Abdelaziz Bouteflika: portrait of a tolerated dictator


For the past 20 years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ruled Algeria with an iron fist, consolidating the country’s power poles within a clan made up of oligarchs, political dinosaurs and his immediate family members. In a context of political turmoil, human rights abuses have never been as rife as today, the free press has never been as restricted as today and the economy has never been as in danger as today. 

Even what our western counterparts take for granted, such as being able to demonstrate, has been taken away by Bouteflika. In 2001, Bouteflika’s military forces shot Berber protesters with live ammunition killing 130, in what could easily amount to a crime against humanity; in the same year, Bouteflika banned public gatherings altogether in the capital city Algiers, making Algeria one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Over the past weeks, the regime has shown its true colours of repression and deception. When journalists arrested during a sit-in on the 28th of February were forced into white vans, they were allegedly tortured using tasers for no valid reason whatsoever, thereafter requiring medical attention. 

During the 1stof March’s demonstrations, after the end of the protests, the regime is alleged to have sent out thugs, who burned cars and attacked peaceful protesters, resulting in the death of the son of a famous Algerian revolutionary, whose father was no other than Benyoucef Benkheda, a man considered by many as a founding father of today’s Algeria.

Images broadcast on social networks confirm that a devilish plan had been concocted to sow disorder. Garbage bins full of pebbles, discovered along the main arteries of the capital are the irrefutable proof of it. If these provocateurs waited for the crowd to disperse to enter the scene, it was because they knew that the demonstrators would never let them infiltrate the peaceful movement.

The darker role of these regime-paid thugs was made evident shortly after, when public and private medias chose to make these isolated acts the focus of the evening’s news bulletins, relegating to the background the historic demonstrations of Algerians from all fringes of society, whilst subtly putting forward (once again) the regime’s narrative of: If we don’t stay Algeria will turn into Syria or Libya.

Corruption has become a national sport with the likes of Ali Haddad and Reda Kouninef profiteering from the situation at the expense of millions of citizens. Yet for the past four elections, western democratic countries have accepted the Algerian dictatorship and their leaders were seen lining up to congratulate Bouteflika on his wins. 

There are obvious reasons for this tolerance by Western countries, but the main reason certainly revolves around juicy oil and gas contracts handed out to western multinationals such as ExxonMobil or Total, even when they do not make business sense for the future of the country. In a way the regime bribes western countries into silence. 

The other factor in play is the proximity of Algeria to Europe. Western countries would rather tolerate a dictator than have a humanitarian and migration crisis at their borders. In the statement made to parliament by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia saying that “Algeria could turn into Syria”, the other intended recipient of the thinly veiled threat was the international community, essentially telling foreign leaders “if we are forced to go we will turn Algeria into Syria”.

Other than international NGOs, not a single time during Bouteflika’s reign, did foreign powers condemn anything the regime was up to. A silence that undoubtedly makes the West an accomplice in the Algerian tragedy.

There are many reasons why Bouteflika and his clan refuse to let go of their grip on power, but the most important one is the following: Bouteflika and all his entourage, starting from Sellal to Benghabrit, either embezzled public funds or used their political influence to enrich their immediate family members. This is the case from the lower echelons of the regime to the highest.

Nouria Benghabrit for example, went as far as using her position of power to impose her son as a U.N speaker for Algeria. Former prime minister and Bouteflika’s campaign director (up until the 2ndof March) Abdelmalek Sellal, made national headlines after investigative journalists found a number of properties in London and Paris belonging to his daughter; Former FLN Chief Amar Saadani is thought to have embezzled hundreds of millions of Euros, with his daughters and son proudly spending the stolen funds in London, Dubai and Paris, with complete impunity. 

As a consequence of their actions, the majority of Algeria’s leadership would end up in prison for the crimes they engaged in for decades. It is fair to say that in any half-functioning country, Bouteflika and his entourage would be facing serious charges, jail terms and possibly even tried for high treason.

Now let’s detail what the Bouteflika clan puts forwards as achievements when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

A social peace hijacked for political gain

Many of the regime’s loyalists attribute social peace experienced in the country to Bouteflika, as if he single-handedly put a stop to the civil war. When in fact, he wasn’t even in the country. During the bloody civil war that caused over 200,000 casualties, Bouteflika was in the Gulf, living the high life far from the civil war, with the funds he previously embezzled from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and for which the Algerian court of audit found him guilty.

Bouteflika was being presented as the antidote to a system he helped create in the first place. Bringing him as an antidote, was no more than an act of misdirection. Former president Lamine Zeroual, had already pretty much finished with the islamists, with the effort being a collective one: 

On one side the Algerian people were getting fed up of the war, on another side the military did an extraordinary job in fighting the Islamist insurgency. None of which was a result in any shape or form of Bouteflika’s actions. Again, at the time, Bouteflika was away from his country whilst his countrymen were dying at the frontline.

A banana economy

As oil prices increased, the existing clan needed to create a stable geopolitical context in the country to be able to profit off the oil revenues, and that is exactly what happened when Bouteflika was brought in as some sort of Messiah. 

In 19 years of monarchical and chaotic reign, Bouteflika ruined the country, depriving it of any chance of becoming an emerging country, squandering the money of the present and the future. Some economists talk about $1,000 billion burned through a large reliance on imports and epidemic levels of corruption.

Bouteflika has not diversified the national economy despite an unprecedented financial influx, he leaves Algeria in agony with oil revenues unable to ensure the survival of the nation. No serious investment has been made in production to provide the country with a viable economy that moves on from hydrocarbons. When Bouteflika arrived in 1999, Algeria was 97% dependent on oil. In 2018, 19 years later, the country is still 97% dependent on oil.

The few infrastructural projects initiated by Bouteflika were poorly thought, rather than build much needed hospitals and solid educational institutions, the president built a mosque at a cost of over $3 billion, a mosque tainted with corruption and embezzlements. Most of Algeria’s infrastructural projects were handed out to his close friends and his brother, in the process ending up much more expensive than what similar projects cost in other countries, for essentially Chinese made versions.

In Bouteflika’s Algeria, the elite and their family members act as if they own the country, social justice has never been as inexistent, a mere son or daughter of a dignitary can order police or military officers around as if they were their personal butlers.

Whilst the majority of Algerians are restricted to around 100 Euros per year in foreign currency, most (if not all) of the current’s regime members have bank accounts in Switzerland, Panama, Seychelles amongst other tax havens; in addition to owning large portfolios of properties across the world, using trustees and other financial entities to hide the stolen wealth. 

The Algerian passport has never been as worthless, dropping in global rankings and making Algerians essentially personas non grata worldwide. But for that the elite has found a solution: citizenships by investment, government-run schemes offered by, generally small island countries mostly in the Caribbean, granting the country’s citizenship in exchange of a large donation to their national development fund or through purchasing real estate. When I spoke to one of the firms offering the service, I was told that an increasing number of Algerians have opted for such options, although they refused to provide specific names.

For all these reasons and many more, it is no longer a time to persuade Bouteflika to leave power but to force him to do so. The Algerian president, in the same Caliphal spirit that inhabited Mugabe, Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi, all torn from the throne by force, will not leave of his own accord.

One thing is certain, in Algeria, it’s almost too late, the damage is done, and generations to come will suffer as a result of Bouteflika’s illegitimate reign.

Artwork provided by Leo Vodden for the Algiers Herald