1.2 Toward a Concept: Geopolitical characteristics of the Maghreb-Sahel sub-region
This post is the second in a series on the broad geopolitics of the Maghreb and Sahel.
While all the states in the Maghreb-Sahel region operate as part of the broad international system and are affected especially by political, economic and social trends in regions in their immediate vicinity — in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Americas and beyond — none of these hold an exclusive hold on any one aspect of life in the region. All of these factors are layered and often episodic. Thus, it is difficult to make sense of the region in terms of strict “civilizational” constructs in the vein of Huntington. John Agnew illustrates this problem well:
All of the states in the Maghreb-Sahel are Muslim by tradition, although they retain important pre-Islamic elements as well. At a cultural level they share very much in common with Muslims elsewhere but as much if not more with each other and with non-Muslims in Africa and Europe at the economic and political level. Understanding the region as a “fault line” in Huntington’s terms is also unhelpful, as it would distract from the secular and political causes of conflict in the region. In Thomas P. M. Barnett’s language the region’s wealthiest states are “seam states” in between the global “core” and “periphery” — its weakest states are deep in the gap. An understanding of the region in this sense must be pragmatic and account for important cultural variables as they relate to political and economic ones. Rather than finding a clash between an “African” and “Islamic” or “Islamic” and “western” civilization, one finds competition between humans over all the things there is to compete over anywhere else in the world and very little of it has to do with religion as such. Religion explains relatively little when placed in the same picture as economic and secular political forces. As much as can be gained from Mackinder or Spykman’s understandings of world geopolitics strategic thinking ends up lost where the desert is concerned.
One finds the same variety of non-agreements and disagreements and conflicts of interests, rights and duties that exist in all regions in all times. These is nothing particular or peculiar about the ones that take place in the Maghreb-Sahel although in places they carry idiosyncracies that must be understood on their own terms. It does not represent a “civilization” or a pan-region but instead a nexus where a variety of broad interests meet and sometimes conflict. The Maghreb-Sahel is not merely Europe’s southern frontier as Parag Khanna has it or a subject region whose dynamics are determined chiefly by power relationships in Eurasia. In a multi-polar geopolitical environment, the region needs to be understood as a living one where agency moves hierarchically and horizontally and decisions are the result of dynamics inside the Maghreb-Sahel as well as those in Washington, Paris, Beijing and elsewhere. It is a series of fluid and dynamic power relationships that relate to various outside actors simultaneously. And the character of those relations is evolving with the rest of the world system.
The Maghreb-Sahel states operate all together in a broad and flexible geopolitical sub-region, along three inter-connecting axes:
- A northern east-west Maghreb Axis between Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco — the sum total of the absolute and relative national power of the Maghreb states and their international partners among the First, Second and Third Tier actors and their interactions with one another;
- A southern east-west Sahel Axis between Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali and Niger — the sum total of the absolute and relative national power of the Sahel states and their international partners among the First, Second and Third Tier actors and their interactions with one another;
- A central north-south Saharan Axis between the collection of states in the south and the north and their Saharan populations and important non-state actors — the sum of the absolute and relative power of the states of the Maghreb and Sahel Axes and their international partners among the First, Second and Third Tier actors minus the sum total of the absolute and relative political, social, economic, cultural and power of the Fragmentary actors.
It is possible for these axes to expand or contract according to how state actors identify their political or economic objectives. They are drawn mainly to reference the climactic outline of the region and the prioritization of regional relations in the capitals of the Maghreb-Sahel states, as well as the areas in which the expend their resources. It may be possible to include Chad, Nigeria or Senegal in the Sahel Axis depending on how they could serve the overall analysis. The Maghreb and Sahel axes are where official control and nationalism toward central governments (and the State) are strongest; on the Saharan Axis these elements are more complex though not necessarily weaker in and of them selves. The interactions between the Maghreb and Sahel Axes at the state to state level connect the region’s governmental politics over all. The sum of the interactions between the elements on these three axes make up the Maghreb-Sahel geopolitical sub-system.
