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Sahel: ‘For Paris and Algiers, negotiating with Iyad Ag Ghaly is a major point of contention’

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Tuesday, 8 June 2021 09:39

Iyad Ag Ghali © AFP

Algerian researcher Adib Bencherif discusses the implications of Algiers reopening the Sahelian security dossier after several years of neglect.

Algiers is a relatively discrete player in the Sahel crisis, but it is still concerned about the evolution of its southern neighbours’ political and security situation; particularly in Mali, where a new coup d’état – the second in less than a year – has resulted in Colonel Assimi Goïta ascending to the presidency of the transitional government.

The Sahel dossier has become top priority for the Algerian government and the army due to several factors:

  • the release of 100 jihadists in exchange for hostages Soumaïla Cissé and Sophie Pétronin as well as the payment of a ransom amounting to several million dollars
  • criticism of the Algiers Accords and the recurrent accusations of complacency directed at the leader of the Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans (GSIM) Iyad Ag Ghaly.

The latter feel that they are not being listened to enough with regards to the policy of paying ransoms to jihadist groups – which Algiers is against – and their suggestions for adoption of a more political approach to the crisis.

Adib Bencherif, who is an assistant professor at the École de Politique Appliquée de Sherbrooke (Canada) as well as an associate researcher at the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida (US) and a co-director of L’Analyse du Risque Politique (PUM, 2021), gives us an update on the situation.

Algeria continues to put forward the Algiers Accords as a solution to resolving the Malian conflict. Is this set of agreements still salvageable or are they de facto obsolete?

Adib Bencherif: The 2015 Algiers Accords is a continuation of agreements that were signed in the 1990s and 2006 between rebel groups and the Malian government. On each occasion, Algeria played the role of mediator.

All of these agreements focus on northern Mali, with a more specific emphasis on the Kidal region for the 2006 agreement. The 2015 agreement is, of course, relevant, but deals mainly with northern Mali and the relationship between the northern communities and central government.

However, from 2015 onwards, the violence spread to the centre of the country and involves other communities, not to mention the recent coups and many governance issues. Attempts to resolve the Malian conflict cannot be limited to this agreement, as it focuses on the northern part of the country. In short, the agreement is not an end in itself, but just one of many tools needed to achieve peace in Mali.

What is missing from the Accords? 

The Comité de Suivi de l’Accord (CSA), which is composed of several countries including Algeria and France, regularly assesses the implementation and progress of the measures proposed in the agreement. But mediation cannot force local actors to implement it. Moreover, the three signatory parties – the Malian state, the political platform Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) and other various groups – also meet informally without the international mediators.

This often results in agreements being circulated on social media in their ‘official’ version. In fact, there are several levels of negotiation linked to the interests of various types of actors in northern Mali: political entrepreneurs, drug traffickers, warlords, traditional chiefs and young political leaders. Moreover, the interim period – which followed the signing of the agreement – was subject to constant negotiations between the conflict parties; this revealed the complexity of inter- and intra-community relations on decentralisation and representation.

Niger’s former president Mahamadou Issoufou has criticised the Algiers Accords on several occasions. In fact, Niger’s President Bazoum seems to have better relations with his northern neighbour. Will the two countries unite to fight terrorism in the Sahel?

In August 2019, Issoufou criticised the Algiers Accords due to the fact that the CMA groups – particularly the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) which controls the Kidal region – had ties to jihadist movements.

This is the case with GSIM, the jihadist coalition led by Ghaly. Interpersonal relationships do exist due to tribal allegiances that were in place prior to the formation of these armed militias. However, this does not mean that the governance of the Kidal region is conducted jointly with the jihadists.

There are certainly areas of agreement, but the relationship is not in black and white. In November 2019, during a meeting with a Tuareg delegation – which notably comprised Alghabass Ag Intalla, the leader of the HCUA – Issoufou provided assurances to his allies within the CMA.

While Algerian-Nigerien relations were relatively good under Issoufou, cooperation had slowed down following political problems in Algeria and multiple security problems in Niger. Niger’s President Bazoum – who has continued on his predecessor’s path – will certainly seek to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism by asking for more information sharing, more support on logistical aspects, as well as support in terms of equipment and training of security forces which the Nigerien army seems to lack.

What do you think of the recurrent tensions between Algiers and Bamako? Are Bamako’s accusations – as well as Paris’ off the record ones – against Algiers, which is suspected of protecting jihadist leaders such as Ghaly, credible? What does Algiers gain from this arrangement? 

Bamako’s accusations are based on recurrent rumours. It is well known that Tuaregs and nomadic communities from the north of Mali find refuge and treat their wounded in southern Algeria. It is quite possible that jihadists have infiltrated their ranks. Some of them may even be communicating with the security forces to negotiate possible surrenders.

