Experiments in Map-Making

Previously, this blogger complained about popular maps of North Africa as it related to AQIM, particularly in English-speaking media. Below are some rough, experimental maps that attempt to show some of the priorities discussed last week’s post on some of the politics between the various actors in the Maghreb-Sahel region. Nothing here is perfectly depicted or with total accuracy, but they are a start toward … something. [UPDATE: Another map, after the jump.]

1. In the first map represents the priorities discussed in the posts referenced above.  Algeria, Libya and Morocco are colored blue as key actors while other relevant local actors are colored tan. Senegal is not included, though it might be advisable to include that country (as well as Gambia). The black arrows indicate “geopolitical thrusts” and are highlighted to indicate priorities according to understandings of political, economic, social and military efforts as expressed in the posted mentioned above (under “intra-regional squabbling”). The yellow arrows indicate indirect influence or the independent influence of secondary actors.  Because this map is concerned with intra-regional priorities and interests, it does not include the behavior or priorities of western actors directly. The large number of vectors make it … potentially quite confusing.

2. The second map is more detailed. It shows areas where large semi-nomadic or nomadic ethnic groups live in the so-called “un-governed spaces” (or “under-governed spaces”) in the Sahara. It also marks the assorted sedentary and semi-sedentary ethnic groups living south of the Sahara in the Sahel. These are meant to be rough approximations of an exceedingly diverse population. It has some other features, too. The black arrows, as above, indicate “geopolitical thrusts” according to most of the same criteria as those above except that it is meant to show a more generalized orientation especially according to energy and military priorities. The red flashes represent states that have seen AQIM or GSPC attacks; white flashes represent other, non-AQIM rebellions or militant movements/attacks over the last ten to twenty years; yellow bolts represent states with coups d’etats in the last ten to twenty years; the black gas boxes represent current major oil producers; white and black gas boxes represent potential or recent petroleum producers; the axes represent states with important mining activities.

3. The third map is mostly the same as the second, except that it shows forms of government. The small crowds represent states with democratic processes over the last 10-20 years. The with men in suits represent authoritarian states or dictatorships over the last 10-20 years. Those with both indicate transitions or mixed regimes over the same period. It also includes arrows showing regional actors’ interests where European powers are concerned. Again, it represents generalized interests, with the size of each arrow representing the level of priority as discussed in the post on political posturing. Removing the ethnic labels might make this map more usable for other purposes.

4. The fourth map is even more general, but accounts for outside actors. This map is especially concerned with local and outside actors in relation to terrorism and under-governance. But it also attempts to show the global context these issues coexist with and feed from and into. It includes the most relevant extra-regional actors from a economic, military and cultural/religious perspective. They are meant to reflect relative interest and influence in both directions. It is problematic because the “under-governed space” at the center is enhanced only in relation to the ethnic markers and some of the “geopolitical thrusts”; labels for resources (as in maps 2 and 3) might add more understanding where the outside actors are concerned. The non-western actors (except for perhaps South Africa and Nigeria) could go unmentioned and the map would still have relevance where AQIM or under-governance is of interest. They are included mostly to add a broader context, to show the presence of other actors and their supposed impact.


5. This map is, like the one in point 4, concerned with the role of outside actors in the context of the major export-oriented resources — mining and hydrocarbons. As in the maps above, black gas boxes represent current major oil/gas producers/exporters and black white gas boxes represent recent or potential oil/gas producers or exporters. The axes represent where mining is of importance. The position of the “geopolitical thrust” vectors is not intended to point to particular countries but is meant to show the general origin of certain actors geographically and their relative level of interest in the region in relation to each other, generally speaking. 


18 thoughts on “Experiments in Map-Making

  1. Thanks Kal. Your maps complete that or those of MENAS Associates (Keenan) sourced from the link below. Coming also from you, this a confirmation of Tuareg “territory” in the middle like a “Kurdistan” the day they want secession of a state somewhere. This leading me that we will have trouble for the next 10-50 years, particularly when discoveries of gas, oil, uranium and other minarals become a real thing.


    Few suggestions for map 4:

    – to add Russia, Canada and UK as they are there or already preparing to come ….

    – add in the map background the names of countries to allow the reader to know where are the countries. Difficult to distinguish between Niger and Burkina Faso for example.