The Maghreb Axis reflects the relationship between Algeria, Libya and Morocco. While Yahia Zoubir has described the Maghreb in terms of tripolarity within a four state system (made up of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania), in the broader context Tunisia is a more minor actor; when Mauritania is considered regionally it becomes relatively more significant when considered between the Maghreb and the Sahel. Tunisia must be considered as an economic hub, though, for it has a more diverse and healthy economy than any of its neighbors and the high quality of its human capital routinely attracts important investments not possible elsewhere in the region and it is an important pipeline transit point, but it projects no power beyond its borders. As Zoubir notes this region has no “hegemon” and Algeria fears of Moroccan expansionism, resulting from a 1963 border conflict ad the 1975 Western Sahara War contribute to continued hostilities as Algeria recognizes the independence of the Western Sahara while Morocco claims it as its southern provinces. Algeria secured the Western Sahara’s membership in the African Union, causing Morocco to leave the organization. This has left Morocco isolated from continental organizations and helped to stalemate the Arab Maghreb Union, a stillborn trade block including Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya and Tunisia. Algeria relies on the isolation of Morocco to credit its legitimacy and influence on the continent, especially in Mali and Mauritania. Libya has increasingly looked to the Sahel, especially Burkina Faso as a way of exercising influence over regional conflicts and politics. By using money and arms to aid various factions in Niger, Ivory Coast and Liberia, Libya has become continental actor in the last ten years. Morocco has seen its overall influence in the region decline as a result of the Western Sahara stalemate but it maintains the closest military relationship with important First Tier Actors like the United States and France. Algeria has in recent years been a major ally of the United States where terrorism is concerned though other states in the region resent Algeria’s domineering posture and are skeptical of its intentions. The Algerians speculate as to the competence of their neighbors and the efficacy of conspicuous foreign involvement.
The southern Sahel Axis is defied by the activities of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. It could include potentially northward geopolitical activity from Nigeria and Senegal as well. Each of these states projects control over the Sahara from capitals located in predominantly sedentary southern regions. Except for Mauritania, they are predominantly black African and Francophone, though mostly Arab Mauritania has a large black minority. (Here “black” is meant to refer to mainly sedentary ethnic groups such as the Bambara, Wolof, Fulani, Hausa and Songhai peoples.) They were French colonies until roughly 1960 and their borders are generally arbitrary especially in the far north. These countries are smaller in population, poorer and less developed than the countries in the north but share similar problems on their frontiers with the Maghreb states. These states were previously or are currently led by military men or juntas and have suffered from severe drought and famine in the last thirty years. The resulting rural-urban and north-south/east-west migrations have caused important social and economic trauma. They suffer from severe complications related to food security and are particularly vulnerable to climate change. State power in the Maghreb and Sahel states extends on a gradient scale, dark near capital and light along borders. This is less evidence of the failure of state institutions in the popular sense than the limitations of centralized rule in a difficult physical environment, and a reminder that territorial and spacial control is a question of degree.
Their militaries have varying degrees of professionalism and they differ from the Maghreb states in that their systems of conscription are more selective than universal for financial reasons. They receive foreign military assistance from western countries, especially France and America, and occasionally Algeria, Morocco or Libya, to patrol their Saharan borders with each other and their northern neighbors. They face significant human development challenges and are among the poorest countries on earth. Hypothetically, strong states like Algeria or Libya might be able to dominate the weak, poor states in the Sahel (Libya has in the past attempted to absorb northern Chad, mostly with embarrassing results). But the Sahara desert presents challenges that diminish their ability to make military or economic threats, in pursuit of political objectives. In the past French and American intervention has made aggressive activity from the north generally futile as can be seen in the Libya-Chad wars, when the Libyans were badly routed by Chad. Moroccan claims on its southern neighbors in the 1960s eventually became restricted to the Western Sahara rather than northern Mali and Mauritania, mostly the result of practical and political considerations. The states in both the Maghreb and the Sahel view the ethereal character of their Sahara frontiers as a potential threat to their overall internal security. While these states at times quarrel with one another and their northern neighbors, economic and political imperatives shared across the whole region and others injected by outside actors help to stabilize state-state relations (and sometimes to further damage them). For leaders in both the Maghreb and the Sahel, regime security is the highest political priority and thus there is a norm in favor of respect for colonial borders that has evolved over time, which are generally raised only opportunistically if at all. This serves to stabilize the political classes’ hold on power power but has the effect of alienating peoples that were neglected when these borders were drawn.
