Drawing on years of experience, we believe that when looking at the Sahara it is imperative to look beyond conventional news coverage in order to understand the complex issues and developments taking place in the region. Regular features of Sahara Focus include tracking of the latest political, socio-economic and regional developments; and updates on the activities of international companies operating within the region.
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The Forecast, 2018
The below is a summary of The Forecast: Sahara 2018. If you would like to download the full document for free, just click the button below:
Algeria & Morocco
The region is dominated by Algeria and Morocco to the north, two countries that are struggling between them for regional hegemony, and often work to undermine each other’s foreign policy strategies with, for example, the Algerians supporting the rights of the Sahrawi people in the Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco.
With a large part of the country dominated by the Sahara, Algeria is one of them most stable countries in the region with well controlled borders and managing to keep much of the instability affecting the rest of the region outside its boundaries.
It has suffered from terrorist attacks (at In Amenas, for example) but remains largely peaceful. Recent riots have been handled by the security regime, but infighting and re-positioning within the elite have created some uncertainty around the political game being played between state institutions and politicians.
Although southern Algeria is covered in Sahara Focus due to the important role it plays in the region, the realities of the country’s political, security and economic situations are analysed in much more depth in our monthly Algeria Focus and weekly Algeria Politics & Security publications.
The country faces some uncertain political times, and were the ill President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to pass away the unclear succession plan in the country, along with the difficult economic situation, could cause upheaval which would have an impact on the wider Sahara region, and lead to increased instability.
Stable Morocco sees itself as having an important role to play on the African continent, with the King regularly making visits to African countries in order to develop economic partnerships and the kingdom’s soft power.
A point of contention comes with its occupation of Western Sahara since 1975 – Africa’s last colony.
The territory’s sovereignty issue has not been settled and Morocco is not a member of the African Union because of this, but Morocco benefits economically from Western Sahara’s phosphate mining and fishing rights, in particular.
A recent ruling, however, has threatened Morocco’s position in Western Sahara, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Western companies to do be involved in the territory.
The landmark ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union in favour of the Polisario Front on 10 December 2015 ordered the annulment of a trade agreement between Morocco and the European Union (EU) because it included the territory of Western Sahara.
And companies that buy Sahrawi phosphate, such as PCS or Australia’s Incitec Pivot, are under pressure, having been blacklisted by dozens of pension funds in Denmark and elsewhere, which inevitably tarnishes their reputation.
But thanks to Morocco’s soft power plays across Africa, attitudes towards the kingdom’s occupation of Western Sahara appear to be changing. Morocco is attempting to re-join the African Union, and were this to happen it would be a blow to Sahrawi groups’ efforts at getting independence.
The Mali Crisis
Algeria has been a key player in one of the major problems to affect the region in recent years, Mali’s crisis. In 2012, the country suffered from a Tuareg rebellion (as armed Tuareg returned from Libya), a coup and an advancing Islamist threat.
The rebellion and the presence of Islamist groups remain an issue for Mali. Although a UN force is present to pacify the country, there are regular killings of peacekeepers and Malians alike, while in 2015, there were two significant attacks by Islamists on Bamako targets which led to the death of Malian and foreign civilians. The UN force is largely seen as useless at bringing peace.
In June 2015 a peace agreement was signed between the Tuareg and the government. The deal was brokered by Algeria but is heavily skewed in the government’s favour, reflecting Algeria’s efforts to avoid similar Tuareg uprisings within its own borders.
A lack of trust prevails between the two sides, but, to bring peace to Azawad, the territory in northern Mali that unilaterally declared independence after the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, trust will have to be rebuilt.
In a country where the political classes are accused of being corrupt, the funds that have been promised by international donors to help develop northern Mali will have to be seen to do so by its population.
State institutions will also have to be rebuilt in the region in order to help create a bond between the state and its territories.
Jihadism in Mali
Despite French troops and the UN peacekeeping forces, the threat of jihadism in Mali seems to be increasing, with one description of France’s Operation Barkhan suggesting that it is disrupting the jihadi groups, rather than defeating them.
There are a number of active groups in Mali and the recent developments suggest that they are collaborating with each other as well as increasing recruitment, in what should be seen as a worrying trend.
Poverty and government corruption certainly contribute to the recruitment efforts of Islamist groups.
The most successful group in Mali currently appears to be Ansar al-Din, more so than Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Mourabitoun, and it has sponsored the creation of new terrorist groups in southern Mali.
