How Algeria Became Indispensable
Riding an energy export boom, the North African country is flexing its economic and diplomatic muscle.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: An election in Benin, Senegal’s protests, and how African artists are addressing a lack of funding for the arts.
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Algeria Bets on BRICS
Algeria, Africa’s largest natural gas exporter, is making the most of a new era in great-power rivalry and an ongoing energy crisis. Having officially applied in November 2022 to join the BRICS group of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s administration signed up shortly after to extend Belt and Road Initiative projects with China on infrastructure, energy, and space exploration.
Now a vital gas supplier to Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Algeria’s windfall profits from energy exports exceeded $50 billion last year, up from $34 billion in 2021 and just $20 billion in 2020. But it has found itself a target of Washington’s demands that allies cut economic ties with Russia regardless of their own sovereign interests.
“There is no sugarcoating it, Algeria’s growing relationship with Russia poses a threat to every nation across the globe,” said U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain upon the release last September of a letter signed by her and 26 other lawmakers and addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“[In 2021] alone, Algeria finalized an arms purchase with Russia that totaled over $7 billion. In this deal, Algeria agreed to purchase advanced Russian fighter aircraft, including Sukhoi 57. … The United States needs to send a clear message to the world that the support for Vladimir Putin, and his regime’s barbaric war efforts will not be tolerated,” the lawmakers wrote.
Reluctant to endanger security and trade ties with Beijing and Moscow, Algeria has sought to join BRICS in order to chart its own foreign policy more easily while protecting its growing economic opportunities as an energy exporter. Its fellow Arab League members Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also expressed interest in joining BRICS.
China has been the main exporter to Algeria since 2013, displacing former colonial power France, and the pair signed a second five-year strategic cooperation pact earlier in November. Meanwhile, Russia supplies around 80 percent of Algeria’s weapons, making Algeria Russia’s third-largest arms importer, after India and China. Algiers and Moscow held joint military exercises near the Moroccan border in November.
It comes as no surprise that Beijing and Moscow have welcomed the application. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Algeria in May 2022, and during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Saudi Arabia last month, he met with Algerian Prime Minister Aymen Benabderrahmane, and the pair vowed to further strengthen relations.
“Algeria would definitely like to join BRICS. The question is whether we will be accepted, because there are certain obligations. We need to bring some of our legislative acts to a common standard,” Algiers Gov. Mohamed Abdenour Rabehi told the Russian state news agency Sputnik last month.
Only three weeks ago, Sonatrach, Algeria’s state-owned oil company, and the German gas company VNG signed a contract for the construction of the first green hydrogen plant in Algiers, which will produce 50 megawatts of electricity from solar energy. Algeria is also gearing up to sell its spare electricity capacity to Europe while pushing to double gas exports to reach 100 billion cubic meters per year, compared with 56 billion cubic meters per year in 2022, Tebboune told reporters.
At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last month, Tebboune was noticeably absent, preferring to send Benabderrahmane instead as his administration carefully crafts a “neutral” stance in world diplomacy to avoid being drawn into Washington’s criticisms of Russia or Algeria’s authoritarian leadership.
At home, Algeria’s military holds power while Tebboune, who was elected with military support in 2019, has been cracking down on dissent. Last month, Algerian authorities arrested prominent journalist Ihsane el-Kadi and shut down his Radio M internet station, seen as the country’s last remaining independent media outlet.
Lacking domestic political legitimacy, Tebboune’s government has chosen to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and highlight its nonaligned stance with Russia, China, and the West. But, of course, the last addition the BRICS collective made to the group was South Africa in 2010, so Algeria will likely be waiting a long time for an answer. Meanwhile, the country is riding high due to growing demand for oil and gas exports, which make up about 90 percent of Algeria’s foreign exchange income. But when that boom ends, Algerians could once again demand democratic change, as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Jan. 11: Ghana releases inflation data for December.
Wednesday, Jan. 11, to Monday, Jan. 16: China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, will visit Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt as part of a weeklong trip that began on Monday.
Thursday, Jan. 12: South Africa’s finance minister, Enoch Godongwana, hosts a meeting with the country’s delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Saturday, Jan. 14: Tunisia marks the 12th anniversary of the ousting of its former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Monday, Jan. 16: Legal challenges to Britain’s asylum deal with Rwanda are heard at the High Court in London.
What We’re Watching
Benin elections. Opposition parties took part in parliamentary elections in Benin on Sunday for the first time since President Patrice Talon came to power in 2016. Electoral officials are still tallying numbers, with results expected next week. Talon, a cotton magnate, barred opposition parties from participating in the 2019 legislative polls, and only two political parties allied with Talon were allowed to take part in the 2021 presidential election. Most of Talon’s key political opponents have either been jailed or forced into exile.
M23 withdrawals. M23 rebels fighting the federal government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have seized new territory even after agreeing to hand back a previously captured army base, according to the United Nations.