The Saharan Axis is comprised of the interactions between local Fragmentary Actors and the central governments of countries in the Maghreb and Sahel axes; it reflects the spaciality problem reflected by territorial analyses of the region. The governments of the northern and southern governments interact with one another in terms of their legal territories that, as mentioned above, do not totally reflect the spaciality of their control on their frontiers. The understanding of the state in terms of a set of institutions ruling or managing a society defined by strict geographic borders is problematized by the reality of many post-colonial states made up of multiple societies over which states exercise control on a gradient scale (as said before) rather than borders drawn with a straight edge. The Maghreb-Sahel region can be visualized as a series of capital cores projecting power and control outward toward a common, overlapping periphery. That common periphery is the Saharan Axis.
The Saharan Axis is the pentad border region where regional governments exercise the most limited control over territorial space. The territorial nation-state and the territorial empire uses its core to project economic and cultural power narratives out on to peoples on its edges. This requires roads and other means of commerce and communication. A lack of adequate infrastructure and resources makes it difficult for governments in the Maghreb-Sahel to accomplish this and they must often compete with pre-colonial and nationalist counter-narratives. The countries on the northern axis, by virtue of their larger infantries and more advanced air forces, may exercise potentially more control on a more regular basis. Additionally, Algeria and Libya have larger numbers of long, paved north to south roads linking their key garrisons and power centers to their southern populations (Maps 1-4). The states on the southern axis have fewer and less well kept roads leading north to south. This asymmetry is also reflected in the placement of airstrips and airports: while Algeria has multiple medium capacity airports in its Saharan provinces – 143 in total of which 57 are paved. For contrast, Mali has 20 in total of which 12 are unpaved; Mauritania has 28 in total of which 19 are unpaved airstrips. Of all these states, Algeria possesses the largest inventory of military combat and transport aircraft. Maps 5-8 show the position of key airports in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. The main airstrips in northern Mali and Mauritania are often adequate, but the remotest ones lack a strong or consistent government presence, and their air patrol capabilities are extremely limited. (The most remote airstrips sometimes used by militaries are unfortunately not represented.) Their militaries rely chiefly on armored Toyota pickup trucks for ground transport, which provide for high mobility but their effectiveness is often limited by their inability to collect information about AQIM or smuggler positions, as was highlighted during the July and September engagements between the Mauritanian and Malian armies and AQIM along their northern borders. These Toyota “cavalry” units faced similarly outfitted AQIM combatants who inflicted heavy losses after being bated into ambushes brought on by incomplete intelligence about the location of enemy positions which might have been averted had they a stronger areal reconnaissance capacity by way of making efficient use of helicopters or small aircraft. Even more troublesome is that the region’s states do not cooperate effectively in deploying forces or providing information, undermining joint efforts and risking further instability.
These technical limitations combine with organizational inefficiencies to illustrate how control declines as distance from the core increases. At the same time, young people in northern Mali frequently note that they know some one who has been fired on by Algerian gunships while running cigarettes or other products across the border, which is at times a source of tension for tribes. The same youths, however, remark that when they happen upon Malian or Algerian border patrolmen on the ground they can easily escape trouble by bribery or humor.
What is more is that the Saharan peoples, perhaps more than the urban and sedentary peoples, operate according to a system of tribal and social norms that transcend borders and many instances ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Kinships and loyalties carry over long distances and have remote origins that are frequently ignored by the Napoleonic Code, settled shari’ah and international law. Thus Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara, Mauritania and other Saharan regions was rejected by the International Court of Justice and and has been even more aggressively spurned by the governments of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and most of the African Union. The customary legal and social practices in the Sahara region are mirrored by attempts by Berbers in northeastern Algeria to incorporate tribal custom into legal proceedings in northeastern Algeria; they are applied practically on a semi-regular basis but create conflict with the mechanisms of control projected by central governments. Reconciling this friction is done especially by passive toleration, cooperative legal integration, or incorporation official rejection, if not “settlement,” and local rebellion — with numerous combinations and alternative possibilities. Most often central governments try to leverage and balance traditional elites to their benefit; this form of notable politics works best when other factors from within the state or the environment do not intervene. Unfortunately, drought, famine, migration, careless mining and neglect have made this all more difficult in recent years.