    As you have rightly said, “.. nothing here is perfectly depicted or with total accuracy, but they are a start toward … something”. Of course it will as this is a rare instance the geostrategic forces are lumped together in the sahel-sahara map.


  2. Recently in Laayoune I spoke to a prominent pro-Moroccan Sahrawi figure. He saw the Sahara conflict as essentially a Moroccan-Algerian one, and argued that the Algerians could live with a solution whereby a 10km band between the territory and Mauritania would be independent/under Algerian control. One of the reasons Algiers backs the Polisario, he said, was that it wants to cut off Moroccan power projection towards sub-Saharan Africa and keep that a privileged zone for Algerian influence.

    Of course I think he exaggerated about the 10km band, but I wonder what you make of this argument.

  3. I think there’s some truth to that.

    Algeria’s African policy is the result of the fact that the Moroccans fair better with the other Arab states. By Algeria’s reckoning there are more African states than Arab ones and they can use these countries to recognize the SADR, to condemn Morocco on a legal basis (“he who has keeps” is an especially African territorial principle that the Moroccans basically reject), and to build Algeria’s prestige as a leader (better to be a first tier leader in Africa than a second or third tier one in the Arab system). They courted the Africans from the 1970s on mostly to discredit Morocco in the developing world. They got the sense early on after independence that if they wanted to square their border and political problems with Morocco the place to do that was in Africa. It lives them leverage over Morocco and its western allies (in their mind).

    I don’t think the Algerians, historically, looked at Africa as a domain of influence that they needed to keep Morocco out of. It became one of their spheres of influence as a result of the rivalry with Morocco as a way to balance Morocco’s standing among the Arab countries like Saudi, Egypt and so on who in their view never really “got” the problem. The Mauritanians had a similar strategy until the middle 1970s in trying to gain support against Morocco’s claims on them. When they resolved the Moroccan problem, that evolved. Africa is traditionally a means, not really an ends in Algerian foreign policy. I mean look at how the Algerians view Angola; they wanted them into OPEC because they wanted another African producer that could help them balance Saudi’s influence on pricing and the like.

    Nowadays, though, SONATRACH is expanding in sub-Saharan Africa and a lot of Algerians are active in the AU system and the UN agencies on the continent; and certain African ambassadorships are highly prized in the foreign ministry (South Africa, Mali, Ethiopia) and military (as attaches). I’m not totally certain, though, what the Algerians would fear from the Moroccans having access to sub-Saharan Africa if the Sahara issue and the other idiotic “political” questions were resolved. The Algerian regime would suffer more from opening the border and having more open trade with Morocco than if Morocco, for instance, joined the AU under some arrangement that settled the Sahara issue. People always say the Algerians use the Sahara as an outlet to the Atlantic or to block Moroccan influence in some other place but I think might have things a little bit backwards. I’m not so sure the why the Algerians would care what the Moroccans do in Africa if the Sahara problem were resolved. AS it stands, Algeria’s influence in “big Africa” gives it more leverage in the Maghreb, which remains dysfunctional as a economic or political “region”.

    Something interesting to think about is also how the different Maghreb states reacted to the Mauritanian coup: Morocco and Libya supported it and the Algerians went bizerk in response (to Morocco) and pulled out all the stops in the AU and tried to deal with it as an African issue (not an Arab or even “Maghreb” one). They were pretty effective at that until the French got wary and AQIM factored in and when the French flipped so did the Americans and the others. The Algerians definitely see Africa as their sphere of influence but I’m not sure where it goes from being a means to an end in itself.

    • If I may throw in my two cents, I’m sure this is one factor in Algerian decision-making, but I don’t think it’s dominant. I’ll explain below, but bear with me.

      First, one should distinguish between the reasons the conflict began and the reasons it continues. The primary reasons involved ideology, coincidence, the preexisting border disputes, and the struggle for hegemony. At that point, I think the Algerians basically saw themselves as being in a sort of defensive posture, still a bit nervous about Hassan’s ambitions on the border, and being all passive-agressive about any move Morocco would make. The major shift towards confrontation came about because Boumedienne felt he didn’t get his cut whe WS was divided up — not territorially, but morally or economically or politically or whatever — and because he thought the creation of a larger Morocco allied to Mauritania (which had switched sides in 1970-1974 from being very pro-Algerian) was dangerous to Algeria. Ideology may have played a part as well, and the prospect of having Libya on his side (= easy win, or so he thought).

