*The article is a reworking and translation of the original article “Sahel in fiamme”, published in Italian by Africa Express.
December 2023 has been a very intense month for the Sahelian region, called by the NATO Defense College Foundation also “the Deep Maghreb”, to underline the strong linkage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara sand sea. The three juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have created the trilateral AES (Alliance des Etats Saheliens, ASS in English), not only to brace among themselves against possible external reaction or in defiance of the old French hegemony, but also to resist the gravitational pull of the richer Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This circumstance may be perceived as particularly interesting by Rabat, not just regarding its long-standing confrontation with Algiers, but as an opportunity to create a wider area of influence across the Sahel.
Moreover, it may offer the chance to revive the CEN-SAD (Communauté des Etats Sahélo-Sahariens, Arabic letters Sin and Sad, initials of Sahil and Sahara), a regional cooperation organisation founded by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Libya and Sudan in 1998, led by Libya until 2011 and now with headquarters in Chad, with 29 members, but not yet Algeria. African countries, after the apparent fading of CEN-SAD after the death of Ghaddafi, started lobbying Morocco for a revival already in 2012.
In this context, unfortunately, “Rien ne va plus” between Algiers and Bamako. Both governments recalled their ambassadors for consultations just before Christmas. The Mali transitional military junta led by Assimi Goïta has not digested the fact that Algiers received representatives of the Tuareg rebels, signatories of the treaty “For Peace and Reconciliation in Mali” in 2015 (Accord Pour la Paix et la Reconciliation au Mali). The Algerian government was a key figure in process leading to mediation of the treaty, that has now fizzled out after both sides accused each other of not respecting it.
The Algerian ambassador was summoned by the Malian Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, the 20th of December; Algeria has been accused of interference in the country’s internal affairs. The Bamako diplomat, accredited in Algiers, was in turn summoned by the head of Algerian diplomacy. In a statement released immediately after the meeting, the Algerian Foreign Ministry stressed its uncompromising commitment to Mali’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and national unity. It went on to justify inviting the rebels for the role they played during the peace negotiations in 2015.
Diplomatic relations between Algiers and Bamako have been tense for months. Bamako was not at all pleased that representatives of the CSP (Permanent Strategic Framework – PSF) had visited the North African country after the resumption of the conflict in the north. The Cadre stratégique permanent, or Cadre stratégique permanent pour la paix, la sécurité et le développement (CSP-PSD, PSF for peace, security and development) was an alliance of political and military movements in the north of Mali that started losing members after the 10th of September 2023. Following accusations that the Malian army and the Russian Wagner mercenaries had attacked the CSP, several clashes followed creating dissensions between groups in favour of the CSP and other rallying the Malian government.
A few days earlier, Algiers had also invited the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MSA), also a signatory group of the 2015 treaty, but an ally of the Malian transitional authorities. The fact, however, was not enough to reassure Bamako of Algiers’ good intentions. By mid-November, the Malian armed forces, supported by mercenaries from the Wagner group, retook the city of Kidal, a stronghold of the Tuareg rebels.
Imam Mahmoud Dicko, a well-known political-religious figure in Mali, also left for Algeria, where he was received in person by the president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune. And this fact is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Dicko, former president of the other Malian Islamic Council, has also many followers in the north of the country. And, in a communiqué, the authorities in Bamako, without mentioning him explicitly, described him as a “character known for his hostility to the government”.
But while tensions escalating between these two capitals, Morocco is getting closer and closer to Bamako, Ouagadougou, N’Djamena and Niamey. The 23rd of December 2023, the foreign ministers of the four Sahel countries (Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger) were received by their Moroccan counterpart in Marrakech to discuss economic and geopolitical alliances.
The ministers greatly appreciated the kingdom’s gesture, which was willing to “open up to the Sahel countries, giving them access to the Atlantic Ocean, Morocco’s infrastructure, thus facilitating international trade”. Of course, the proposals will still have to be analysed in detail and, not least, it will be necessary to invest in various projects, such as road and airport infrastructures, in order to make the cooperation a reality.
While Mali, under dictator Moussa Traoré (1969-1991) recognised Polisario’s Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, in French RASD), President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (2013-2020) was more inclined to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the former Spanish Sahara territory, refraining then to do so fear of “hurting” Algeria, an important partner in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Yet, many Malians would welcome today an opening towards the Kingdom and Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, former Mauritanian Foreign Minister, does not exclude that Bamako may recognise Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in the future.
It should be remembered that diplomatic relations between Morocco and Algeria have been interrupted since August 2021, while the land borders between the two countries have been closed since 1994 precisely due to the issue of Western Sahara, when the de facto SADR republic becarme33333333 supported by Algiers.
The issue started in 1973 when a group of local students decided to found the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Polisario, Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and the Río de Oro) with the objective of ending the Spanish occupation. Madris in 1975 allowed Morocco and Mauritania to divide among themselves the territory and occupy it.
Due to the guerrilla of Polisario, Mauritania renounced its territories and Morocco agreed to a ceasefire in 1991, pending a UN-controlled referendum that Rabat postponed till 2020, when the Front resumed hostilities. In 1979 the UN General Assembly recognised the Polisario as legitimate representative of the Saharawi people, upholding in principle their right to self-determination. By July 2023 46 states have recognised the RASD and 39 have withdrawn their initial recognition.
Cornelia Isabelle Toelgyes
Cornelia Isabelle Toelgyes is vice-director of the online daily Africa Express, with a considerable field experience in different African countries.