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Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the current and longest serving president of Algeria. His eloquence and guile brought him to power at a time when the country was drifting towards violent extremism. To some, he is a charismatic liberal Boumedienist; to others, a corrupt dictator. This year marks six decades since he left school to fight the war of independence and embark on a long journey of diplomacy and politics, marked by both triumph and failure. Following two strokes in recent years, he has gradually disappeared from public life.
Bouteflika was born on 2 March 1937 in Oujda, Morocco to parents from Tlemcen, Algeria. He grew up in a modest family with five siblings and three stepsisters. A son of a zaouia (Islamic monastery) sheikh, he memorized the Koran at a very young age. He continued his education in Oujda up to high school then, as many young people were doing, he joined the Algerian Liberation Army (ALN) and was soon promoted. In 1960, he was tasked with leading the Malian Front in the Algerian south. He became known as Abdelkader al-Mali (the Malian), his revolutionary name which has survived to this day. In the ALN, Bouteflika reportedly excelled at communication and negotiation and became known for his leadership skills. It was also around this time that he met Houari Boumediene, his best friend and later president of Algeria from 1965-1978.
After Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, Bouteflika was appointed minister of youth, sports and tourism. He became minister of foreign affairs in 1963. In 1964, he was elected a member of the political bureau and the central committee of the National Liberation Front (FLN), at the time the country’s sole political party. From 1964-1965, President Ahmed Ben Bella tried to isolate Boumediene’s allies, known as the Clan of Oujda. Only when he tried to dismiss Bouteflika did Boumediene overthrow him in a bloodless coup and replace him with a Revolutionary Council. Bouteflika contributed to the coup and was appointed to the Revolutionary Council.
Boumediene became president and kept Bouteflika as chief of diplomacy in an era when Algeria maintained a non-alignment policy and advocated the development of post-colonial states. Bouteflika made a name for himself in the developing world and beyond as an astute negotiator and eloquent orator. In 1974, the UN General Assembly unanimously elected Bouteflika, by then foreign minister, as its president.
When Boumediene died in December 1978, Bouteflika and the FLN director, Salah Yahyaoui, topped the list of successors. However, Bouteflika lost out to Boumediene’s defence minister, Chadli Bendjedid, who was a consensual candidate backed by the military. Bouteflika was regarded as being too liberal; Yahyaoui too socialist. The army, then in control of the country’s politics, allegedly wanted to end the Boumediene era, of which Bouteflika was considered an extension. In 1981, Bouteflika was charged with corruption. He was subsequently found guilty and removed from the FLN’s party ranks. To avoid the fate of his jailed collaborators, Senouci and Boudjakdji, he went into self-imposed exile. He spent the period from 1981 and 1986 in the UAE, Switzerland and France. In 1983, the state newspaper, el Moudjahid, reported that the Court of Auditors had found that between 1965-1978 Bouteflika had allegedly mismanaged over 6 billion Algerian centimes (59 million Algerian dinars or 469,169 Swiss francs) related to budgetary exercises and the extra-budgetary expenses of diplomatic and consular missions.
Return to the Scene
In 1986, President Bendjedid granted Bouteflika amnesty and cleared him of the corruption charges, following numerous appeals by Bouteflika himself and intervention from such influential figures as Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Zayed of the UAE. Bouteflika returned to Algeria at a time of social crisis caused by bad governance. This led to a change in the constitution allowing for a democratic opening, the end of one-party FLN rule and a bloody civil war after Bendjedid and the army annulled an Islamist election victory. In 1989, the FLN reelected Bouteflika to the central committee. In 1992, Mohamed Boudiaf, who had gone into exile in Morocco in 1964, was invited to return as the head of a military-backed council of state. Following Boudiaf’s assassination in 1992, the military, which saw in Bouteflika the ideal successor, asked him to lead the country. He declined, saying: “I don’t do politics, I don’t want it anymore, I swear I will never be involved in politics.” In 1999, however, Bouteflika ran for and won the presidency, although the election was marred by claims of military meddling and the withdrawal of the other candidates a day before voting.
As president, Bouteflika focused on rebuilding the country and strengthening Algeria’s international reputation. He led a successful campaign to convince Algerians to vote on a national project for peace and reconciliation meant to rehabilitate extremists who were not guilty of murder, rape and bombing. Over 97% of voters said ‘yes’ to reconciliation. Aided by consistently high oil prices, he wrote off all of Algeria’s external debts and embarked on important infrastructure projects and legal reforms aimed at economic liberalization and attracting investment. On the foreign policy front, he pushed for regional integration at the Maghreb and Mediterranean level and endeavoured to position Algeria as an African leader. The country hosted many regional and international events. Thanks to Bouteflika’s extensive experience in the field, it also played an unprecedented role in fighting terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel.
Domestically, Bouteflika worked on distancing the military, namely the security services, from the political arena. This created a power struggle that continues to define Algerian politics. In September 2015, he succeeded in ‘retiring’ the former chief of Algeria’s spy unit, the DRS, and created a new agency under the control of the presidency. After the Arab Spring of 2011, Bouteflika promised further reforms in a bid to save his regime from the fate of Tunisia’s Ben Ali. In February 2016, the last of these reforms was realized when the Algerian parliament approved a landmark package of constitutional reforms granting more freedoms to the press, minorities, the opposition and marginalized youth and women.
Bouteflika’s ailing health in recent years has been the cause of much speculation, fuelled by a lack of information from the presidency on the topic. In 2013, the president suffered a stroke and was rushed to France for medical treatment. Since then, his public appearances have reduced significantly and he has only communicated through letters read by his allies and associates. These include his good friend, advisor and speechwriter Mohamed Benamer Zerhouni, former PM Ahmed Ouyahia, retired general Khermubi, former minister Blaiz, and his brother, Said. Even so, Bouteflika sought and won a fourth term in 2014, although his opponents decried the results as fraudulent and demanded his resignation.
Moreover, Bouteflika’s administration has often been marred by corruption at all levels. In 2015, Transparency International ranked Algeria 88 out of 186 countries. With oil prices now at historically low levels, many Algerians wonder why their economy is still so reliant on such a finite resource and what the government has done with the petrodollars earned when the commodity was hitting $140-a-barrel highs.