Why gunmen have turned off Libya's oil taps

A general view shows the Hariqa oil port and loading installation in Libya on 20 August 2013

Armed groups in Libya are currently blocking key oilfields and ports - hijacking the government of its main source of revenue and leading to some fuel shortages and blackouts.

Billions of dollars have been lost over the last few months as oil production has plummeted, costing about $130m (£82m) a day.

Earlier this year, Libya was producing at least 1.5 million barrels of oil per day; last week a little more than 100,000 were pumped a day - a figure which officials say has gone up to 263,000 this week.

Leading the blockade are armed groups made up of current and former employees of border security and units of the Petroleum Facilities Guard - set up to secure the oilfields.

Their main complaint is about industry corruption which they say has not improved since long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power in 2011, but there is no one single issue or demand.

Libya's blocked oil

  • Usual capacity is 1.5m barrels per day
  • Lost exports costing $130m a day
  • This week exports are 17% of usual capacity, fell to 6% last week
  • Most of the nine ports are closed, including two of the largest oil export terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf
  • Oil is mainly being exported from two offshore platforms - Bouri and Al Jurf

Some gunmen are demanding more autonomy for the east of the country, where most of Libya's oil is found.

There are others who say it is a strike over salaries, and some members of former militias paid by the government in the aftermath of the uprising to guard oil facilities - and since replaced by trained personnel - are angered at being "fired".

The government has dismissed their complaints and has said it is a treasonable offence - and accuses the militias of trying to sell off the oil independently.

Deputy Oil Minister Omar al-Shakmak admitted the situation was a worry for foreign oil companies which operate the oilfields.

"The security issue is essential and we know a situation like this is not encouraging for investment, but I assure them it's temporary, not permanent," he told BBC Africa.

'Rogue elements'

Start Quote

A lot of it is to do with day-to-day expectations not being met”

End Quote Ahmad Safar Economic strategy adviser

It is not clear how the government intends to settle the issue, despite Prime Minister Ali Zaidan's recent warning that it might consider a "more serious role".

Last week, parliament agreed to a 20% salary increase for civil servants, which would cover those in border and oil security.

But this has been long in the pipeline and has done little to ease the blockade.

For now officials are appealing to locals around the oilfields to put pressure on the "protesters".

Ahmad Safar, an independent economic strategy adviser, says that some of the "rogue elements" do come with messages from the communities they represent - and their frustration does not "just come out of the blue".

Petrol station in Tripoli in Libya Rumours of shortages often lead to panic buying at petrol stations

"A lot of it is to do with day-to-day expectations not being met, politicians and government failing people at the very basic level in terms of service delivery," he told the BBC.

"We haven't seen a decentralised system that guarantees equal share to the wealth of the country; we haven't seen proper and fair distribution among Libyans - south, east, west, north."

Start Quote

Saleh Ali

If you have demands and want to protest, we're not against that, it's democracy, but you don't shut down an oilfield. When it gets to that stage and you hurt all Libyans”

End Quote Saleh Ali Car owner in Tripoli

Ordinary citizens are tired of "false promises" from politicians as their manoeuvring and games produce no tangible results, he says.

"It doesn't seem like it's going anywhere with the current status of the country."

When the blockade started, on-off fuel shortages began at petrol stations, as about 30% of Libya's fuel is refined locally, says Mr Safar.

The initial shortages led to panic buying, causing long queues, short tempers and an occasional shoot-out.

However, as Libya has always imported most of its fuel, the frenzied buying is often sparked by rumours of shortages.

But there have also been more electricity cuts in recent weeks.

In the early months of summer, officials blamed the blackouts on fuel-powered generators being stolen and electricity stations being attacked by gunmen.

Last week, the electricity minister pointed to the oil blockade for the continued power cuts, and warned that if the Wafa oil field in in western Libya was hit, it would shut down electricity supplies totally.

'Huge reserves'

The crisis fills a lot of airtime on local media channels, with many listeners and viewers expressing the view that the blockade is the result of yet more political infighting - with local politicians using it to further their aims.

An oil worker, works at a refinery inside the Brega oil complex, in Brega, eastern Libya - File photo Analysts say financially Libya can weather the loss in revenue

Most people, including the majority of older Libyans, are very critical of the gunmen.

"If you have demands and want to protest, we're not against that, it's democracy, but you don't shut down an oilfield. When it gets to that stage, you hurt all Libyans," Saleh Ali said after he had pumped fuel into his car at a petrol station in the capital, Tripoli, which had no queues this week.

Those who do support the blockade tend to be younger.

"We are starting the third year [since the revolution] and people were promised that when Muammar was removed, their lives and income would improve, but there's nothing. There are small changes," says a young man at the same station.

The deputy oil minister says he knows the continuing situation is "not acceptable".

"But we are determined to solve [this deadlock] peacefully," Mr Shamak said.

Analysts say financially Libya can weather the loss in revenue and do not see the current crisis as having any significant impact on government spending in the short or medium term.

Libya has "huge [oil] reserves and a good cash flow from its investment portfolios abroad", says Mr Safar.

"But that's not going to last forever. I mean, it just takes this crisis to continue for another six months or so and you will suck those dry."

He does not see the deadlock lasting that long.

However, it is just the latest in a series of armed protests.

In May the foreign and justice ministry buildings in Tripoli were surrounded by disgruntled militias called for the expulsion of Gaddafi-era officials.

So the question for the politicians remains: how many storms can a country with shaky foundations weather before things do start to crumble?

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