Moroccan soldiers near border with Algeria
© Patrick Hertzog
Moroccan soldiers near border with Algeria
Last updated: August 4, 2013
Fouad Kemache : North Africa’s border wars

"Once, Libya and Tunisia were strong states but today these countries are based on very fragile foundations"

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In February 2013, the Moroccan walkers who dared to venture beyond the borders of their country to collect truffles on Algerian territory were shot at by the Algerian Army. Fortunately, they were not injured but this story - which did not trigger any diplomatic confrontation - shows the tension prevailing along the North African borders. The tripartite summit between Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia in January 2013 illustrates that the issue of border security in North Africa is now taken very seriously.

Since war started in Libya, the stability of the region has been deeply shaken. The main consequences of this war - which led to the fall of Mouammar Gaddafi’s regime - are the proliferation of weapons and the rise of terrorism. Another consequence is the lack of confidence between the states of North Africa: Libyans have still not forgiven Algeria’s attitude in 2011 when it only recognized the National Council of Transition at the end of the Libyan insurrection. The In Amenas hostage crisis in February has contributed to revive this lack of confidence: terrorists entered Algeria from Libya with ease. In addition, the commando was in possession of Libyan weapons.

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But Libya is not the only country where there are huge problems. Tunisia is not immune to the threat of terrorism as evidenced by the murders of political opponents Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi and the growing influence of extremists. Once, Libya and Tunisia were strong states but today these countries are based on very fragile foundations. In addition, the cold war that engages Algeria and Morocco is another source of tension in North Africa. Algeria insists on keeping the border with Morocco closed so that no solution to the Western Sahara will be found. But closed-border policy is not restricted to Algeria. In February, Libya closed its borders with Tunisia and Egypt for four days in order to prevent troubles when rumours of a second revolution spread in the country. Weakened by the Arab Spring, North African countries have become vulnerable. This vulnerability is reinforced by the presence of terrorists groups in Sahel like AQIM or MUJAO.

Different countries should coordinate their actions

As the French war in Mali proves, Sahel countries are not able to confront the terrorist threat. Western countries rely on Algeria to solve a serious problem that lies at the gates of Europe. Algeria plays a central role in this crisis, but the country alone can’t solve the problems this vast region is facing.

The first priority for Algeria is to prevent the installation of a terrorist basis in Sahara. Therefore the largest country in Africa has decreed general mobilization at protecting its southern borders and since January 2013, the Algerian-Malian border is closed.

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Algeria also decided to regain control of the sensible site to prevent a new terrorist attack.  Despite these measures, it remains impossible for Algeria to protect all its borders because terrorist threats can come from anywhere (Algeria is surrounded by Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, Tunisia). But countries which choose to close borders face the problems of the Touareg, or nomad people, and impeding their free circulation could be dangerous for safety reasons.

In Africa, the problem of terrorism is global and making a dichotomy between the countries of North Africa and Sahel is nonsense. The United States have understood this and in 2005 they initiated the "Trans-Saharian Counter-Terrorism Initiative" which gathers eleven countries (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal). In 2011, the United States equipped the Malian Army in order to fight jihadists but the actions of TCIS seems unsuccessful, and without intervention of France, Mali would now be an Islamic state. 

Different countries should coordinate their actions instead of building a policy based solely on border closure. Maintaining closed borders are costly policies in economic, military and diplomatic terms and they are not a guarantee of absolute efficiency. Indeed, trafficking smugglers have never been so flourishing as today. Moreover, the risk of terrorism is not the only threat the region is facing. Other challenges relate to immigration and trafficking of drugs, finding solutions to these issues without regional coordination will be highly difficult.

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