The way leaders in capitals and the peripheries manage physical isolation, economic stagnation, the effects of climate change and socio-political isolation are the key determinants in how the Saharan Axis relates to the Maghreb and Sahel axes. This in turn is critical to the overall situation in the region. The degree of control regional states exert on their borders versus the degree of control dissident factions or terrorist groups can exert is key to an overall understanding of the region’s power politics. It is easy to over state the “control” of a non-state actor in northern Mali or Niger if other important factors are not considered. AQIM does not “control” vast swathes of territory anymore than Tuareg factions or states do. Control is about the ability to quickly project force over a necessary distance. The Sahara’s geography makes this difficult, though not impossible for actors projecting from the outside. States and non-state actors have areas of operations in the Sahara more than they zones of control. States have the greater capacity and potential to hold such areas consistently than do the weakest non-state actors like AQIM. And they also have a better time a coaxing ordinary locals and Fragmentary Actors to their side, as these peoples suffer economically from AQIM’s presence as it scares off tourists and investors and brings state violence into the region.
The Saharan region is thus a key zone in the geopolitics of the overall Maghreb-Sahel sub-region. Most geopolitical influences moving through the region as a whole are north-south – strong Maghreb governments exerting power south in order to enforce their borders and actors from the global north using military and development aid to build state capacity in the Sahel states’ Saharan regions. The possibility of using of selective spatial controls by a Maghreb axis state – decreasing or increasing the number of men at border posts, frequency of helicopter or fixed wing patrols, etc. – would offer it a way of impacting events in the Sahara region and thus the Sahel states. Efforts to improve the quality and reach of major road systems would do even more, presumably.
Algeria has attempted to maintain the imbalance in north-south relations by centralizing regional counterterrorism and intelligence sharing efforts on its territory in the southern Tamanrasset Province. Algeria hosted several regional summits and established a joint counterterrorism center in hopes of keeping “external” militaries out of the region, which has caused tension with Mali and Mauritania who have undertaken important cooperative efforts with the United States and France. This posture represents a distinct effort to use securitization as a way of asserting south-north discourse from the Maghreb-Sahel states (Algeria’s position has been supported by Mauritania in the past) but is also reflects a collective action problem in which not all of the Maghreb-Sahel state see a benefit in a narrowly regional security process whilst they can take part in various western programs directed the same goal with while receiving more resources, and as western securitization programs become increasingly linked to development aid the First Tier Actors can leverage elements of power not available to strong local states.
Thus the region faces serious challenges to state and human security. The region’s states face three rough layers of challenges: Elite rivalry, development challenges and challenges to regime legitimacy. These are managed within the respective political systems of the region in different ways. In the sense that elite rivalry is basically the struggle for the division of power between the most empowered groups in society and relative regime legitimacy is the means by which elite and non-elite factions relate to and perceive one another, development can be seen as the social and economic result of these two elements for the whole of society.
More factors circle around these three systemic questions. They are complicated by security problems resulting from mismanagement and a lack of state capacity and changes in social safety networks. These quandaries overlap with and can exacerbate one another. Globalization and foreign interference in the way of international cultural and religious influences (from television, education, military assistance and missionary activities), international and regional economic trends, climate crises and so on. Terrorism feeds off of political and social troubles brought on by failure or stagnation in the economic sphere and the de-territorialization of ethnic and religious identity brought on by globalization and nationalist tendencies.
While the majority of Maghreb-Sahel states are legally unitary, with capital city cores projecting control downwards and hierarchically to provinces and districts, their reality is more horizontal. The majority of them accept and exist under the principle of uti possidetis, declaring that the legal and valid boundaries of their post-colonial states are co-terminous with historical colonial boundaries. Their relative control over space extends from the primary capital core and its economic and political nodes in the countryside and peripheries.
