Geopolitical Actors in the Maghreb-Sahel

1.1 Framework: Geopolitical Actors in the Maghreb-Sahel: First, Second and Third Tier Actors and Fragmentary Actors

This post is the first in a series on the broad geopolitics of the Maghreb and Sahel.

The key international actors in the Maghreb-Sahel fall into four categories. These groupings are meant to reflect broad the broad, relative influence and interest of major world actors in the region but not equality of power per se. It is possible for political actors to exercise influence at the same level and not be equals in power in absolute, global terms. Their relative interest and effectiveness in the region is diverse. It must also be said that economic power is a driver of political power but that political (which includes economic and social power) action is not always strictly beholden to economic power.

First are the region’s states themselves, key European Union actors such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy separately and in concert, and the United States. These actors represent what will be called the First Tier Actors in terms of strategic influence. These are actors whose influence in the region is both political and economic and sufficiently strong that it can be divided between the two spheres – a First Tier Actor can pursue economic objectives in one direction while pressing political objectives in another direction. The European stateson their own, except for France or Spain, would not be able to qualify as First Tier Actors; their collective power becomes more relevant as part of the European Union. Powers like Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and the rest would be Second Tier actors (see below) were they forced to relate to the region as whole on their own. What sets the actors apart from others is the magnitude of their humanitarian, economic and military aid and relationships with the Maghreb-Sahel states and that they attach questions of governance and human rights to the rhetoric and conduct of their policy in the region. Their main interests are in energy and mineral resources, natural gas, uranium and the security of these resources (and migration for the European states). Some of these powers will become less influential with time due to economic and domestic forces, France especially. Others may increase in relative interest as solar energy becomes more important. These actors are often former colonial powers or major world powers currently and will remain so through the medium term; the United States is likely to increase its role in the region in the same period, as it has in the last ten. The local actors operate within a flexible geopolitical sub-region discussed in more detail in the next section.

The next set of actors are major emerging or otherwise important actors with more limited political influence such as China and Russia. These Second Tier Actors are of great importance in world politics but their political influence in the Maghreb-Sahel is less well developed than the First Tier Actors and they generally do not or cannot parse their political and economic objectives. Thus, their economic objectives are their political objectives when dealing with local actors. This is the result of insufficient resources, skill or interest. Thus Russia must use its economic interests in terms of its political objectives and cannot separate the two because their overall influence over a local actor would be diminished. China, as one of the region’s largest trading partners, could hypothetically exercise significant political influence in the region but as of yet has not attempted to do so in the way the First Tier Actors have explicitly. Both dutifully avoid ideological posturing over human rights or governance issues. They maintain a non-interventionist posture toward most changes of power, legal or illegal, and play by Westphalian rules — cuius regio, eius religio. They exert very limited cultural or “soft-power” in the American sense, though they have begun to create business schools which may increase their psychological power in the region as has been the case with the French military academies and metropolitan schools. These countries have had long-standing diplomatic and economic relations with the region and often have provided important military aid and training but have seen some of this decline or change in recent years. The First Tier Actors often view them as potential competition, particularly France and the United States. China is a major trading partner for Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and Libya especially; in the Libyan case it is a primary consumer of that country’s hydrocarbon exports. The Chinese are involved mainly in pursuit of raw materials and resources for their own internal development, though they occasionally use the region (as well as other parts of the developing world) as a place to send farmers and laborers crowded out from their home markets. It is likely that in the short to medium term China will become a more active power in the region’s politics and thus a First Tier Actor. Russia, a main supplier of European natural gas, has sought to expand its presence and influence in the region in order to limit the strategic depth of European states looking to diversify their supplies.

Next are the Third Tier Actors, emerging markets and powers like Brazil, South Africa Iran, Turkey, India and the Gulf Arab states. These states exercise episodic and discreet or limited economic influence in the Maghreb-Sahel, often in terms of definite economic interests or generalized political objectives that are less about the region specifically than the service they do for the prestige or limited purpose of the Third Tier Actors. They have often only recently opened embassies in the region and, in the case of Iran and Brazil, view their engagement with the region as a way of establishing or expanding their political legitimacy internationally. Iran has set up car plants and scientific facilities in some parts of the region, demonstrating its place as a potential source of important investment. The Gulf States exercise cultural and economic influence toward similar ends, with some religious missionary goals which have had important cultural implications in the last twenty years especially. These actors generally fit Parag Khanna’s description of “second world” powers and their importance and influence is rising.

Finally there are the Fragmentary Actors. These are non-state actors with revisionist objectives. Because the Maghreb-Sahel states are post-colonial constructions with borders that do not, in general, relate to the ethnic or social make of the populations they govern people in the border regions often hold out hopes for independence or autonomy from their capitals. Many of the Fragmentary Actors accept the overall sovereignty of the post-colonial states in the Maghreb-Sahel but demand a greater distribution of rent from their countries’ natural wealth in uranium or oil. This is especially true in the case of many militant factions among Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs, Malian Arabs (also called “Moors”), black Mauritanians and the Saharawis of the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara (who will be mentioned specifically in the paragraph). Some of these peoples have taken up arms in hopes of changing their region’s geography, notably the Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs and Arabs in the 1960s, 1990s and recently in 2007-2009. These groups operate predominantly in the “under-governed spaces” on the Algeria-Libya-Mali-Niger-Mauritania border region which includes the Azaouad and Kidal regions in northwestern Mali and northern Mali and Niger, respectively, as well as the Air Mountains in northern Niger.

