Can cross-border co-operation be a tool for the stabilisation and development of Mali and its northern regions?

Photo courtesy of Yann Arthus-Bertrand

This post, by Laurent Bossard, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat, is published to coincide with the International conference for the economic recovery and development of Mali at the OECD today. French President François Hollande, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría will open the conference at 9:30-10:15 am Paris time. The event is not open to the public but you can watch the live webcast of the opening session.

Mobile populations, transhumance and nomadic herding, a valley at the interface between the desert and the savannah, cultural diversity between Arab-Berber and sub-Saharan worlds, everything in northern Mali reminds you that this area is a transition zone between Mali and Algeria.

This characteristic that for centuries underpinned the prosperity of the Saharan-Sahelian areas has not been perceived as an asset, either under colonisation or since independence. Sahelian and West African countries look “to the south” when thinking of their development (raw material exports, consumer goods imports) while the Maghreb, Algeria in particular, turns to the Mediterranean and Europe.

For over a century, the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have no longer been considered integrated parts of this mobile space rich in connections. They are simply “the north of a country”, contained within a border.

Trade continues to thrive however, anchored on a grid of trans-Saharan roads largely inherited from the distant past. But these activities are for the most part illegal, sometimes even serious crime.

Is it imaginable that one day trans-Saharan trade will be revived, restoring to the north the role it has always played; giving it the chance to change status from a marginal area to one of dynamism and linkage? Cross-border co-operation may be the first step towards achieving this goal.

Mali is one of the pioneers of cross-border co-operation in Africa. In the late 1990s Malian President Alpha Oumar Konaré imagined an Africa where “the concept of border would give way to that of ‘border area’, a place of bonding, sharing and exchange, where populations on both sides of the border share common schools, security posts, markets and health centres… In this way, border areas can escape the absurd colonial geometric layout and become areas of movement and solidarity for people who often share the same language and the same culture[i].”

This approach was taken up by Mali’s National Directorate for Borders with even more conviction than the 1992 Constitution, which stipulates in Article 117 that “The Republic of Mali may conclude with any African state agreements of association or community, including partial or total surrender of sovereignty in order to achieve African unity.” On the Algerian side, a December 1994 decree authorises and provides a framework for border barter trade with Niger and Mali in order to “normalise a legitimate practice based on traditional trade links between Algeria and West Africa whose habits and customs predate colonisation.”

Across the great Sahara-Sahelian areas, the concept of trans-border must be adapted. It is not a question, as in densely populated areas, of supporting and strengthening co-operation based on close proximity, but rather based on roads and markets.

CBC-triangleOn the Malian side, Gao (90 000 inhabitants) is the “metropolis” of the north. Sitting on the “hinge” that is the river, it is located 500 km from the border, as the crow flies. Kidal (30 000 inhabitants) is the last real town before the Algerian border more than 350 km away and itself located 500 km from Tamanrasset (100 000 inhabitants) in southern Algeria. These long distances do not prevent trade that binds these communities as surely as if they were neighbours.

To be useful, cross-border co-operation should, as much as possible, address “real” spaces. That is to say, it must confirm to the dynamics on the ground shaped by social and economic networks. In terms of history, socio-cultural links and trade, Tamanrasset looks as much to Niger as to Mali. Agadez (120 000 inhabitants) is the third apex in a grand triangle of cross-border co-operation. The city is located 400 km as the crow flies from the Algerian border. In between is Arlit (80 000 inhabitants). Another smaller triangle can be drawn with Tamanrasset, Kidal and Arlit as the vertices.

It is for the relevant authorities to define what could be the focus of a cross-border co-operation programme within one or the other of these spaces.

Consider hypothetically the livestock and meat sector, already at the centre of strong informal cross-border dynamics. Southern Algeria largely depends on Mali and Niger for its supplies of sheep and camels. The sale of Sahelian cattle is banned in Algeria, yet illegal importation is common. Pressures on the price of beef in the Tamanrasset market are becoming more frequent. Speaking on the subject, the President of the Tamanrasset Chamber of Agriculture said in July 2010: “Neither Mali nor Niger has slaughterhouses of the standard that could possibly supply Tamanrasset, not to mention the north. Right now, only a few butchers are engaged in live cattle trade between the two friendly countries and Algeria. But the quantities they bring are only enough for the towns of Tamanrasset and In Salah. Yet the cattle potential in these two neighbouring countries is impressive, and if investors get involved in that niche, particularly investing in abattoirs that conform to health standards, fresh beef would sell at a quarter of its current price.”

There is here perhaps is a starting point for reflection among national and local authorities in the three countries concerned, with the knowledge also that very many herders of Algerian nationality live and raise their herds in Mali and Niger.

Useful links

This article is based on The Malian regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu: National and regional perspectives (in French). Executive summary available in English and French.

International conference for the economic recovery and development of Mali: Northern regions at the heart of reconciliation and peace consolidation OECD, Paris, 22 October 2015. The conference brings together the Mali government and civil society, international partners, investors and diaspora, to discuss together the economic recovery and development of Mali.

[i] Cited by Adame Ba Konaré in his preface to the Jeune Afrique Atlas of Mali

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