      But since then I think the Algerian motives have shifted quite a bit. They’re still complex, though, and there’s no single factor to control policy.

      Mainly, I think people underestimate how differently the sides conceive the status quo. This conflict is *MUCH* cheaper for Algeria than for Morocco.

      The Algerians are able to keep playing it at the current level almost indefinitely, with very little effort, while Moroccan diplomats scurry about frantically in international forums to keep WS off the table, and the palace has invested massive resources in the territory, and so on.

      The African angle plays into this: as long as the conflict goes on, Morocco is effectively shut out of its natural sphere of influence, namely Africa. It particularly loses direct territorial links with the western-central Sahara and West Sahel, old areas of influence for the Alaouites. You see that now very clearly in the AQIM campaign, where Algeria has tried to knit together a Saharan-Sahelian alliance of sorts of local states. It pointedly excludes Morocco due to its lack of territorial access, meaning because of WS. It’s perhaps also a reason the Algerians were so furious over the Abdelaziz coup in Mauritania, as it was seen as helping Morocco to leapfrog over the WS in some ways.

      So what are the costs to Algeria? It spends a large portion of its diplomatic capital, at the expense of other issues, but far from all of it (which Morocco more or less does). It also pays money and resources to keep Polisario fat and happy, but nothing huge (foreign aid funds refugee subsistence). There’s an economical cost incurred by the border closure also, but it’s seen as far more problematic for Morocco (and likely is); that’s why they want to keep it shut, to increase the assymmetry of financial stress. Lastly there’s the rather more significant cost of keeping a military edge over Morocco as the baseline of its posture in the Sahara. But they’d buy tons of guns with or without the WS dispute, since being military supremo of the Maghreb has always been core in Algeria’s ambition for regional leadership (Boumediene’s “Prussia of the Maghreb”); and they also have to out-arm Libya as a matter of course, to avoid competition. So while there’s a real cost incurred there, the Sahara doesn’t make up for it all.

      Sum total: the Algerians see the status quo as somewhat costly to them but totally bearable, esp. now that they’re flush with hydrocarbon cash. On the plus side, it allows them to pin down their only credible regional rival and, as an added bonus, buys them a slim chance of getting a pro-Algerian regime in the WS in some distant future. Under present conditions, unless they get a tangible benefit and can somehow declare victory without political risk to themselves, they won’t let go. Why should they?

      Any resolution of the conflict that isn’t clearly to Algeria’s benefit involves breaking with this semi-comfortable status quo, and conceding dishonorable defeat (visavi the population, but esp. WITHIN the army), upsetting internal power relations (army-presidency etc). And most of all: it necessarily involves making a leap of faith and hoping that their most distrusted arch-rival — Morocco — will uphold its part of whatever deal has been struck. Even if they accepted everything else, that is not an easy thing to sell in Algiers, given almost permanent conflict since 1962.

      This is the key error in Western strateg, which has for so long rested on the idea that oh, one day Algeria will see the light.

      The one way to break the status quo on the Algerian side is by overpowering political pressure. Economical pressure is out of the question (oil), and so is military (go figure). And given that they didn’t so much as budge in the 90s, when they were a political pariah, and given how the pouvoir generally reacts when challenged (hell and fury), I just don’t see how that could ever happen. Especially not when they have oil and everyone wants it.

      Lastly, what *COULD* upset all this is internal stuff. Some crisis in the government that spins out of control, splits the regime or demands immediate foreign support. But I don’t see that as very likely, and although it could affect WS policy, it certainly won’t happen as a result of it. All sides appear to agree on the benefits of the present policy and the risks involved in changing it.

    • Also, Kal —

      I’d say Algerian Africa policy has firmer pre-WS roots than you’re arguing here. In the 60s and early 70s they were very supportive of liberation movements and spent a lot of effort cultivating ties with “progressive” African regimes. That’s been a mixed ideological/soft power policy all along.