While the Tuareg problem has possible internal solutions, the terrorist threat will be more difficult to resolve, feeding in, as it does, to the wider regional and worldwide Islamist problem, and affecting countries other than Mali.
The effect of the commodities slump; Mauritania & Chad
The region as a whole is suffering from the drop in oil prices, and of those of commodities, and international investors have pulled back.
Politically, this is a big issue for the countries of the Sahara, as drops in investment mean fewer jobs and raise the possibility of social unrest and political upheaval.
Beyond this, it makes it more difficult for countries such as Mauritania or Chad to continue to pour money into their military forces in order to defeat terrorist groups.
In a country such as Mauritania which has regular coups, and where the current government came to power by this means, economic difficulties give the presidency less leeway to co-opt rivals and therefore increase the likelihood of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s military overthrow, rather than a continuation of Mauritania’s (admittedly weak) democratic development, after elections were held in 2014.
The country is often a target for human rights groups due to the widespread practice of slavery.
The possession of slaves was only criminalised in 2007, but it is still widely practiced and the country’s most prominent anti-slavery campaigner, and former presidential candidate, was only recently released after spending 20 months in jail after he was arrested while campaigning against the practice.
Mauritania’s president is not the only one to have come to power through a coup.
In Chad, Idriss Deby has been president since he overthrew the government in 1990, and was re-elected to a fifth term in April 2016 amid allegations of irregularities. The country has a respected and well trained army, but the security forces are led by members of Deby’s family or Zaghawa tribal base.
It is suffering from attacks from Boko Haram, and Chad’s army was key in the early offensive to weaken the terrorist group in Nigeria and remove the group from its occupied territories.
As an exporter of oil, Chad encountered economic difficulties in 2015. This could be problematic in what is one of the poorest countries in the world. The second half of 2016 saw the reduction in payments to state employees and widespread demonstration and strikes led by the education sector, as the country stood on the edge of bankruptcy.
Chad is to a large extent run as a family business, with much of the country’s revenues coming back to the Deby family and entourage.
In particular the first lady is a key player in the country’s oil industry, and has close allies and family members placed in the national oil company, the Société des hydrocarbures du Tchad (SHT); not much happens in Chad’s commercial, industrial, and financial world without her say-so.
There are risks to her power, including a belief that her mixed origins from the eastern Ouaddaï region do not sit well with some of the president’s powerful ruling Zaghawa ethnic group.
Although it held elections in February 2016, Niger is another country that has a history of military involvement in the political sphere, however recent coups have helped usher in multi-party elections. The current president Mahamadou Issoufou was elected in a vote organised by a military junta that in 2010 had overthrown President Mamadou Tandj. In December 2015, another coup attempt was allegedly foiled, although opposition politicians do not believe the claims, instead accusing the president of creating problems ahead of the vote. There is a deep mistrust of the election process among opposition politicians and days after the February polls – and before full results had been declared – the opposition stated that they did not trust the vote count. Election results were slow to trickle in, but the final result showed incumbent Issoufou with less than the required 50% election threshold, meaning that a second round of voting was needed.Despite Issoufou not winning in the first round, the opposition has claimed that the results have been faked. The second poll was held on 20 March, and was won by the incumbent. However, his election suffered from a democratic deficit as the opposition called on supporters to boycott the vote. The opposition candidate, former prime minister Hama Amadou, was in a French hospital at the time of the second round vote, having spent the first round in prison on charges of involvement in baby trafficking – which he says were trumped up. With a lack of legitimacy and a united opposition, Issoufou’s new term has begun in difficult fashion, especially due to the gloomy economic outlook the country has been facing since the previous term. Hoped-for revenues from mining failed to materialise, as prices fell and project completion dates were postponed, while the country’s oil refinery SORAZ has posted losses and the Kandadji dam, due for inauguration this year, is not going to be finished any time soon. The country is also the target of Boko Haram attacks as well as AQIM.
The Sahara region is one which while benefiting from the positive aspects of the Africa Rising discourse – receiving increased investment and developing its mineral deposits – has emerged from the same narrative in a precarious state. The countries have struggled to strengthen the institutions of the state in the face of rising Islamist threats, and will continue to see instability over the next years due to their political, economic and security realities. Some countries are at risk of coups, and these should not be ruled out as the state continues to be weakened, struggling to ensure loyalty and patronage when revenues are declining. And upheaval in any one of these countries could exacerbate problems in its neighbours due to the fluid nature of the region.
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