On the Saharan Axis the legal boundaries meet and are often overcome by the physical frontier environment (the desert) and by the will power of Fragmentary Actors. The relationship between the Maghreb Axis and the Sahel Axis may be seen as a series of concentric zones of control extending outward toward two phased limits: a legal boundary preceded by a physical, functional frontier — the Saharan Axis. Between the core and the frontier are the regions held firmly by the core’s cultural and economic strength and its unitary hierarchy of authority — the extended core. This axis is characterized by the push and pull between state authorities and diverse non-state actors. How much control state can project over these areas in part determines how much foreign investment will arrive and how feasible infrastructure and extractive projects will be deemed.
Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the rise and fall of empires in which immobile “concentrations of wealth and population” were forced to fortify themselves in arms and cohesion against small groups of mobile nomads, full of zest and courage (ʿaṣabiyya), resonates with the realities of many of the Maghreb-Sahel states. Fragmentary Actors, though small and often unpopular, have the power to frustrate and complicate the ambitions of even the strongest central governments in Algiers, Nouakchott and Niamey by scaring away investment from First and Second Tier Actors and by disrupting social cohesion and solidarity among people in the agricultural and economic centers. In this way, dissatisfied nomads and anti-state armed groups can exploit their status as peripheral actors to project power over long distances and across borders. So the core pushes back; when it does not it falls prey to the frontiersmen who establish themselves at the expense of the weaken core.
Others have similar ideas on the matter. In War in Human Civilization (Oxford, 2006) Azar Gat describes a process that is almost identical. A victorious faction comes to power, sets up a civilization and erects securitizing institutions to preserve its domination. The population is dedicated and upright and expands its reach out to the farthest extent of its resource base will allow it. The population expands and becomes prosperous. Meanwhile, on the frontier, complex political and martial forces emerge, learning from and adopting important pieces of the central “civilization’s” path to success — its technology, its forms of organization, hygiene and warfare. This new force struggles to remain free from the dominant civilization. The dominant civilization becomes complacent and weak, economically static and preoccupied the intrigues of the political class rather than the robustness of its totality. Distracted and slovenly, the new frontier forces make way to opportune frontiers of the civilization. The dominant civilization thus falls prey to supposedly inferior frontier barbarians who overthrow it and continue the cycle. With each iteration, the new civilization becomes more robust over longer periods; but this presumes that there is a strong and united frontier force full of purpose and know-how aimed at an overthrow.
Ibn Khaldun’s exact words (somewhat dramatic in this context) summarize the process by which peripheral, desert actors take to the
[. . .] plains, when they can reach them due to lack of protection and weakness of the state, are spoils for them and morsels for them to eat, which they will keep despoiling and raiding and conquering with ease until their people are defeated, then imitate them with mutual conflict and political decline, until their civilization is destroyed.
In recent times things are not so severe but the overall pattern is persistent in world politics.
One does not find this degree of complacence or revolutionary fervor in most of the Maghreb-Sahel except in discreet social sectors. Extreme sentiment exists in some regions more than others but the cores remain powerful especially within their extended zones of influence. They face serious security challenges with limited resources and, in many places, low morale but are generally able to push back against ethnic and terrorist rebells. The question, though, is for how long this is possible without more decisive developmental and political solutions; protracted and frequent uprisings or attacks from discontented factions could hypothetically cause far more problems than are manageable. If one considers the make up of the region’s governments, many of them military-civilian hybrids or outright martial states, and their politics are frequently characterized by intra-elite politics that follow a model not dissimilar from what is described here. There is significant continuity in policy, showing relatively strong elite consensus. But things may not always be the case on the Maghreb Axis, where leadership is highly personalized and elderly. But even in Algeria and Libya where this problem is most evident, anxiety may be more radical than reality. The region’s states over all are relatively secure with notable but manageable challenges and trends that could escalate if they are addressed responsibly by the most important actors.
The ability of the core to push back against fragmentary forces in a productive and effective way is the key to its survival as a viable entity. This statement is true in the pre-colonial context; the frontiers of the old Maghrebine and Sahel empires were often fluid. Nomadic peoples had considerably more leverage in deciding to whom they pledged allegiance. The post-colonial state system treats these historic imperatives, not at all unrelated to the problem of self-government, with some indifference and selectivity. Selectivity can be rational and effective while indifference is more frequently unwise.
µ The graphics seen in this series of posts can be viewed on TheMoorNextDoor SlideShare account.