TRIPOLI, Libya – Libya’s premier on Wednesday ordered relocation of the headquarters of the state-run oil company to the eastern city of Benghazi, fulfilling a long-standing demand by residents of the region and comes days after tribal declared semi-independent region in the east.
Prime Minister Ali Zidan told reporters that the decision was not taken under pressure, and that Libya’s institutions must be present everywhere across the country.
Benghazi was the birthplace of the uprising that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Despite its oil riches, eastern Libya’s residents have complained for decades about discrimination by the west, where the capital, Tripoli, is located.
The relocation of the National Oil Corporation and affiliated companies is expected to bring new job opportunities and boost the economic weight of the region.
The decision comes after advocates of self-rule in the east pushed ahead with their plan aiming at reviving the system maintained under King Idris after the formation of the United Kingdom of Libya in 1951, when Libya was divided into three states: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica — or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic — which encompassed the eastern half of the country. Gadhafi led a military coup that overthrew Idris in 1969.
The leader of the autonomy movement, Ahmed al-Zubair, along with tribal and former rebel leaders, declared the eastern region of Cyrenaica as a semi-independent as of June 1. Al-Zubair also announced creation of a separate force to defend the region and collect weapons.
Idris declared eastern Libya independent from Britain on June 1, 1949.
Opponents fear a declaration of autonomy could be the first step toward outright division of the country.
Al-Zubair said the announcement was made after failure of central government and Libya’s first elected General National Congress to move ahead with democratic transition or maintain law in the face of increasingly empowered militias. They were made up of former rebels who fought Gadhafi and helped maintain security but are now challenging the country’s elected authorities.
The militias’ latest show of force took place in May when the GNC was forced to pass a law to ban former Gadhafi-era officials from taking any senior government posts, effectively depriving a large number of Libya’s officials from holding future posts. The GNC passed the law in a tense political atmosphere after militias stormed and besieged several state institutions and ministries.
In parallel, both the capital and eastern cities are the scene of attacks on foreign missions and police stations, and over the past year many security and military officials have been shot dead in front of their houses.