Mid November, dozens of articles talked about the sealing off of the borders between Algeria and Mali in the event of international military action against radical Islamists occupying northern Mali. One sentence among many
Algerian authorities « ensured that they will close their borders« , Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission chief Kadré Désiré Ouedraogo said last Tuesday.
It is one thing to fight against terrorist groups and their accomplices such as arms smugglers, and it is a very different thing to close a 1400 km long border. Very similar to the planned ECOWAS military intervention, this idea of sealing off the borders between Algeria and Mali is not well thought through, and it’s probably not agreed upon by those who are going to be most affected by it (sentence inspired by this article on the fine print of the UN resolution on Mali).
The Northern Mali populations depend fully on the flow of trade -legal or illegal- passing through the Algerian-Malian border. It is very common to see Algerian consumer products in Tessalit, Kidal, Gao. Of basic foodstuffs such as flour, alimentary oil, sugar, milk, soft drinks… and also fuel, spare parts, medicines, etc … Many of these products are subsidized in Algeria. A stunning example, the price of a liter of diesel fuel is less than 20 euro cents in Algeria, which is cheaper than a bottle of mineral water. This policy results in subsidizing the whole region including neighbor countries. Thus the dynamic activity of smugglers of food and fuel on all the Algerian borders.
Thanks to a geographical gift of Gas & Oil fields, Algeria is a regional subsidizer powerhouse. Along the process, smugglers benefit greatly of the situation, but at the end of the demand side there are consumers and civilians who find cheaper commodities and products, and ways to improve their lives.
Close the border between Algeria and Mali ? Neither possible, nor desirable.
Technically speaking, closing these borders in the desert is an impossible task. There is the uncontrollable length of 1400 km, and there is the human factor with the same tribes to be found on both sides of the border, intertwined in strong family links. The presence of the Algerian security forces is unable to hermetically block the flows between the two countries. Is it even desirable?
Hundreds of thousands of people are now refugees in neighbor countries or in Southern Mali, but there is still around half a million people that remain in Azawad, the part of Mali controlled by Radical Islamists and Rebels groups. The Jihadists constitute more or less 1% of the population of Northern Mali. Is it moral to force the whole population to get rid of the terrorits ? Closing the borders amounts to apply a collective punishment to the civilians, and to target again people who are already victims of the current situation. Have you seen any large-scale humanitarian logistics program in case of war ? Is there a plan to deliver hundreds of tons of basic commodities each week ? Obviously the consequences of the border closure are not anticipated and are not factored in here. If the « planned » military conflict is at the center of the public opinion’s attention, it is also unfortunate to note that refugees receive very little media coverage. Forgotten refugees of today’s context, a situation who presages the ignored refugees of tomorrow…
A few months ago, when the Algerian officials of the consulate in Gao were taken hostage, Algiers threatened to seal off completely the border, an indirect way to put pressure on the MUJWA. After the release of three hostages, Algerian authorities seem to have softened their stance on the issue. Despite the fact that three hostages are still in the hands of the terrorists -and one presumably killed at the beginning of September- the Algerian authorities look like they backed of in their consideration of blocking the cross-border flows.
And it is noteworthy that at his press conference in Algiers, U.S. AFRICOM’s General Carter Ham said this sentence :
« there is a significant humanitarian crisis across the region where people need food and water and other aid, and Algeria has been very, very effective in providing that. »
Allow the continuation of cross-border trade -smuggling included- is a matter of life or death for many civilians in the weakened Sahel. That there is a form of tolerance towards smuggling of essential commodities comes as no surprise. Otherwise, we will see an even greater exodus, with chaos and famine in areas not covered. The current situation suits the Jihadists on the bad side, but this tolerance on smuggling is crucial for the life of hundreds of thousands of people on the good side. Let us not forget them.
NB1: The purpose of this blog is to propose to the reader a different point of view, sometimes contrarian or disruptive thinking. While war drums were heard loudly at the end of September, the risks of this war strategy were pointed at that time regarding the growing recruitment of the Jihadist groups in a new anti-Crusaders Jihad, the poor state of the Malian army and probable war crimes in ethnic cleansing, the bad planned ECOWAS military intervention. While the peace talks were mocked, another article insisted on the difference between International Jihadists and Malian radical Islamists with a local agenda (Goodbye Afghanistan, Hello Mali !). The propagation of the terrorist risk in the continental subregion was also discussed weeks in advance before the kidnappings in Southern Niger and in Western Mali. The avid reader of this blog has probably understood that criticizing the closure of the border is in no way a support to terrorism.
NB2: The title of this post is freely inspired by the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is commonly defined as personality disorder characterized by unusual variability and change of moods. Regarding to Mali and change of attitudes of many actors, this definition finds a new meaning.
Baki @7our Mansour