      In fact, I think WS has been perhaps the single biggest handicap to their influence in Africa, since they’re so focused on RASD recognition and such. There was considerable ill-will against Algeria (and Libya, even more) in the early 80s when the question of seating the RASD in the OAU threatened to split the union. Of course, they won that conflict, and then Morocco withdrew, basically surrendering the OAU/AU to Algeria.

      So here too, the sum is that WS is costly to Algeria (more so in Africa than most places) but it’s far more costly to Morocco. So in the end, that’s fine, even if it hobbles them.

      This is likely to be their view for as long as they see their relations with Morocco as both zero-sum and as the most important part of their foreign policy.

      • Thanks for the cents. Issandr’s now got four (not counting his Moroccan pal’s).

        I think if you re-read my response to Issandr’s post you’ll see there’s a short hand version of what you’ve written at length here. I don’t in disagree with any of what you’ve written except in terms of emphasis or accent in some areas.

        But where I’d part with you is WS as a “handicap”; from a process standpoint, sure. But over all I think it cements them in the African state system in a way that wouldn’t be possible if Morocco participated in the region and on the continent more fully. And I think you understate the degree to which early animosity between Morocco and Algeria helped drive its policy in Africa in the pre-Sahara War years. And its important to remember that the Algerians were especially impacted when the Arabs got wishy washy over the border dispute in 63. Beyond the support for liberation movements and the “progressive” posture, there was a concerted effort to make sure that the Moroccans had no legal basis to be poking around at other peoples’ borders on the continent, hence the commitment to African institutions that directly contradict the Moroccan position at multiple levels (and also less interest in a lot of the nonsense the eastern Arabs pretend to accomplish). At a psychological level, that anxiety has driven Algerian policy since the border war and Boumediene’s support for the Polisario comes partly out of that. There is a lot of paranoia and

        I agree with your assessment of the current stalemate, especially where the notion that accepting any of the BS proposals from the Moroccans and the Americans, French, et al will ever convince the Algerians to get on with a settlement. The Moroccans are running a fast, obnoxious and dangerous propaganda campaign in the States re: linking the Polisario to AQIM. Putting out crummy articles on MoroccoBoard, press releases from sleazy think tanks, etc. — giving bad advice and misinforming the national interest. A terrible scandal buried only because WS ranks so low on the list of priorities here so nobody has an interest in picking it up (but also enabled b/c people aren’t paying attention). Not that the Algerians are any better (they’re busy with even worse stuff). Need more sensible people writing on it in English. Hint. Hint.

      • Kal — This is a response to your comment below, where for some reason I can’t find a “reply” button.

        I wasn’t arguing against you in the long (very long, I see now) comment above, I think we’re mostly in agreement there.

        On Algeria-AU, perhaps you’re right. WS has certainly been instrumental in keeping Morocco out as a player, and that’s very helpful for Algeria. On the other hand, why has it worked this way? I don’t think isolating Morocco through WS was an Algerian goal at the outset. It mostly came about because Morocco itself over-reacted and cut ties to African politics. All in all, I think withdrawing from the OAU was one of Morocco’s biggest diplomatic blunders ever, and the Algerians must have been pleasantly surprised. They’ve been cashing in on it ever since. (In contrast, if Hassan had stayed in the union, Algeria & RASD could have been in all sorts of trouble when their influence waned in the 90s.)

        Then again, you’re absolutely right about how the pre-WS rivalry with Morocco helped drive Algeria’s African policy in the beginning, and also did a lot to bolster Algeria’s standing in Africa. But much of that was because of the type of issue involved: colonial borders. Western Sahara is of the same stripe, but there’s less of a direct interest for many African countries, so not everyone will be convinced. The effort Algeria puts into WS wouldn’t really have corresponded to what it could receive back on an African level, unless Morocco had gone off on a tangent. Now, the game has shifted, and since 1984 WS helps Algeria keep Morocco locked out of African politics.

        Finally, on the POLISARIO-is-AQIM PR campaign, I agree of course. This ranks up with the “POLISARIO is trafficking Sahrawi children to Cuba for sex slavery” idiocy they’re selling to the Miami lobby (also to impressive effect). Nothing unique to Morocco to try and link your enemies to AQ, but what stands out is to what extent is has worked, as you say, because no one in the target audience really cares — it’s all lobby driven. The AQ factor (in its retard version, POLISARIO = AQ, or the slightly more sophisticated version, WS = terrorist haven) seems to be a major factor in how the US Congress has pronounced on the matter lately.

