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Closed Borders Deepen Security Issues in North Africa – Jean R. AbiNader

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
August 10, 2017

Without better security coordination and cooperation among Maghreb countries, effectively addressing challenges like illegal immigration, smuggling, and terrorism remains difficult.

In a previous blog, I argued that on economic grounds alone, open borders would benefit all of the Maghreb countries, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Three recent articles spell out the dangers as well to regional security resulting from closed borders, troubles that run the gamut from illegal migration to terrorism. While each country talks about its commitment to combating criminals, militants, and terrorism, focusing on any individual state’s security priorities is clearly insufficient in light of the multiple threats they all face.

This dilemma is compounded by the region’s age-old cigarette, fuel, and local drug smuggling routes, which are now teeming with Islamic terrorists, anti-regime militants, illicit drug trade from Latin America, human trafficking, and illegal migration. There are numerous bad guys, and the consequences of ineffective strategies are dangerous if not disastrous, as the instability spreads.

No country can address these problems alone. Although Morocco and Algeria have built up impressive internal security apparatuses, only Morocco has actually joined, and is leading, an active and cross-border security effort. The reality is that Algeria, which borders six countries, and Morocco, which is facing external threats as well as the Polisario Front’s continual refusal to join negotiations for a realistic solution to the Sahara issue, can only achieve long-term stability in the region through unified, consistent, multifaceted efforts shared by countries in North Africa and the Sahel, to its south.

A recent HuffPost story about France’s continuing commitment to fighting terrorism in the Sahel is illustrative of the problem. Because of the uprising in Mali in 2012 and other destabilizing factors in West and Central Africa, the Macron government finds itself embroiled in an area France vacated officially decades ago. Now it is trying to set up a regional security force, the G5, to combat terrorism wherever it threatens in the Sahel.

In order to address the issue in the affected countries of Mali, Chad, Niger, and others, the article points out, “to be fully effective and to really make a difference, the G5 needs to be able to cooperate more efficiently with some key-countries in North Africa, such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Of these, Algeria and Morocco are key-players, being on the front-lines of both countering violent Islamism and trying to put the lid on the increasing smuggling of people and goods across the region and into Europe.”

While Morocco moves ahead with a broad-based approach to countering terrorism, including domestic education efforts, training of religious leaders, and regional and international security cooperation, Algeria’s reluctance stands out.

The Algeria-Morocco standoff over the Sahara, mutual accusations of political meddling, Morocco’s successes in broadening its outreach in sub-Saharan Africa, and Algeria’s phobia about participating in regional security arrangement it does not lead, feeds its aversion to treating Morocco as a partner in any regional security efforts.  As the HuffPost article notes, “The real challenge here will be to rise above some of the bi-national conflicts bedeviling the region (such as the conflict between Morocco and Algeria concerning Polisario) and get beyond those to concentrate on the more long-term threat that the Islamists presents.”

The global challenge of terrorism requires international efforts, according to the article. “Finally, it is worth emphasizing that since the threat from militant Islamism is regional and transnational, so the efforts to combat that threat must be equally transnational. This will take some serious diplomatic foot-work to be effective and so it is to be hoped that the meeting in G5 launch in Bamako in June [of Macron with the Sahel countries] will be the first of many more, and that next time, more countries will be present.”

Algeria shuts out cooperation

A North Africa Post column also scolds Algeria for its non-cooperative stance towards Morocco that undercuts regional security, taking issue with Algeria’s chauvinistic attitude towards the countries in the region — “my way or the highway,” is a simple characterization. “Algeria, Africa’s largest country, shares borders with 6 countries, all of them are closed with the exception of its land frontiers with Tunisia. This closed-border attitude is reflective of a lack of a neighborhood policy in an increasingly integrated continent where collective efforts are the best means to countering trans-border challenges.”

Although Morocco consistently calls for normalization of ties with Algeria open borders, and lifted visa requirements for Algerians more than a decade ago, the borders are closed. Many reasons are offered, from the need to eliminate smuggling to controlling border access to combat security threats; but the author wonders if this is an effective approach, given that both countries face similar threats, and that they both possess the most experienced and effective security forces in the Maghreb.

The article is clear that “Using the security issue to prevent the freedom of movement of people and goods in the region is flawed. Fighting terrorism in the region should be a collective endeavor as national approaches have long proved their inefficiency. Yet, there is a silently brewing lack of trust between Sahel countries and Algeria on the issue of terrorism. Algeria . . . has shown ambivalence in tackling the terrorist threats, which feeds suspicions and erodes trust in Algeria’s willingness to combat terrorism.”

Also troubling, according to the column, is that the formation of the G5 regional security forces by the French created an Algerian backlash against sub-Saharan migrants. Another article in North Africa Post notes that “It is no coincidence that the anti-Sub-Saharan migrant rhetoric is on the surge following the formation of the G5 force. Anti-migrant rhetoric verging on blatant racism is uttered by senior officials who come to shamefully associate illnesses, AIDs, and economic hardships with the arrival of a few thousands of poor Sub-Saharans fleeing difficult conditions and conflict.”

Once again, regional instability is the culprit, as these migrants traverse Algeria to reach Libya on their road to Europe. Algeria’s recent resumption of deportations of sub-Saharans is only adding to regional instability and reinforces charges of colonialism and racism against Algeria’s political leadership.

Regional insecurity and instability can be greatly reduced if the countries of the Sahel and North Africa work together with their international partners to face the mounting issues of violence, migration, and trafficking. Only through a concerted and integrated push that includes domestic and regional initiatives will future prospects for growth and stability be secured.

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