M23 rebels on Friday agreed to surrender to East African Community forces one of the largest bases it seized back in October in the strategic military town of Rumangabo in eastern North Kivu province. However, U.N. intelligence analysts spotted signs that the armed group has occupied other areas, according to an internal U.N. document released on Thursday prior to the handover.
Senegal bans protest. Senegalese authorities banned a protest that had been planned for Jan. 6, saying that the place chosen for the demonstration was subject to “major works” ahead of the country’s Independence Day celebrations.
But supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who had called for the protest, say authorities feared the demonstration would embarrass the government because it was in response to a report published last month by the Court of Auditors, which found irregularities in how the country’s $1.5 billion COVID-19 fund was spent.
A previous demonstration, called by civil society organizations, took place on Dec. 30. In response to the report, the administration of President Macky Sall said the failures identified in the report accounted for less than 1 percent of the total fund. Last June, Amnesty International decried “[r]epeated bans on demonstrations” in Senegal after a planned street protest in Dakar against the government was blocked.
Botswana warrant. Botswana’s ex-leader Ian Khama has asked his country’s high court to set aside an arrest warrant issued against him by a magistrate this month, citing lack of evidence for prosecution.
The warrant was issued after Khama, who now lives in South Africa, failed to appear for trial in April on charges of receiving stolen property and unlawful possession of a firearm dating back to 2016. Khama denies the charges, saying they are part of a political conspiracy due to a fallout with his successor, incumbent President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Khama—whose father, Seretse Khama, was Botswana’s first president—quit the ruling Botswana Democratic Party in 2019 and has since backed a splinter party, the Botswana Patriotic Front.
This Week in Culture
Arts residencies. Last month, prominent Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo—whose work is seen above at a Miami exhibit—launched dot.ateliers, a highly anticipated artist residency and exhibition space in Ghana’s capital, Accra. The building is designed by Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye.
Artist-run institutes founded by Africa’s diaspora artists have been growing over the past few years, sustained by international interest in the region’s art scene. In 2021, a Boafo painting sold for $3.4 million to a collector in Hong Kong. “The initiatives by artists in Ghana are incredible, but there is sadly the lack of support from the government and elsewhere due to different priorities, maybe? It is now up to us individuals in the art industry to contribute to filling that void of support,” Boafo told the Art Newspaper.
Boafo’s residency launch follows that of British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare setting up two residency spaces last March in Lagos and Ijebu, Nigeria. American artist Kehinde Wiley launched his Black Rock residency in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, in 2019 and is planning another in Nigeria. Meanwhile, Congolese artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga is planning to launch a space for both Congolese and international artists in Kinshasa by the end of this year.
Nigeria’s creative industry is the country’s second-largest employer and biggest export after oil and gas. However, in the absence of sufficient government funding for the arts, these initiatives are becoming key incubators of African talent and addressing a lack of access to cultural infrastructure.
Chart of the Week
Egyptian banks announced last week that they are offering certificates of deposit with 25 percent interest rates, adding further pressure on the Egyptian pound, which sank 7 percent to a record low of around 27 pounds to the dollar on Sunday. In 2022, the pound plunged 40 percent against the dollar, and the latest drop is the steepest since the Central Bank of Egypt’s currency devaluation in late October as part of efforts to secure a $3 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund.
Egypt’s economy is spiraling after becoming dependent on hot money and has struggled to maintain enough foreign inflows to sustain a fixed exchange rate. At the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, foreign investors pulled around $20 billion out of Egypt.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse by Alexander J. Motyl
• Lessons for the Next War by FP Contributors
• Russia Is Afraid of Western Psychic Attacks by Lauren Wolfe
What We’re Reading
Senegal two-term limit. Senegalese President Macky Sall has come under attack for refusing to confirm that he will not run for an unconstitutional third term in the country’s 2024 elections. In an op-ed published last week, Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr described Sall’s actions as an “authoritarian drift” that takes “the Senegalese people hostage.”
Senegal is “witnessing in disbelief the erosion of what has made our country a nation that has been able to avoid ethnic-religious conflicts, military coups, and civil wars in a postcolonial Africa struggling with multiple upheavals,” he wrote, warning of protests in the country against a third term as there were a decade ago against former President Abdoulaye Wade’s third-term bid. “We expect you to announce that after being elected twice as head of Senegal, you will not run for a third time in the presidential election and that, in doing so, you respect your oath,” Sarr wrote.
Nigeria’s election opponents. In African Arguments, Idayat Hassan, the director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, writes that Nigeria’s upcoming election in February “will mark 24 years of unbroken democracy, the longest stretch since independence” and with a stronger electronic voting system it could be the most democratic and transparent. That said, maintaining the security of voters will be more difficult than ever. Along with a significant population of internally displaced people, who will struggle to reach polling stations, “[t]he fear of violence may translate into citizens not showing up to cast their votes,” she writes.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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