Algeria is seeking to recapture lost influence in Africa

The government announced the creation of an “Algerian Agency for International Cooperation for Solidarity and Development."
Saturday 25/04/2020
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune attends the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last February. (AFP)
Seeking 'new dynamic'. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune attends the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last February. (AFP)

ALGIERS - Algeria's recent creation of a new body dedicated to international cooperation and the appointment of a former senior intelligence officer to head it are steps towards negotiating a major shift in its policy on the African continent, Maghreb experts said.

According to the experts, the moves could be part of attempts to counter the impact of Morocco’s growing diplomatic, political and commercial activity on the continent.

Last week, the Algerian government announced the creation of an “Algerian Agency for International Cooperation for Solidarity and Development." Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune entrusted its management to retired Colonel Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a former senior officer of the Intelligence Services. The government said that it will be relying on the new agency to restore Algeria’s diplomatic and strategic weight in the region and the world.

Mesbah, a graduate in political science and international relations, is regarded as a highly qualified civil servant with a distinguished track record in one of the most powerful institutions of the state -- the intelligence service. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Algiers (1981) and served as a senior intelligence officer but was sidelined after a shake-up in the intelligence community under the rule of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

During the recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Tebboune announced his country’s decision to establish the agency with the aim of “infusing a new dynamic in Algeria’s international cooperation, especially towards African countries."

Algeria’s role and influence in Africa has seen a noticeable decline in recent years as Bouteflika failed to undertake meaningful outreach moves in the continent.

The former president focused primarily on European, Asian and American cooperation, largely neglecting African policies. For example, he made seven official visits to France but none to any African country.

It wasn’t until the 2012 security crisis sparked in the Algerian Sahara by activities of jihadist groups that the Algerian government started giving its African relations serious attention.

At the time, authorities adopted a security-based approach to counter the growing activity and influence of al-Qaeda in the Saharan strip along Algeria’s border with Mali. The French decision to reduce France’s role and presence in an area regarded as a key gateway to sub-Saharan Africa pulled the rug from under the feet of the Algerian authorities.

The Algerian intelligence apparatus sees Morocco’s growing influence in the region as a new threat to the country, especially since Morocco's growing relations with the countries of the region are based on a populist religious diplomacy, as many citizens of the Sahel and Sahara increasingly look to Morocco as their religious and theological inspiration and authority.

What worries Algeria most, according to experts, is the transformation of its Saharan strip into a security zone rather than an inhabited area. Political activist Abderrahman Hachemi Hnanou believes that “Algeria needs to urbanise the southern border strip, by creating a large southern capital and other towns in order to strengthen the bonds between the residents of the border strip on both sides of the common borders with the other countries."

“Security will not be achieved by only militarising the region. It rather requires civilian activity and economic movement that develops the region and narrows the scope of influence of jihadist groups,” he said.

The Algerian town of Tamanrasset, located at the southernmost tip of Algeria, is closer to seven African capitals than it is to the capital, Algiers. For all these considerations, the new Algerian authorities took the decision to launch a new government entity tasked with “participating in the preparation and implementation of the national policy for international cooperation in the economic, social, humanitarian, cultural, religious, educational, scientific and technical fields."

In recent years, Africa has become an arena for ​​international competition between world powers, led by China, the United States, Russia, the Gulf states and Turkey.

Morocco also achieved significant breakthroughs in Africa. It started by regaining its seat in the African Union in early 2017, which led many African countries, such as the Comoros, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, the Central African Republic, Sao Tomé and Principe, to open representations in Morocco’s Saharan strip.