhran is using his ally within the Presidency Council, deputy prime minister Fathi al-Majbari, to further his agenda.
Sanallah recalled a meeting with GNA representatives in Tunis on 18 March, in which he said Majbari was “desperately defending Jadhran”.
But Sanallah played down Jadhran’s influence on the ground, claiming that the commander controls nothing other than the two oil ports. “Jadhran claims he has 20,000 armed troops, but in fact he doesn’t even have 1,100 men”, he claimed.
The NOC Chairman also accused Jadhran of allowing the ports to be damaged by IS. “We asked Jadhran to let us empty oil storage tanks in areas threatened by Daesh, including Ras Lanuf and Sidra. He refused and the oil was burnt”, Sanallah claimed, referring to clashes at the ports between the PFG and IS in January.
“The NOC and its partners have lost USD 100 billion through oil field [and port] closures”, Sanallah said. He added that AGOCO – the NOC’s largest subsidiary – was now only producing 4,000 barrels of crude per day, which is one percent of what the company used to pump before the revolution. “AGOCO needs 700 million to keep its operations going”, Sanallah said. “If the NOC and its partners continue without payments, oil fields will have to be evacuated”, he warned.
Sanallah demanded that the Presidency Council order Jadhran’s PFG to refrain from interfering in the NOC’s work and called on PC member Majbari to speed up the disbursement of funds to the NOC.
“My message to Ibrahim Jadhran is fear God and acknowledge your mistakes and that you caused a lot of misery for Libyans”, Sanallah said.
The PFG aught to be be “rebuilt on military foundations rather than as militias”, he said.
Jadhran has shown himself unimpressed by the dispute. “Sanallah’s words will neither advance nor delay our agreement with the unity government”, he told media on Monday, adding that the NOC Chairman’s statement was “not worth the ink it is written in”.
He assured that his forces were ready to reopen the oil ports and that the ball was now “in the Presidency Council’s court”.
But legally only the NOC can lift the force majeure ruling that the ports are currently subject to, and Sanallah maintains that this would be an unwise decision.
“It is highly possible Jadhran will face court cases internationally for losses that he has imposed on our buyers and partners by his blockade, and we, as NOC, are determined not to be attached to these lawsuits. If the Libyan government or UNSMIL supports Jadhran in this way, it would be very wise to ensure they, too, will not share liability for his previous actions, since you seem to condone them”, the NOC Chairman wrote in his letter to Kobler.