This framework does not include the Algerian-supported Polisario Front, the national liberation faction that has fought and agitated for the independence of the Western Sahara since 1974. The reasoning is as follows: the Polisario Front is focused chiefly on establishing and maintaining a nation-state in the territory of the Western Sahara and has established a state in exile (the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic or SADR) at the Saharaoui refugee camps at Tinduf, Algeria and has representation in international organizations and is treated as a “state” by Algeria and is treated in international for a as the sole representative of the Saharawi people. Rather than a non-state actor, the SADR perceives itself as an embryonic state state actor in the vein of the Algerian National Liberation From (FLN) from 1954-1962 or the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Furthermore, the neither the Polisario Front nor the SADR can be  classified as a terrorist organization by any conventional definition. Its primary object is to achieve and maintain international legitimacy as a political actor rather and its position is to involve and integrate into the international system of nation states rather than to overthrow it.

The Fragmentary Actors also include Islamist groups that hope to establish Islamic states after overthrowing the existing regimes – such as the Algerian Armed Islamic Group and Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) or the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The militant Islamist actors reject the fundamental legitimacy of the states in which they live and hope to alter them by some means. Most of these at least began as parochial movements intent on affecting change in the borders of one country did not have especially global or extra-regional ambitions, though many were led by Afghan Arabs who had fought as moudjahidine during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This changed with the creation of AQIM in 2006-2007, when the first expressly internationalist jihadist group in the Maghreb-Sahel emerged out of the Algerian GSPC  becoming al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Traffickers and smugglers in drugs, cigarettes, weapons and people also qualify as Fragmentary Actors, though more loosely than the politically motivated organizations. Trafficking and smuggling cartels often overlap with the militarized groups discussed above, due to tribal connections or economic imperatives. One of AQIM’s Saharan leaders Mokhtar Belmokhtar, for example, is a well known cigarette smuggler known indicatively as “Mr. Marlboro.” These elements of the informal economy operate horizontally within regional sub-state networks and often hierarchically as well, by cultivating relationships with military and security officials who tolerate their activities if they do not actively partake in and facilitate them. Military commanders in Algeria, Mauritania and Mali are known to take small a cut from the drug traffickers here or the cigarette movers there which has made many of them wealthy contributes to the deterioration of state power on the frontiers. In this sense they reflect the region’s social and economic underdevelopment more than they do contempt for state institutions or identities. Their position is thus more negotiable than that of rigidly ideological groups like AQIM.

This category of actors must be understood with great attention and caution, for overstating their agency and misidentifying their particular intentions risks creating and applying dangerous stereotypes to many beleaguered peoples with very legitimate worldviews. The category as whole is only meant to refer to organized forces of political rebells, terrorists, drug traffickers and others whose operations result from or depend on the weakness of the five border region and whose objective it is to maintain that weakness in order facilitate their political or economic objectives. It is concerned only with non-state actors. It could, by a great stretch, also include the physical and climactic environment itself especially because it is so subject to change and effects the economic conditions that frequently give rise to movements and displacements of populations leading to the conflicts in which Fragmentary Actors are engaged. In the last thirty years, drought has forced many nomads to move across borders or to new regions for grazing or to settle down all together on repeated occasions. Aquifers have been overused and contaminated by mining in some places contributing to illness and violence. All these factors must be considered at the same time.

The salient point about these the Fragmentary Actors’ existence is that many of the same factors which help to create their grievances with local governments are also the ones that make their struggle against their perceived oppressors possible: physical and political isolation and institutional weakness resulting from the spaciality of the border regions themselves. To exert physical control from the settled southern regions of Mauritania, Mali and Niger or even the more densely populated north of Algeria and Libya would require far heavier investment in paved roads, air transport and motor vehicles than many of these states can afford, or believe they need relative to the overall population of the Saharan sector of the Maghreb-Sahel. Thus chronic neglect and underdevelopment feeds into criminality and a lack of solidarity in the frontier regions producing alienation. This problem is more severe in the southern Sahel states than in Algeria, Libya or Morocco because they have relatively more resources to expend on critical infrastructure and human development, but their borders remain porous and reconnaissance capacities remain limited still. The existence of the Fragmentary Actors is a direct result of many forces related to globalization and the weakening of the territorial nation-state model and the identities associated with it in the post-Cold War period in general (“de-territorialization”), and is not particular or specific to the Maghreb-Sahel.

Lastly, it should be said that multinational corporations, especially in the extractive industries, are of enormous importance in the Maghreb-Sahel. But these cannot be considered independently as they operate in service of state powers, sometimes in the region and sometimes outside of it. They are considered agents of state actors rather than independent actors in themselves. In the strongest states state energy firms dictate the terms of engagement for multinational oil companies, while in the weakest ones like Niger there is a higher degree of impunity for Frech and Chinese firms. In all these cases their presence is designed to enhance the place of states and while they often operate mostly with a mind to profit they do this while serving the interests of states and could not carry on if their activities were not considered in the national interest by the right political powers.

µ The graphics seen in this series of posts can be viewed on TheMoorNextDoor SlideShare account.


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