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.

The porous nature of the borderlands has made its terrain a perfect training ground for transregional militias such as the FLAA, pictured here, and jihadists alike. Jean-Luc Manuad/Getty

The claim raises an important point: As long as conflict drivers and economic realities remain unaddressed, borders will remain highly securitised, precluding any movement towards the kind of integration that the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) envisages.

Formal trade between states in the Maghreb ranks amongst the lowest in the world, a mere 1.3 per cent of their total foreign exchange. But the notion that Maghrebi states do not trade with one another is belied by the magnitude of smuggling and informal trade among borderland communities.

Understanding A Region through Borderlands

Beyond economic concerns, borderlands are often at the centre of conflict and political struggle. Globalisation has helped make de-bordering and re-bordering a worldwide phenomenon – a trend particularly evident across the Arab world.

The walls of the old city of Ghadames allude to a past invested in the marking of boundaries, as important locations across the region, such as trading centres and oases, were enclosed by ramparts and citadels. Modern times, though, have presented the altogether more difficult task of controlling thousands of kilometres of borders to secure national territory.

Over the past five years, transnational militancy, refugee flows, civil strife, and foreign intervention have placed borders and borderlands at the centre of the political debate. Whether as sanctuaries or thoroughfares, these areas attract armed groups and smugglers.

Algerian gendarmes survey the mountains near Tamanrasset in December 2013. Algeria faces serious challenges in securing its 6,734km of land borders. Reuters

Overlaid upon these forces, the Maghreb has historically been at the crossroads of the Arab world, Africa, and Europe, and has been contested throughout the ages; its turbulent history famously narrated by Ibn Khaldun six centuries ago.

In his travels through the region, Ibn Khaldun saw the imprint of the modern Maghreb, mapping the economic and political space as it was being shaped by commerce, conflict, and conquest. Although modern states have replaced the dynasties of his era, the region continues to be battered by transnational turmoil, testing the limits of state sovereignty, national belonging, and the fabric of the body politic.

Borderlands have become storytellers themselves, chronicling the evolving relationship between states and peoples. Often hardest hit by regional troubles, these areas carry long-lasting scars as the rifts widen between states and communities along the Maghreb’s borders.

Though often seen as the source of these problems, borderlands merely magnify them. To their inhabitants, they have been both a curse – neglected and distrusted by the authorities – as well as a place of empowerment. Here, the politically and economically marginalised find a haven in the physical margins and eke out an existence away from the central state, despite facing constant disruption. For these communities, borderlands are far more than simple enclosures; they are bridges across state lines, creating a sense of connectivity.

The perception of borderlands as ‘ungoverned spaces’ has had real consequences across the region, prompting security responses ranging from armed intervention to fence-building. Defying this terminology, however, borderlands represent a space where the national and transnational merge.

As a social construct, although borderlands are shaped by the artificial lines that separate states, they are not defined by them. As a reflection of the historical context that created them, borderlands offer us a prism through which we can understand the region’s woes and gauge the health of political and economic systems.