Summary

The tri-border area between Libya, Sudan and Chad sits on the periphery of all three countries both geographically and politically. While far from the control of capitals, these areas are not ungoverned. At least in Libya and Sudan, strongmen have taken control of these areas, capitalising on the presence of gold and the flow of people and other commodities to enrich themselves and bolster their power. But their power is not absolute. 

Frequent challenges from armed groups and mercenaries eager to profit generates a complex conflict system that crosses borders. Allegiances between different powerbrokers active in the triborder area shift as their power waxes and wanes. The area is currently more stable than in recent decades, but the strength of each powerbroker is constantly under pressure from other groups. This increases the urgency to capitalise on illicit revenues to shore up patronage networks and military defences.

Smuggling routes traverse the borders, moving armed groups, migrants and commodities. Militants from different armed groups have moved across borders to support groups in other countries for payment, but also for future alliance support. Labour migrants have gravitated to the gold mining areas of all three countries seeking work either mining or in associated services, an industry that feeds the war economy. European-bound migrants have also been found to work in gold mines to pay for the next leg of their journey. These migrants often faced extortion from armed groups controlling territory along their journey.

In recent years, these dynamics have been affected by developments inside the three countries. Migration across Sudan into Libya has waned following reports of torture in Libya. The ceasefire agreement in Libya requires foreign fighters, including Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, most part of rebel groups in their own country, to depart. General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo, head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group that has been implicated in the exploitation of migrants, has become part of the Sovereign Council in Sudan’s transitional government, increasing his legitimacy. More recently, Chad’s President Déby was killed during fighting against rebel groups in northern Chad, and his son has stepped up to lead the transitional government.

Even wider international developments have also influenced dynamics. The Covid-19 pandemic has severely reduced air travel in the region, creating a resurgence along overland routes. Conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has pushed Eritrean refugees and Ethiopians into Sudan. The UN mission in Darfur is drawing down, increasing violence and fear in communities, and providing greater freedom for the RSF. Oil prices, which have been a key revenue source for Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) and other armed groups, have decreased significantly, increasing interest in other revenue sources.

These changes have raised the attractiveness of illicit revenues in the region, in particular migration routes, where increased exploitation has compensated for reduced numbers, but also artisanal gold mining, with souks in Dubai ready to purchase regardless of origin. Controlling such flows and revenues directly influences armed groups’ strength and thus drives conflict dynamics in the triborder region.

The remoteness of the tri-border region has made the conflict dynamics less visible and thus they have not been adequately researched. However, conflict in the tri border area has a significant impact on wider stability, particularly the nascent transition in Sudan, the fragile ceasefire in Libya and now uncertainty around Chad’s political future – all of which subsequently have even wider repercussions. This report investigates the dynamics of conflict, migration and gold mining in the tri-border area, investigating the key actors and considering the policy implications for wider stability.