Abdelaziz Bouteflika ruled Algeria with an iron fist for 20 years – from 1999 to 2019.
He was a political figure, one of the initial architects of Algeria’s authoritarian political system in the decades after its independence from France in 1962.
His journey passed through different phases. During the first (1963-1979), he was the visible face of the golden age of the country’s foreign policy. In the following years he lived in self-imposed exile, returning to the country only occasionally. In 1994 he turned down the presidency, but then accepted it five years later in 1999.
He came to power through a highly controversial election. On the eve of the presidential poll six contenders withdrew believing – rightly – that he had already been chosen by the real powers.
His ascendance to the presidency was a gratifying moment for Bouteflika. Twenty years earlier he had firmly believed that he was the rightful heir to his mentor, Houari Boumediene, who ruled the country from 1965 until his death in late 1978 due to grave illness.
But it was not to be: Bouteflika was not trusted. And the head of intelligence and other powerful members of the regime barred him from succeeding Boumediene.
His ascension to power in 1999 might have comforted his conviction that he should have been the rightful ruler after Boumediene. Nevertheless, his two decades in power were the most damaging the country had experienced since independence.
A man thirsty for power
Many Algerians continue to wonder how a man like Bouteflika was able to stay in power, serving not two terms – as set down in the 1996 Constitution – but four. He was in the process of attempting to run for a fifth before being forcibly removed from office by the military on April 2, 2019.
This was preceded by massive and incessant marches calling for his departure and that of his followers.
His many flaws did not go unnoticed during his prolonged stay in power.
In 2003, on the eve of his second term, former minister of defense Khaled Nezzar delivered a damaging criticism of the president in a book Algérie, le Sultanat de Bouteflika.
A year later Algerian journalist Mohamed Benchicou published a book in which he gave a blow-by-blow account of why he believed the president was a sham.
This echoed the views of credible former veteran leaders who were of the view that he had played an insignificant role in the war of independence.
Bouteflika’s supporters presented a very different picture, referring to him as the great Mujahid and compared to the great revolutionaries who fought colonial France, a reference that helped him legitimise his rule and those who usurped the revolutionary credentials for their personal gains.
The early years
In 1963 Algeria’s foreign minister Mohamed Khemisti was assassinated by an allegedly mentally unstable individual. Bouteflika, who was serving as minister of youth and sports, became the foreign minister – the youngest foreign minister in the world at age 26. He held the position until 1979.
He owed his position to Boumediene his mentor, who also protected him.
During the first term of his presidency, Bouteflika was able to redress Algeria’s image overseas; a great orator, his speeches at international forums, such as Davos, were well received. The events of 9/11 offered him the opportunity to position Algeria as a credible partner in the fight against terrorism.
But, while he mended relations with Western powers, he totally neglected relations with sub-Saharan Africa. This did a disservice to Algeria, which had begun losing the capital it had accumulated on the continent since the war of independence. Given that he believed that foreign policy was his reserved domain, no one could challenge his views.
During Bouteflika’s first several years in office, Algeria benefited from increased wealth.
Two major drivers of this had nothing to do with him – a significant increase in oil revenues and abundant rain.
But he didn’t capitalise on this boon and failed to act on promises he had made. These included reforming schools, universities, justice, the country’s administration and the banking system.
The middle and the end
Bouteflika claimed that he needed a second term to carry out the purported reforms. But he didn’t use his second term, which started in 2004, well either. Instead of developing the country he spent it consolidating his power and undoing the limited democratic advances that Algeria had made since introducing a multiparty system and freedom of the press in 1989.
He did this by putting in place a system in which institutions served a few individuals, including members of his family, loyal to him.
In the absence of a genuine, productive economy, Bouteflika’s Algeria depended exclusively on rent from oil, which was redistributed to co-opt clients. In turn, this engendered endemic corruption never witnessed before in Algeria.
The Bouteflika regime isolated opposition parties, except for three. But these could barely be described as opposition parties. The so-called “presidential coalition” was made up of the old single ruling party FLN, its twin brother the RND that had been created in 1997 to provide Liamine Zeroual with a popular base, and the Islamist party, MSP.
In 2008, Bouteflika, not content with the two mandates, decided to amend the Constitution to lift the two-term limit and prepare the ground for his presidency for life.
Five years later, though unable to communicate and confined due to the second stroke he had suffered, Bouteflika, or rather his entourage, sought a fifth term so he could rule until death.
In the last seven years of his presidency, Algeria gave the impression of a ship without a captain. The president was rarely seen in public and when he was, he looked pitiful. His cronies wanted the sultan to be seen, albeit rarely, so they could justify the extension of his rule and to maintain their privileges and the dilapidation of the country’s resources.
A drop in the oil price and the pauperisation of large segments of society infuriated Algerians. But what triggered in 2019 the protest movement against the fifth term was the degree of humiliation they suffered seeing their president being mocked on foreign TV stations and paraded nearly paralysed to prove he was alive.
Algerians were also inflamed seeing the president becoming the subject of idolatry by his followers. The adoration resembled pagan practices, an offence in an Islamic society.
Clearly, Bouteflika had created new mores which Algeria will have difficulty discarding for years to come. His legacy will haunt Algerians for many years. No wonder his death on September 17 went unnoticed. As a citizen put it :
This funeral is a non-event. Around me, nobody is talking about it anyway. It is as if it were the death of a simple person, who was never president. Algerians give the impression of having forgotten Bouteflika, of having turned the page of his reign.