Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the former president of Algeria who has died aged 84, ruled the north African country for 20 years until protests swept him from power in 2019.
A veteran of Algeria’s war of independence from France, he was credited by many of his people with helping restore peace after he became president in 1999, following what was termed the black decade when 100,000 people were killed in political violence between Islamists and the military.
His rule, however, ended in ignominy. Algerians, fed up with decades of corruption and economic mismanagement, rose up. This allowed the military, the dominant political force in the country, to push him out. He had already been incapacitated by a stroke, and was rarely seen in public after 2013, while rumours swirled about the influence wielded by Said, his brother and gatekeeper, and a coterie of corrupt business figures around him.
Bouteflika was a well-known regime insider who had served as foreign minister long before being propelled into the presidency in 1999 by Algeria’s opaque pouvoir — the influential decision makers at the top of the military and intelligence establishments that had shaped politics since independence in 1962. For the sake of appearances, an election was held, but his six opponents withdrew on the eve of the poll, casting a shadow over his victory.
Born in 1937, he joined the war of independence against France in 1956 and rose within the ranks of the National Liberation Army in western Algeria. In 1963, at the age of 26, he was appointed foreign minister — a position he held until 1978.
At a time when Algeria was seen as a beacon of the anti-colonial struggle, Bouteflika played a prominent role on the world stage. As an influential figure in the Non-Aligned movement he welcomed Che Guevara and a young Nelson Mandela to Algeria.
In 1992, Algeria’s military stepped in to prevent Islamists winning elections, triggering a descent into bloodshed with assassinations, bombings and large-scale massacres in villages. Both the army and Islamic militants were accused of committing atrocities and grave human rights violations.
After taking power in 1999, Bouteflika introduced the Civil Concord law, approved by referendum the same year, which greatly reduced insecurity in Algeria. It led the path for the Islamic Salvation Army, the most important armed movement in the country, and other groups to end their insurgency and disband following an amnesty in 2000.
Though calm largely returned to the country, a crucial natural gas supplier to Europe, critics charge that under Bouteflika the horrors of the civil war were merely swept under a carpet with no one held accountable for atrocities committed during the conflict. A constitutional amendment criminalised criticism of the conduct of the military during the insurgency.
Soaring oil prices allowed Bouteflika to invest heavily in large scale infrastructure projects, housing, subsidising goods and public sector salaries. But the economy remained heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports and job creation failed to keep up with the demands of a young population. When oil prices fell in 2014 the public mood soured against the invisible president and his corrupt entourage.
He spent much of his rule wrangling over power with senior officers behind the scenes. He once said he did not want to be the “decoration on the cake”, a facade for the factions which competed for control.
He built alliances to expand his influence at the expense of those who had sought to block him, but he was no democrat and never hid his disdain for elected bodies. Parliament was merely a rubber stamp and the country’s multi-party system little more than window dressing, with major decisions taken by the president and senior officers, according to the prevailing balance of power at any particular moment.
Despite increasingly frail health, Bouteflika secured four terms as president, having been able to convince his military backers to agree to change the constitution in 2008 to abrogate the two-term limit.
When he ran for president a fourth time after suffering a stroke he left it to his allies to campaign on his behalf. But, as his absences from the public eye lengthened, Algeria appeared to be drifting, with people often wondering who was really in charge, Bouteflika or his brother.
His ousting in 2019 did nothing to change the dynamics of power in Algeria. The protest movement lost momentum under the impact of coronavirus and crackdowns by the authorities. The military remains the dominant power in the country, which is now under Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a regime insider seen as the army’s candidate.