In 2012, Hocine, a former member of a pro-government paramilitary group that fought in Algeria’s civil war, had little good to say about the conditions that he and his former comrades were then facing at the hands of the Algerian government.
“Once the country regained its stability, they tossed us out,” he lamented. “At a time when those who [had fought the government and later repented] are laundering the spoils of war and trading with everyone’s knowledge, our invalids receive DZD4,000 [approximately $50] per month.” Since Hocine’s remarks, the situation has improved to an extent for former militiamen, but not in any dramatic way.
After Algeria’s war, the regime developed mechanisms to incorporate former militiamen into the state. It established volunteer-based auxiliary military structures or facilitated the return of former combatants to civilian life. As a result, a sizable number of onetime combatants acquired legal military status. A strategy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) has led to the reintegration of most militiamen, but not all, while the state’s collection of some 80,000 weapons is still in the air.
Paramilitary groups, or militias, emerged in Algeria during the so-called Black Decade between 1991 and 2001. At the time the state was overwhelmed by the mushrooming of jihadi groups and sought to compensate for this. In 1993, Major-General Mohammed Touati suggested that civilians be involved in the “fight against terrorism.” The government of then-prime minister Redha Malek established the militias in 1994, making them a part of the state’s counterterrorism strategy. Their central mission was to protect the villages and towns where they were established. The militias’ presence was designed to disrupt the supply networks and activities of jihadi groups. This exempted the armed forces and security forces from extending their operations to territories over which they could hardly maintain control. Despite the absence of precise figures, it is believed that some 200,000 militiamen were mobilized by the state.
Three types of militias were formed, namely the Groups for Legitimate Defense (GLD), the Patriots, and the Communal Guard. The GLD were mainly established in the Berber hinterland and had provided armed protection for political parties and regional associations. They operated more or less independently from the state, which was tolerated by the Algerian authorities.
The Patriots, a paramilitary group supported by the National Mujahideen Organization, which represents veterans of the liberation war against France, worked in close collaboration with the National Gendarmerie and had links to the Interior Ministry and local government. Patriots usually operated in towns and villages in the interior of the country and some 4,000 of them are believed to have been killed while fighting jihadis.
The Communal Guard was created through a joint decision of the Interior Ministry and the armed forces. It was placed under the authority of elected communal representatives and walis, or prefects. Members of the Communal Guard received a two-month course of training within the Gendarmerie, wore a uniform, and earned a monthly salary. Their mission was to prevent the return of jihadi groups to liberated areas and occasionally help the army in its missions in mountainous regions.
The authorities decided to dissolve these militias following the advent of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999, the start of Algeria’s national reconciliation process, and the improvement in the security situation. In 2009, the government announced the dissolution of the Patriots and their gradual social reintegration. Members were given the choice of either laying down their weapons and returning to civilian life or joining the army. As result, those who chose not to be demobilized were attached to the Defense Ministry by presidential decree and were recognized as “volunteer citizens.” They were given a contract, social security, insurance, a regular salary, and the right to access military health structures. Their activities were reorganized and the army command proceeded with the installation of new military camps in their areas of operation, so that they could carry out their tasks.
As for those former militia members who chose to leave, a majority of them benefited from credit and other facilities provided through the National Plan for Agricultural and Rural Development and worked as farmers. Others joined security companies for the protection of major state-owned companies such as Sonelgaz, the General Directorate of Forestry, or the National Water and Sanitation Company.
In 2010 the interior minister dissolved the Communal Guard, incorporating around 62,000 members into the army and demobilizing around 30,000. Those who were entitled to it among the rest of the workforce earned retirement or long-term invalidity benefits, and a special fund to finance their reintegration was created the same year.
However, problems remain. One of these is that in its DDR strategy, the government has focused on the Patriots and the Communal Guard, leaving the GLD by the wayside because of its independence. The GLD units were not integrated into the state, did not benefit from any compensation scheme, and were never totally disarmed.
Second, while efforts to adress the postwar fate of the Patriots and the Communal Guard were successful to an extent, members of these organizations have not always been happy with the conditions. Patriots, for example, have been asking for better pensions and retirement benefits that are comparable to those received by other auxiliary bodies such as the Communal Guard, without these being conditional on the number of years served. The Patriots have also asked for health insurance coverage, housing quotas, the right to hold another job without being denied their pension, and other demands. The authorities promised to accede to many of these, but never followed through. A large number of former militiamen are in a precarious situation, suffering from low salaries, receiving no pensions, and having no access to medical facilities.
Eighteen years since the end of Algeria’s civil war, the government, despite its efforts, is paying for its lack of a clear strategy toward former militiamen. More broadly, at a time when there is an abundance of official militias or armed groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the importance of getting right the process of demobilizing, disarming, and reintegrating their members is closely tied in to the stability of the region’s countries.