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Lessons from Libya: 5 Developments that Should be Remembered when Approaching the Question of Coups in Africa

Addison Emig Headshot
Libyans celebrate the liberation from the Qaddafi regime in the streets of Tripoli on November 5, 2011 in Tripoli
Libyan flags hang to celebrate the liberation from the Qaddafi regime in the streets of Tripoli in 2011.

The increase in coups across Africa is drawing greater attention and conversation. Various regional and international actors are discussing, evaluating, and recommending numerous responses. Before jumping to decision making, it is important to examine previous experiences and developments. In doing so, one could consider looking beyond coups to a wider variety of conflict of a similar nature involving government change and international intervention. 

Developments which should be considered under this approach includes those in Libya. Libya’s experiences over the past decade may not immediately seem relevant to the current issue of coups. The conflict started over a decade ago with the 2011 February Revolution, not a coup, and the country is in North Africa as opposed to West Africa where recent coups have been concentrated. Though the February Revolution was not a coup per se, it drew international attention and intervention analogous to conversation surrounding recent coups. Therefore, the aftermath of the revolution and subsequent developments are worth considering as international actors weight the pros and cons of various responses to coups in Africa. Important lessons can be derived from Libya’s tumultuous trajectory. The following are five key factors in Libya’s case that should be remembered. 

1. Fighting and Violence Impact all Aspects of People’s Lives, Even Those it Doesn’t Mean To.

The ongoing violence and instability in Libya have impacted every aspect of Libyans’ lives. Approximately 324,200 people require food assistance. People face the constant threat of violence and abuse from militias across the state. A fragmented health sector, regular power and water cuts, and fuel shortages hamper people’s health and livelihoods. Insecurity, checkpoints, road closures, looting, and fighting prevent people from accessing adequate healthcare. No part of life remains untouched by violence and its consequences. 

2. The Proliferation of Armaments and Growth of Armed Groups is Difficult to Reverse. 

Militias play a disproportionate role in Libya’s political, economic, security, and social sectors. Since the first militias formed in the revolution, countless others have formed and integrated themselves into the fabric of the state. The transitional government started paying state salaries to militias in late 2011, and the practice continues today. Many individuals see joining a militia as the best way to receive an income, increasing the staying power of these armed groups. Militias use their counter-crime and counterterrorism operations to demonstrate efficacy as security groups and generate support.

Because militias enjoy positions of prestige, it is proving nearly impossible to dissolve them. They exert influence over electoral efforts, and numerous militia leaders hold high-profile government positions. Militias also fight with one another and use the violence and insecurity this creates to justify their continued existence.. 

3. A Divided Country Struggles to Provide for its People. 

As of September 2023, Libya is divided between the United Nations-recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) in the West and the opposition Government of National Stability (GNS) in the East. This division makes it hard to take care of Libyan citizens. A third of Libyans have no trust in the GNU. Fifty percent have no trust in the House of Representatives (GNS), and forty-six percent have no trust in the independent High Council of State. Eighty-one percent of Libyans feel the government is either not very responsive or not responsive at all. 

The magnitude of tragedy and crisis in Derna following Storm Daniel illustrates the consequences that can arise when political divisions impact providing for citizens. The storm resulted in catastrophic flooding, washing away swaths of Derna, and killing thousands when two dams burst. These dams were built in the 1970s under the rule of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi and have been neglected since the revolution. Engineering experts warned repeatedly of the danger the neglected dams posed, but the warnings were ignored amidst political chaos. The divided country currently faces calls for unity in response to the crisis. 

4. Dynamics set into Motion in Days Continue for Years. 

It took nine days between the first protest of the Libyan revolution and the start of open battles between revolutionaries and government forces. Over a decade later, the consequences of this violence continue to shape Libya. Militias are among the most powerful actors, corruption is rampant, and the economy struggles. 

The UN took five days to approve an intervention to protect Libyan civilians. NATO’s intervention under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle set a precedent for allowing international involvement into Libya that continues today. Libya today is a geostrategic hotspot with countries such as Russia and Turkey backing opposing sides and deepening the conflict. Sudanese foreign fighters supported Haftar in 2019, leading him to send military supplies into Sudan in April 2023. 

Within two months of Haftar launching Operation Dignity in Benghazi in 2014, an opposition coalition formed in Tripoli, and the country was soon after mired in civil war. The East-West divide between the GNS and GNU stems from this war, and Haftar remains a major figure attempting to consolidate power in Libya. Elections, a major driver of the civil war, remain elusive for 2023. 

5. Terrorism Breeds in Unstable Environments. 

Studies indicate that political instability can breed terrorism. The rise of the Islamic State in Libya (IS-L) illustrates this relationship. IS-L first emerged in Derna in 2014 and then took control of Sirte in 2015. At the time, IS-L was ISIS’s strongest affiliate state. It took advantage of the power vacuum left by the revolution and civil war to recruit fighters and establish their caliphate in Sirte. IS-L thrived in Libya’s disorder, launching attacks domestically and across borders in Tunisia. A coalition of militias backed by US air support nominally defeated IS-L and drove them from their strongholds in 2016, but the group still exists in Libya’s southern region. As of the end of 2022, IS-L was reported to be reforming in southern Libya with somewhere between 180-240 fighters. It remains a threat to Libya’s enduring instability. 

...the aftermath of the [Libyan] revolution and subsequent developments are worth considering as international actors weight the pros and cons of various responses to coups in Africa. 

The examples laid out here all pertain to Libya, but the overarching theme extrapolated from each can be applied and hold true in numerous other contexts and countries. They indicate there may be lessons to learn from how Libya’s crisis developed, particularly regarding how responses can shape developments for years. International policymakers hold important positions in responding to coups across Africa. It is important they have a response, but it is equally as important that their responses not fuel unstable and violent conditions. Libya’s experience shows the dangers and consequences of enduring conflict, reminding international actors of the need to be aware the decisions they make today will shape the conditions of tomorrow. Looking at a variety of experiences with government change and international responses beyond coups may help international actors identify responses which have failed to in turn find ones which will succeed. In this, it might be beneficial to consider the possibility of reducing future coups through policies providing aid and support before crisis conditions necessitate an international response. 

Addison Emig was the Staff Intern with the Stafford Capacity Building Internship at the Wilson Center Africa Program for the Summer 2023 term.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Addison Emig Headshot

Addison Emig

Former Staff Assistant Intern
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more