Since Algeria’s former President Bouteflika’s first term in office, Algerian counter-terrorism policy has always fluctuated between the carrot and the stick, i.e. a counter-terrorism strategy based on regular operations and tough raids, but one that also leaves open the possibility for jihadists to surrender in exchange for a form of amnesty. Contacts are made through negotiations. This also leaves the political option on the table and not just the security one.

It is also true that Algiers believed it would be possible to negotiate with Ghaly since the beginning of the Tuareg rebellion in 2012. This was one of its major points of contention with Paris. In recent years, Bamako has increasingly aligned itself with Algiers’ vision by launching negotiations with the leader of the GSIM.

While working in the field in 2016 and 2017, many Tuaregs in Mali told me that peace would only be reached if Ghaly was included in the discussions and not excluded from the negotiating table. For their part, Algiers is clearly annoyed by the fact that ransoms are paid to free hostages held by jihadist groups and when their captured fighters are released.

It is worth noting that in the 2000s, Algiers strongly advocated against paying ransoms as it felt that this would strengthen the power of jihadist groups. Algiers expressed its displeasure when in October last year, a ransom payment was made for the release of 200 jihadists in exchange for the late opposition figure Soumaïla Cissé and French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin.

Discussions are said to be taking place on Algeria’s participation in Minusma. What can Algeria contribute on the ground?

Article 31 of Algeria’s new constitution, which was adopted in 2020, allows the country to take part in peacekeeping operations. Although it has always been reluctant to participate in military operations outside its borders in the name of sovereignty, this change in the latest constitution leaves the door open to this type of discussion. There have certainly been informal conversations about it, but no commitment has been made on this issue. And it is unlikely that such a decision will be made quickly because it is a major doctrinal change.

I would advise against it, especially as a first step of external intervention (despite sporadic episodes outside Algerian borders in the past). Even within the context of a UN peacekeeping operation, the presence of Algerian soldiers in Mali could be interpreted as a form of interference and damage the relationship between the two countries. Remember the many rumours that circulated whenever Algeria played the role of mediator during the conflicts in northern Mali?

You have, for example, brought up the rumour that it [Algeria] was acting in conjunction with the jihadists. Strategically, however, participating in Minusma would allow Algeria to better understand the situation in Mali, especially in the central part of the country where it lacks detailed knowledge. But I would advise against it, so as not to feed the rumours of interference and numerous conspiracy theories.

However, if Algerian soldiers were deployed elsewhere, such as on the African continent (besides the Sahel) or somewhere else in the world, this could be a good thing. This is because the Algerian army would be both invigorated and exposed to other practices, thus enriching its military culture.

As Algiers and Paris attempt to forge closer ties, how do the Algerian authorities, and in particular the army, perceive the Barkhane operation launched by France in 2014?

Algiers has always sought to have security issues on the continent handled by the Comité d’État-Major Opérationnel Conjoint (Cémoc) – which was launched in 2010 and based in Tamanrasset – the African Union (AU) and through regional as well as bilateral collaboration between states. It defended the Nouakchott process of 2013, which places security cooperation in the Sahel within the framework of the AU.

Operation Barkhane, which is a counter-terrorist operation led by the former colonial power, could only put Algiers on the defensive. Moreover, the G5 Sahel initiative (supported by France) is viewed with some circumspection by Algiers, which would have preferred this structure to be part of the Nouakchott process. Rumours that the Algerian army was going to intervene in the Sahel, under the auspices of the G5 Sahel and France, provoked the anger of many Algerian officials.

These rumours were based on what the French president had said last February when he spoke of an “Algerian re-engagement” in the Sahel. The word ‘re-engagement’ also annoyed Algiers, since it implied that the country was no longer involved in security issues pertaining to the Sahel. Despite this, France and Algeria do occasionally collaborate on operations, although the latter does not wish to deploy troops beyond its borders.

What does Algeria think of the new Malian authorities? Does this new Malian coup further complicate inter-state cooperation in the region?

Algiers had condemned the August 2020 coup. It had also called for elections to be held and constitutional order to be respected. Then, Ecowas, through efforts led by Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan, managed to negotiate with the coup leaders to achieve a transition government that would be more or less jointly led by civilians and the military.

Mali’s former vice-president Assimi Goïta, the mastermind of the putsch that overthrew former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was one of the coup leaders involved in the government talks.

Although Algiers was probably hurt that it had not been consulted or closely involved in the Ecowas negotiations with the putschists, the idea of a Malian transitional government offered reassurance. The Malian government announced that presidential and legislative elections will take place in February and March 2022, which is an encouraging sign.

The most recent Malian coup d’état surprised everyone. However, Algiers reacted cautiously to the ‘coup d’état within a coup d’état’ – which led to President Bah N’Daw and prime minister Moctar Ouane’s resignations on 26 May.

Algiers reiterated the need for a return to constitutional order and urged Malian leaders to assume responsibility for the recent events in the country. It is highly likely that Algiers will now make efforts to speak with Goïta and his entourage to understand their intentions. However, they will undoubtedly proceed with caution, given that Mali has been blowing hot and cold in recent months.

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