Algeria's growing concerns over instability in Mali
Tebboune was quoted as saying that the money that the Malian government spent on contracting Russian mercenaries should have been placed into the development of the country and the Sahel region.
His comments on Wagner were the first since the group’s deployment in 2021, which was condemned by the UK and several other European and African countries. France had previously criticised Tebboune for not commenting on the deployment of Wagner mercenaries earlier.
Algeria’s silence was likely due to the country’s strong relations with Russia, and to preserve friendly relations with the Malian military leadership.
"In December, a coalition of Malian armed groups withdrew from a peace accord signed in Algiers in 2015"
Tebboune’s comments came following an announcement on 23 December by a coalition of Tuareg and Arab armed political groups in northern Mali, known as the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP), that the group was unanimously withdrawing from the Algiers peace accord signed in 2015.
The accord, brokered by Algeria, had aimed to bring stability to the country following years of fighting between separatists in the north and the Malian government. However, the cycle of violence has since continued.
New alliances, old conflict
The Algiers peace accord was supposed to end the conflict between the Tuaregs, a Berber ethnic group, and Arabs in northern Mali, dubbed as rebels, and the Malian government.
While the accord ended the conflict in theory, the insecurity created by a branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (JNIM) and the Islamic State militants in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) remained present and has increased rapidly in recent years.
President Tebboune, speaking of his country’s involvement and his concern about the future of the region, said that “settling the [political and security] situation passes through Algeria”.
In what could be considered a comment in support of the CSP in Mali, he was quoted as saying, “to bring peace, we must integrate the people of northern Mali into Malian institutions”.
Tebboune also attempted to rise above accountability for the failure of the accord’s implementation by saying that his country was not supported in implementing the peace accord.
Ultimately, the Algerian president's comments on the deployment of Wagner troops arose from concerns regarding the rise of the group in the region. In Libya, Algeria’s neighbour, Wagner troops have been deployed to support Russia-backed General Khalifa Haftar, a warlord who has divided the country.
Tebboune’s long-awaited remarks on Wagner come at a time when the rise of Wagner's presence in Algeria's two neighbouring countries, Mali and Libya, have left him feeling threatened amidst a crumbling peace in the region.
The future of peace in Mali
The CSP’s decision to withdraw from peace talks was reportedly due to a “lack of political will” by the military leadership in Bamako to reach peace. However, the coalition said it would resume talks if they were held in a neutral country under international mediation.
Although not mentioned explicitly in the CSP’s statement, the group had previously said that the Russian presence in Mali was not welcomed in the north, as they found themselves under a joint military threat from the Malian army and Wagner personnel.
The decision of the coalition aggravated a brewing political situation in the capital, Bamako. Mali, which has witnessed four Tuareg rebellions in the north since 1961, has also seen several coups. In 2020 and 2021, the country had two military coups, both by the same military junta that was not satisfied with the civilian Prime Minister they had appointed.
The secular Tuareg movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), launched the last Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in 2011. The uprising was quickly hijacked by jihadists from JNIM and a national Islamist group called Ansar Dine, who defeated the MNLA and took over large parts of the north.
"Uncertainty seems to be looming over the country, with the unstable UN peace mission, the withdrawal of the CSP from the peace accord, and the threat of jihad affecting the whole region"
Algeria has witnessed these developments in the last decade with caution and managed to broker a peace accord in 2015 between armed political groups and the Malian government to end the conflict on its border.
Following a request from Mali in 2013, former colonial power France launched ‘Operation Barkhane’, an anti-insurgency military operation to fight Islamist groups in the Sahel region. However, both Operation Barkhane and the Takuba task force, which saw EU forces assisting the Malian army, have left the country in the last year following the establishment of a military alliance between Malian forces and the Wagner Group in 2021.
The same thing happened with the UN peace mission (MINUSMA) as well as several countries, such as the UK and Germany, who have withdrawn troops from Mali to avoid confrontation with the mercenaries.
Uncertainty seems to be looming over the country, with the unstable UN peace mission, the withdrawal of the CSP from the peace accord, and the threat of jihad affecting the whole region.
Still, Housseyne Ag Issa, a Mali-based journalist, explained that, “the suspension of the CSP participation in the peace accord does not mean the end of the agreement”.
The CSP’s recent withdrawal is the result of several factors. Firstly, little progress was made on the terms of the accord. “After several years of signing the agreement, the Malian government failed to make progress in the implementation of the accord,” said Inkinane Ag Attaher, a military official within the MNLA.
In addition, the government prevented the participation of armed political armed groups in several sessions in Bamako over the last few months. Ag Attaher said that the main reason was “the lack of response from the Malian government in the face of the ISGS attacks against the Tuareg communities in the north, which killed around 1,500 in 2022”.
“Algeria has failed in enforcing the agreement that it brokered,” Ag Attaher added.
The threat of Al Qaeda and IS in the region
ISGS and JNIM have already been expanding their regional operations, reaching Togo and Benin. The recent withdrawal of international forces and key contingents of the UN mission in Mali, coupled with the political fallout, could allow the Islamist groups to expand their area of operation and influence among the Arab and Tuareg communities.
Ag Attaher explained that the terrorist groups feed on tension, adding that, “it's a classic modus operandi, and every spark that erupts in the region was beneficial for them”.
He gives an example from 2006 when a previous Algiers agreement failed, and allowed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to succeed in establishing itself and recruit political and military personnel from the Tuaregs in northern Mali, who wanted to continue fighting against the Malian government.
Journalist Ag Issa said that “JNIM was not concerned with these agreements,” adding that “JNIM was and still is very active in the north and central regions of the country, regardless of the success or failure of peace talks”.
"Terrorism spilling over to neighbouring countries is creating a persistent security problem for the Sahel region"
While the effect of the withdrawal of the CSP from the peace accord remains to be seen, the effect of the withdrawal of foreign counterterrorism forces is obvious. Human rights lawyer Ayman Menem says that an uptick in attacks against civilians in the region has been observed since the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Menem explained that foreign forces and MINUSMA were keeping large towns, villages, and major routes under control, pushing back any advancement by Islamic groups. Menem expects further attacks against civilians in the coming months and a further expansion in JNIM and ISGS’s areas of operations.
With these political and military developments, the future of Mali is unclear. Terrorism spilling over to neighbouring countries is creating a persistent security problem for the Sahel region.
One key question remains unanswered: what will Algeria’s future role be in putting out fires in its neighbouring countries?
Aman Al Bezreh is a trilingual journalist, a media training consultant at OpenDemocracy, and a security analyst for West Africa and the Sahel.
Follow her on Twitter: @AmanBezreh