The precarious calm of Algeria’s south
Tunis - Algeria’s oil-and-gas producing south had long been the quiet lifeline for the nation’s development while intermittent unrest flared in the north after the country’s independence three decades ago.
But now jihadists infiltrating vast desert expanses in the south to smuggle weapons and the presence of increasingly violent drug traffickers, along with chaos and instability in neighbouring Libya, Mali and Niger pose a growing threat to Algeria. Add to this local unrest over the unequal distribution of oil and gas revenues and the country’s south has become a political powder keg.
“The south, far less populated, far more strategically important in terms of natural resources and far more difficult to control given its geography, has replaced northern regions like Kabylie as the epicentre of contestation,” said the International Crisis Group in a report issued November 21st.
The south is vital to Algeria’s economic future, with untapped mineral, agriculture and farming resources. It also has significant shale gas deposits that would extend Algeria’s role as a leading gas supplier to the European Union.
Some estimates list Algeria as having the third most shale gas deposits behind China and Argentine and ahead of the United States.
But resentment has been brewing in the south for years as its oil-and-gas wealth benefited mostly the north and its ruling elites.
The south’s “grievances are tightly wound social, economic, political and environmental concerns, in part specific to their communities, in part reflective of national sentiment, particularly resentment,” said the Crisis Group in its report titled Algeria’s South: Trouble’s Bellwether.
Subsidies and handouts have helped placate some in the south, although jobs in the hydrocarbon sector often went to northern experts and workers.
But shrinking oil revenues since mid-2014 have put pressure on the national government to trim subsidies and boost shale gas exploration while keeping much of the local population in the dark about the possible environmental hazards involved.
Protests against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for shale gas turned violent in March 2015 when the police clashed with demonstrators outside a facility run by the American company Halliburton near the border with Libya. A year earlier thousands of unemployed Algerians staged sporadic street demonstrations in the southern town of Ouargla, near the country’s most productive oilfield, to demand jobs.
“The sustained if sporadic unrest at these sites suggests the emergence of specifically southern political dynamics… The coincidence of unrest at In Salah, Ouargla and Ghardaia, particularly given relative calm elsewhere, demonstrates the centrality of the Sahara to peace and security in Algeria today,” the Crisis Group said. Ouargla lies about 65km from the giant Hassi Messaoud oilfield.
Adding to the south’s troubles is festering rivalry between Berbers and Arabs in the southern Mouzabite valley, which has turned more violent since 2015.
Dozens of people have died in clashes between Arab and Berber communities around the Algerian oasis city of Ghardaia.
“Exclusionary politics and weak governance in a resource-rich zone helped enflame tensions in Ghardaia, where they manifested as inter-communal conflict. The crisis in Ghardaia is distinct in that it weaves the issue of ethnic and religious minorities together with political and economic concerns felt elsewhere in the south,” the Crisis Group said in its report.
Government leaders in Algiers have repeatedly called for Algerians to strengthen the nation’s unity but the threat of more unrest in the south looms. On November 6th, government troops found weapons, including 20 assault rifles and 17 missiles capable of downing helicopters, in the southern desert area of Adrar, according to a Defence Ministry statement. A similar cache was discovered 48 hours later at Bord Badji Mokhtar.
“All the success to find out such weapons is due to the mobilisation of financial and human resources. But whether such success and efficiency in security operations could be sustained as the oil revenues were slumping — that is the question,” said Algerian security analyst Salima Tlemçani.