States and ‘Ungoverned Spaces’
In January 2013, the Algerian, Libyan, and Tunisian prime ministers met in the Libyan city of Ghadames. Known as the 'pearl of the desert', its old town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lying at the point where the three countries’ borders meet, Ghadames was a symbolic location for a summit to address the spillover from regional conflicts.
The combination of weakening state structures, criminal networks, and militant presence in borderlands has led some observers to regard them as ‘ungoverned spaces’.
The combination of weakening state structures, criminal networks, and militant presence in borderlands has led some observers to regard them as ‘ungoverned spaces’. States often securitise these spaces because they view the communities and economic activities within them with suspicion. The vastness of these areas in the Maghreb and the Sahel – Algeria alone has 6,734km of land borders – complicates their security and contributes to the fluidity of governance in Ibn Khaldun’s ‘extremities’.
The reality of governance in and around these spaces is, however, more nuanced. For instance, far away from the capital, the temptation for local officials to involve themselves in, and profit from, smuggling has been hard to resist, contributing to corruption and eroding state control.
The governance of peripheral regions is also linked to de-bordering, which is understood as the “increasing permeability of borders together with a decreasing ability of states ... to shut themselves off”.
States attempt to manage political, economic, and sociological realities through re-bordering their territories. They do so by tightening border controls, building fences, or introducing other measures to stem cross-border flows. The processes of de-bordering and re-bordering that have taken place since 2011 illustrate the ways in which governments respond to the forces at play in and around borderlands.
Borderland communities have vehemently opposed government measures to reassert control. For example, Tunisia’s imposition of a tax on non-resident foreigners entering the country was seen as an attack on informal trade. Fierce opposition to the proposed tax forced the government to abandon it. Meanwhile, closures of the Ras Jdir crossing to Libya in recent years, and protests against them, have created a cycle of civil strife and instability in this area. The Tunisian government’s reaction to pressures in peripheral regions – to re-border through taxes and border closures – is, however, not unique.
Re-bordering in the Maghreb and Sahel is often a reaction to cross-border pressures, and is also a concern extending beyond the interests represented at the meeting in Ghadames. Increasing flows of migrants and refugees to Europe have prompted regional and international concern that jihadists are seeking to gain control of economic corridors in the Sahara and Sahel that double as trafficking routes. Governments fear a scenario in which jihadist groups move from one sanctuary to another, exploiting the terrain and state weaknesses.
In response, the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, and France have all provided Libya and Tunisia with technical assistance in security sector reforms, as well as military and financial aid.
Less receptive to foreign assistance, Algeria committed considerable human and technological resources to monitor its extensive land borders, 80 per cent of which are in Saharan lands to the south.
Algeria was slow to realise the threat that jihadism represented as it transformed from an internal problem to a regional one, with armed groups taking advantage of political instability and weak border control in neighbouring states.
The policy to contain AQIM’s northern Algerian branch was premised on stable borders, but the crises in Mali and Libya created sanctuaries and staging grounds for jihadist groups to re-arm and build local alliances. The spectacular attack masterminded by Belmokhtar on the gas plant near In Amenas prompted a rethink of Algerian security doctrine and the adoption of a diplomatic strategy aimed at securing neighbouring states’ co-operation in combatting this regional problem.
Algeria also stepped up border security co-operation with Tunisia, fearing that its neighbour would not be able to withstand the dual shocks of domestic unrest and spillover from Libya.
Algeria’s domestic experience with armed groups also conditioned its stance towards militias controlling territory and crossings on the Libyan side of the border. Worried about possible connections between jihadists and militarised Tuareg in Libya and Mali, along with weak security partners across the border, Algeria decided to stem cross-border flows.
Limiting movement across borders has, however, negatively impacted Algeria’s official trade with its neighbours. Yet, despite the obstacles, smugglers are labouring to sidestep border controls because of the profit to be made from the informal trade in subsidised goods.
The entanglement of organised crime with the economic interests of armed groups and corrupt state officials has commodified borders.
Moreover, the entanglement of organised crime with the economic interests of armed groups and corrupt state officials has commodified borders, turning them into resources to be controlled and exploited.
The recent turmoil in Tunisia and Libya has led to ever more porous borders, and new actors have emerged, disrupting the status quo. Now, more than ever, borders have come to signify threats, as opposed to protection.
Post-revolutionary governments have become aware of the transnational economies created by modern borders. Tunisia, for example, recently announced the creation of free-trade zones in border areas with Algeria and Libya. Integrating borderlands into national economies is an issue not only of regional stability, but of democratic transitions. This was underscored when, in June 2015, a collective of NGOs claimed reparations from the state, on behalf of the Kasserine governorate, for “systematic marginalisation”, as part of Tunisia’s transitional justice measures.