        Finally, for the hints: thanks, but you’re doing a such a swell job already. We’ll see, though, maybe later.

  4. Kal,

    Don’t know if this is relevant to your map. This is from the site of Radio France Internationale (RFI) of today. Perhaps the China arrow on your maps should be thicker. China is very clever: no fuss about corruption, just business. The number is likely to be growing. In Mauritania for instance, the Chinese shopkeeper talk to you in Hassaniya when you shop in his shop. They have already a Business School in Ghana. Wondering if I should try to convince my son to go there, instead of trying Harvard that I can’t afford. Things are changing!


  5. Good! To see all those arrows going in every direction it seems that these forecasts of silting the Sahel region. But in truth, this is no different from that.

    The Sahel is becoming a tornado where nobody seems to see the eye of the cyclone.

    We should not blame the powerful states to seek to defend their interests in this area, even if by collateral effects, it is detrimental to small states of the Sahel.

    I think without being pessimistic, if these important maps show something is the complexity of a problem that will not be resolved any time soon.

    And the reasons are not looking for a factual representation of events in the Sahel (congregations infiltrated tribal, clan blankets, hostages, ransom, armed factions, detention and murder of European nationals), but effective representation of the real roots of problem.

    Indeed, the visual representation of the Sahel problem has a big interest to demonstrate the dimension of the phenomenon and help to develop a strategy to contain it, which in itself is a good thing.

    But, as said: that’s not counting the branches of the tree to cut, forgetting his roots, which we expect to achieve a lasting solution. The tree still grows back.

    What is needed, in my humble opinion, is to solve the source of the problem of the violence that emerges in the Sahel. Now, alas! media effects generated by AQIM in the Sahel are unfortunately trying to hide the real reasons of this situation.

    These reasons include the following:

    – The struggle for influence, latent, directly and indirectly from Algeria, Morocco and Libya in the sub region
    – The interference of Western powers
    – The poverty of the Sahel populations that benefit AQIM
    – The unshared policy of the leaders of the Sahel countries and corruption of their military and security systems;
    – The size of the Sahel band that none of the Sahel countries can not control.

    – The bad faith of some leaders of the sub region

    – The situation of a multifaceted AQIM which includes both bandits and religious fanatics
    – The control of natural resources and the madness of those (formal and informal) who wants to monopolize them. Some by arms, by treachery or corruption and intelligence with foreign powers.

    The list of root causes is long. But it has the advantage of emphasizing that to focus the analysis on “the problem AQIM” distorts the analysis.

    Indeed, AQIM is not the “problem”. The problem is the socio-political environment in which regional AQIM evolving and that it grows in a soil suitable for ensuring its existence and growth.

    This “good” soil consists of all the above reasons.

    In fact, AQIM suits many interests unsaid. It is with those who have the interest to look for the solution.

    Tackling AQIM is futile. AQIM is elusive. It is a nebulous dissolved in the desert, the tribes and clans.

    The strategy is not to attack a virus elusive, but to address its vector. The virus is multifaceted, its vector, however, is identifiable.

  6. Professor ELY MOUSTAPHA,

    The virus’vector has been identified long ago. The problem is that no one is honest enough to point the finger at it. Everyone fearing it will blow on its face once spoken about it, in particular if you are a Head of State or a Junta Leader.

    Where did Abu Zeid and Belaouar earned PhDs to prepare winning AQIM strategies against powerful states? None of them never attended good military academies where they teach you how to make a false flag.

    AQIM is manipulated by very strong states and there is nothing Mali, Mauritania or Niger can do about it, besides “masser” the damned vector “dans le sens des poils”.

  7. This is to confirn Iran’s arrow in Kal’s map. If they are involved in insurgency in Irak, then they will have hard time to establish themselves in the Sahara-sahel region. Already linked to the FARCAIDA (FARC-AQMI) connection by Reuters and indirectly by the UN Drug control Programme that, someone said in a blog, is forced to say so because it relies on US contribution to work. Who knows? Any news about those three malian crooks arrested in Ghana and shipped to the US for a trial over the connection FARC-AQMI-Hezbollah? News appear and disappear ….



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