Algeria: Contradictory Policies on Mali and Western Sahara

 When less-developed countries work hard to entice their diasporas to return to the old country to assist with local development projects, the Algerian government faced with a myriad of socio-economic problems is spending its petrodollars to lobby Algerians aboard to “defend the Sahrawi cause”.  As Algeria confronts unprecedented social unrests in its own Sahara, the Algerian government sponsored a visit by a “caravan of 70 young Algerians of France” to the Western Sahara Separatists refugee camps not far from areas where Algerian citizens continue to protest asking for better living conditions.

 In what can only be viewed as an insult to the intelligence of informed citizens in Algeria, Morocco and 
everywhere, the president of the Algerian Parliament (APN), Mr. Larbi Ould Khelifa, indicated during a meeting with the Franco-Algerian youth group " Algeria has no problems with Morocco". Mr. Ould Khelifa stated that his country’s position with respect to the question of Western Sahara is part of "Algeria’s principles for the defense of the just causes".  

Using Ould Khelifa’s logic, the Algerian government should sponsor caravans in support of Chechens fighting Russians, Tibet monks fighting for a Tibet homeland and Kashmiri living under Indian rule. In fact, the APN leader’s pleas on behalf of “Sahrawis” contradict his own government long standing position in the conflict brewing in Mali. Algeria has consistently conspired to undermine any political resolution that would give Malian Touareg the right to self-determination.

It is hard to understand Mr. Ould Khelifa’s support for “ just causes” when Algeria keeps $190 billion of currency in its reserves while  Average Algerians, struggling with unemployment, a broke health system and crumbling schools can’t get their demands heard by their own government.  Algerian government investment in time and money on a propaganda tour for the Sahrawis is a clear indication of the Bouteflika’s government indifference to the pains of those Algerians holding protests across the country.

The Algerian government has a habit of deflecting internal criticism by blaming “foreign hands”. From the Moroccan monarchy to the little sheikhdom of Qatar and passing by the favorite ‘bête noire” France, the pro-government press will inject stories and create event to cast blame on others for the failures and corruption of the Algerian elites. 

It is not a coincidence that Mr. Ould Khelifa caravan is making news when Algeria’s oil company, Sonatrach, is facing an international corruption scandal. As the Algerian public started to ask for government accountability, the official media machine started to bring up the specter of foreign enemies’ plots as a justification for the ills of the country.

The Bouteflika government, still reeling from news that the Italian Oil Company ENI paid Algerian officials more than $256 million in bribes to secure a multi-billion dollar contract with Sonatrach, is struggling to contain the public outrage and looking for scapegoats to ward off criticisms that may engulf the Bouteflika circles.

Recent events in Mali have given rise to call by some Algerian ethnic groups for more minority rights within the North African country. Algerian Touareg unhappy with their living conditions and disgruntled with their government’s apathy toward their cousins in Mali have used successfully the threat of separation to get Prime Minister Sellal’s attention. 

Some of the Algerians living in France, familiar with the Malian crisis, may find their government support  for “the principle of the right of peoples to self-determination” in the Western Sahara as hypocritical given Algiers refusal to support the same rights for the Touareg in Northern Mali. 

With so much at stake, Algerians, including those living aboard are questioning the wisdom of a trip to Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf when their national unity is being threatened from within.