Algeria’s border closure impedes the Sahel’s development, while promoting trafficking and radicalisation. By Jeremy Keenan.
Algeria’s 2,000km of desert frontier with Mali and Niger, is not only one of Africa’s least-known borders, but it is being used in Machiavellian ways.
In the last year or two, as Algeria’s economic and financial crisis has deepened, its government has spoken of establishing closer trade relations with its southern neighbour, Niger, and sub-Saharan Africa. Last November, prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal spoke of plans to establish a free trade zone in Tamanrasset, Algeria’s southernmost administrative province (wilaya) adjoining Niger, and Algeria’s trans-Saharan gateway to much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Invoking terrorism to close the Niger border is merely a pretext for furthering Algeria’s “grand design” of extending control over its Sahelian neighbours.
But the reality is the exact opposite. Niger’s latest problems with Algeria began in January 2013 when Algeria closed its borders with Mali and Niger. Its stated reason was to prevent “terrorists” driven out of Mali by France’s 11 January military intervention from entering Algeria.
While Algeria can justify the closure of its Mali border because of increasing jihadism in Mali, that is not the case with Niger. Invoking terrorism to close the Niger border is merely a pretext for furthering Algeria’s “grand design” of extending control over its Sahelian neighbours. As explained below, the Niger border is still highly porous. One local Tuareg tribesman described it as a “sieve”. Terrorists, should they wish, can cross it with almost the same ease as the traffickers who cross it daily.
The authorities have frequently closed parts of the region for security reasons.
To understand how Algeria’s “grand design” works and how the border closures have become critical to its furtherance, especially in Niger, one has to understand both the nature of the trade between the two countries and the regional ethnicity.
Today, in Niger’s northern regional capital of Agades, almost everything in its shops – food, spare parts, mattresses, construction materials, even eggs and potatoes – comes from Algeria. Arlit, the uranium mining town north of Agades, gets fresh groceries from Tamanrasset every day.
Aside from northern Niger’s current dependency on Algeria for its foodstuffs, the traditional trade from Algeria to Niger comprised dates and salt coming from Algeria, with livestock, millet, onions, fruit and henna going north from Niger. Today, Niger is left with little except its seasonal production of millet, fruit and onions, while the recent devaluation of the Algerian dinar has more or less killed off the livestock trade. When Niger’s truckers went north, they also carried beauty products, fabrics and tea (from China) from Nigeria. But this trade is now also greatly diminished, as Algeria produces most of its own beauty products and imports fabrics and tea through Algiers.
The immediate consequence of the January 2013 border closure was that hundreds of Nigerien lorries were blocked in Tamanrasset and In Guezzam. These were the traditional Nigerien truckers who had taken their vehicles into Algeria to buy cargoes of dates. Algeria’s dates are trucked south to Tamanrasset where they would be bought by Niger’s truckers, who would then take them further south to Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and other West African countries. On the Algerian side, the date trade was traditionally in the hands of native Algerian Arabs, such as the Chaamba, from Algeria’s northeastern desert regions, and the small semi-nomadic tribes of Tidikelt (In Salah) and Touat. However, with the border closed and no trucks allowed to head south, the Nigerien truckers soon found themselves with insufficient funds. But another change had also been underway at the border. By the time of the 2013 border closure, the traditional date lobby of native Algerian Arabs had been undermined and effectively taken over by powerful groups of Tashliks – a new name in Saharan ethnicity.
The word “Tashlik” is a designation given by the Tuareg to Arabs from Mauritania and Mali, along with the few in Niger, who have moved into the traditional Tuareg domain of the central Sahara.
The origin of the Tashliks in Algeria goes back to the Sahelian droughts of 1973 and 1984, when many sought refuge in Algeria. Since 2003, Tamanrasset has been “invaded” by Tashliks, to the extent that it has become their capital. Much of their wealth has come from their participation in the trans-Saharan networks.
