Algeria’s longest reigning president Abdelaziz Bouteflika will be remembered as the man who helped Algeria transition from a brutal decade-long war, and reshaped the country’s international standing after years of isolation, but also the man who used reforms and amendments to stay in office for life.
Born on 2 March 1937 in the Moroccan city of Oujda to Algerian parents, Bouteflika had four brothers, a sister and three half-sisters. Like many of Algeria’s power elite, Bouteflika secured his foot in the political arena during the eight-year war of liberation against the French.
Two years after the National Liberation Front launched the war of independence in 1954, Bouteflika joined the military wing of the FLN and received military training at the Ecole des Cadres in Morocco. Serving in his family’s home region in western Algeria, Bouteflika was placed in control of the district and later lead a group of commanders who later formed the “Oujda clan” which would dominate following the country’s independence in 1962.
Under the government of the first president of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, he served as Minister of youth and was later appointed foreign minister – a role in which he excelled. The pair worked well together – according to Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Ben Bella, a skilled footballer, would often have a quick game of football with Bouteflika between meetings.But the tide against Ben Bella began to build and Bouteflika chose to take part in organising the bloodless coup that brought military man Houari Boumedienne to power. Under his presidency, Bouteflika continued as foreign affairs minister. Not reclusive like Boumedienne, Bouteflika soon earned himself the title of “dandy diplomat” for being the well-dressed spokesman of the developing world.
By the time Boumedienne died in 1978, Bouteflika had made a mark for himself in the power circle and was one of two favourites to take over the presidential role. But it would be 20 years before he would come to power. His wait for the role was further stalled by accusations of corruption in 1981 after he was charged with embezzling $60 million which he claimed he took for funds in constructing a new building for his ministry. Bouteflika left the country in self-imposed exile moving to Switzerland and the Gulf.
After only reimbursing a small amount of the money owed, Bouteflika was granted a presidential pardon by then premier Chadli Bendjedid and was welcomed back by the army in 1987. He was later made a member of the Central Committee of the FLN which was beginning to lose its influence.
One of 18 historic figures, Bouteflika signed a letter calling for democracy and political reform in 1988 as the capital was gripped by riots lead by the country’s marginalised youth. Following the riots of Black October, the one-party rule was challenged with the intent of marking a new democratic chapter, but instead provoked the Black decade when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) rapidly gained popularity and, poised to win parliamentary elections in 1992, was prevented from securing a win when the army cancelled the election and sparked an insurgency.
As the ugly war raged on, Bouteflika declined an offer of an interim presidency in 1994 allegedly because he was refused power over military appointments. In 1999, with the military seeking a lower profile, Bouteflika was able to secure the presidential post completely uncontested when the six opposing candidates withdrew from the poll less than 24 hours before the vote in protest of foul play.Stuck in the throes of a brutal civil war between the military junta and Islamist insurgents, Bouteflika had the seemingly impossible task of returning hope to Algerians desperate for the bloodshed to end.
Honouring his presidential promise to restore national harmony, he released thousands of militants and secured overwhelming support from the country through a referendum on a civil concord that offered an amnesty to armed militants that no longer wanted to continue in the fighting.
Choosing to carefully lay blame for the conflict firmly on the insurgents and not the army, his diplomacy focused on fixing the tarnished reputation of the government marred with accusations of human rights abuses during the war. Placing national reconciliation at the centre of his politics until 2001, Bouteflika sought to cement his legitimacy with the objective of restoring Algeria’s standing within the international sphere through economic nationalisation and domestic normalisation.
His reconciliation policies were based on the logic of impunity, remuneration and national amnesia: “how are you going to leave this war behind if you don’t forget?” Bouteflika would ask a meeting with mothers of the disappeared during the war in 1999.
Gradually reducing the violence, Bouteflika successfully administered $150 billion from Algeria’s reserves to build the fatigued country after 2000. Ending the country’s policy of isolation from the Black Decade, he presided over the African Union, facilitated the Algiers Peace Treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and hosted President Jacques Chirac of France in 2003 – the first visit by a French official since independence.
Transitioning the war-torn and isolated country into a necessary regional partner, Bouteflika’s staunch anti-interventionist rhetoric and fight against terrorism sculpted him as a key player for the West’s US-led “war on terror”. However the state’s economic policies failed to wean the economy off its dependence of oil and gas and regularly provoked increased austerity and public cuts causing social unrest which is still seen today.
Despite claims of foul play at every election win, Bouteflika held genuine popularity during the former part of his long presidency. He was able to secure a landslide election victory in 2004, then in 2009 and finally a fourth term in office in April 2014 despite not partaking in the election campaign after suffering a stroke in 2013 which left him wheelchair-bound.
In 2008, Bouteflika was criticised heavily when he amended the constitution, removing the two-term limit on the presidency allowing himself to remain head of state indefinitely. The change was reversed in constitutional reforms in 2016 which were dismissed by critics as superficial changes that would do little to dent the autocracy which defined his presidency.
Once a revered leader that introduced a series of positive reforms into post-independence and civil war Algeria, he lost much respect from the country’s young population by maintaining his power hold and keeping only those loyal to his quest close, forming a power oligarchy that placed state interests first.As a result, people rose up against his plans to run for a fifth term in 2019 forcing him to step down in April 2019. Having rarely been seen in public after suffering a stroke, Algerians questioned Bouteflika’s ability to rule, claiming he was being used as a pawn to keep the ruling elite in power.
As with many of the war veterans that used their historical legitimacy to justify their seat at head of the political table, national memory of Bouteflika’s achievements will be overridden by the latter part of his life – a skeletal figure in a wheelchair instead of the successful politician that defined the country’s international standing today.