Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerian leader for 20 years, dies at 84


(Bloomberg) – Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who brought Algeria out of civil war to become its longest-serving president, has died at 84, according to state television.

The report did not provide a cause of death for the former leader, who resigned in 2019 after 20 years of rule and following mass protests against him to run for a fifth term.

Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Although he was re-elected in 2014, Bouteflika was largely incapacitated, ruling with the help of his brother Saïd and a coterie of army officers, businessmen and officials of the FLN party, known collectively as “the power”.

His candidacy for re-election at the time sparked anger and disbelief among Algerians, nearly half of whom were under 25 and did not want to be ruled by aging veterans of the country’s war of independence vis -to France.

While at the helm of one of Africa’s largest oil and gas exporters, Bouteflika worked to co-opt and weaken the country’s opposition parties. He was replaced by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a longtime government insider who was elected in a low turnout vote in December 2019.

Stability first

When he came to power in 1999, Bouteflika cut a more popular figure. At the time, Algeria was still ravaged by a civil war that began in 1992 after the army, unwilling to accept an expected victory for Islamists in the legislative elections, called off the ballot.

By the end of the decade, the rebels were divided and Bouteflika and the army exploited these divisions to defeat them, thus ending the conflict. Up to 200,000 people have died in brutal fighting, thousands have disappeared and Algerians who experienced the violence still attribute Bouteflika to his role in restoring peace.

Barely affected by the Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the region in 2011, Algerian lawmakers at the time approved constitutional changes granting more political rights to key constituencies, including the indigenous Amazigh community, women and men. businessmen.

Critically, a long period of relatively high oil prices provided Bouteflika with the financial resources to redeem public discontent with generous public benefits. During the 2014 election race, he cracked down on small protests with a mixture of water cannons and improvements in public sector subsidies and wages.

Falling oil prices during his fourth term, coupled with the failure to modernize and diversify the economy, made such handouts increasingly unaffordable as thousands of teachers and doctors organized strikes in 2018, demanding better wages and working conditions.

His detractors accused Bouteflika of having let down the country’s youth and allowing corruption to flourish. A withdrawn system controlled by a small, opaque cabal of aging men has failed to keep pace with a rapidly changing world and create enough economic growth and jobs for its younger population. of 40 million. Unlike other OPEC members, Algeria has resisted exploiting the global debt market despite the oil crisis, its leaders, mostly heroes of the anti-colonial movement, fearing to “mortgage” the country’s future. to outside powers.

Military role

Bouteflika was born on March 2, 1937 in Oujda, then in French Morocco, although his parents, Ahmed Bouteflika and Mansouria Ghezlaoui, were from the Tlemcen region in Algeria.

In 1956, Bouteflika interrupted his studies in philosophy to join the military wing of the National Liberation Front, known by the French acronym FLN. He then served in the National Liberation Army, where he was a protégé of Houari Boumedienne, a commander in the war against French colonial rule.

After Algeria’s independence in 1962, Bouteflika became Minister of Youth and Sports in the government of President Ahmed Ben Bella, whom he helped topple three years later in a directed coup. by Boumedienne, then Minister of Defense.

Bouteflika was then Minister of Foreign Affairs until Boumediene’s death in 1978. He left the country for about six years following allegations of embezzlement of public funds, returning in 1989 to a period of political turmoil. Power struggles between President Chadli Bendjedid and influential generals have crippled the government and frustrated the public.

In 1992, the military annulled the elections that the Islamic Salvation Front was to win, sparking civil war. Bouteflika stayed away during the first years of the fighting and then, with the support of the army, ran for president.

Electoral success

He was the only candidate in the 1999 ballot, with the other candidates withdrawing before polling day, and was elected with 74% of the vote. International observers have made allegations of electoral fraud following his repeated overwhelming victories at the polls.

While his rise brought initial hopes for economic development and political openness, Bouteflika quickly disappointed, restricting the activities of political parties and banning new ones. Even though the economy was improving, Algeria did not meet its oil production target, as local taxes and corruption investigations within the state-owned oil company, Sonatrach SpA, held back foreign interest. for exploration.

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