By taking advantage of Algeria’s subsidy system on flour (to make pasta), as well as the transport subsidy system that reimburses 100% of the fuel cost of bringing food to the country’s southern regions, the Tashliks transport food to Tamanrasset and the border town of In Guezzam at minimal cost. The subsidy system places no limits on the amount of food transported, or to what destinations. Sometimes, as many as 10 trucks from the same pasta factory can be seen parked in In Guezzam, a town of less than 10,000 people.
The question is: what happens at the border? Goods that cross a “closed” border are doing so illegally. Such trade, as the French say, is “la fraude” or “le trafic”, words that are now commonplace in the local languages. But, it is the Algerian not the Niger border that is closed. Thus, while goods exit Algeria illegally, they enter Niger legally.
Because of the power of the Tashlik date lobby, on the 15th and 30th of each month, the border is opened legally for the big Tashlik date loads that head due south from In Guezzam to the Niger border post at Assamaka, then due south across the desert to In Abangerit, Tchin-Tabaraden, Tahoua and further south into Nigeria.
Aside from the seasonal “date trucks” that leave on the 15th and 30th of each month, the bulk of what is trafficked south out of Algeria is food. Once the food arrives at In Guezzam it is bought up by Malian or Nigerien Arabs who then take it to Mali and Niger respectively.
Malian “Tashlik” come in groups of six or seven old Toyota Landcruisers in the early hours of every Wednesday morning, or “market day”, as it is known. The Landcruisers then cross into Niger and keep south of its northwest border with Algeria, passing along the Tin Amzi valley to the Mali border near Anou Mellen, then southwest to Ménaka. Fuel is carried in 200 litre drums: eight to a vehicle. Not surprisingly, In Guezzam has four petrol stations, whereas Tamanrasset still has only two.
The Mali regional capitals of Kidal and Gao are provisioned in the same way, but through the Algerian border towns of Tinzaouatine, Timiaouine and Bordj Badji Mokhtar. According to the traffickers, both the French military and UN (Minusma) peacekeeping forces are also supplied with food and fuel in this way.
The Niger market has changed a little in the last couple of years. Since Niger developed its own small oil fields, the supply of fuel from Algeria has diminished. Also, many of the traffickers now find it more profitable to transship the goods at Arlit in order to supply the highly profitable artisanal “gold rush” fields that have developed just south of the Algerian border between In Azaoua and Tibarakaten.
Algeria now effectively controls and assures the food supply of both northern Mali and northern Niger.
It might be argued that the impact of the border closure makes little difference to Mali, as Kidal has always been regarded as Algeria’s 49th wilaya and been provisioned from Algeria. The impact on Niger, however, is more serious. Despite the current security situation in Niger, which is being compounded by the border closure, there is no reason why Algeria could not keep its border with Niger open for commercial traffic. The fact that it does not do so, and uses the pretext of terrorism to justify the closure, raises questions about its motives.
The overall effect of the frontier closure on Niger, combined with the growing commercial dominance and influence of the Tashliks, is that the old truckers and traders have been squeezed out of the market, with the result that Algeria now effectively controls and assures the food supply of both northern Mali and northern Niger.
While the border closure has not necessarily led to a diminution in the food supply to Niger, it has increased its cost. Food prices in Agades’ shops are higher than in Tamanrasset.
Algeria’s closure of its two southern frontiers does increase Algeria’s de facto control and leverage over its southern neighbours. What can be said is that Algeria’s manipulation of its southern frontiers in this way is doing much to economically empower the Arab tribes of the Sahel – the Tashliks – at the expense of their neighbours.
While Algeria would obviously deny such a policy, there is no doubt that the one ethnic group that is being most damaged by Algeria’s policies is the Tuareg.
Since gaining independence from France in 1962, Algeria has always spoken (increasingly more mutedly) of what it perceives as its “Tuareg problem”. Since the end of the 1990s civil war, Algeria has actively encouraged the movement of northern Algerians into the extreme south in order to make the Tuareg an ever-shrinking minority in their traditional lands.
Algeria has also always feared the rise of Tuareg irredentism, both at home and in the Sahel.
The one thing that is certain is that Algeria will not open its border to Niger as long as its border with Mali remains closed. And the Mali crisis does not look like ending any time soon.