The precarious calm of Algeria’s south

Sunday 18/12/2016
Adding to south’s troubles is festering Arab-Berber rivalry

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.