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Contribution, legacy of former Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Contribution, legacy of former Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika

FORMER president Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria who passed on last month left behind strong imprints in Algerian body politic and its domestic and external relations more especially with respect to the Arab and Africa worlds.

The Algerian war of independence against French colonial rule over 1954-1962 of which he was a part inspired nationalist awakening in Africa and the Third world and led to the launch of many an armed struggle for self-determination and independence.

After Algerian independence in 1962 Algiers pursued an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist foreign policy. Algiers supported oppressed peoples everywhere including their armed struggles.

As Foreign Minister of the new Ahmed Ben Bella government he was its main architect and executioner. He played a leading and progressive role in the Councils of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Arab League.

His President’s speech at the founding Summit of the OAU in Addis Ababa in May 1963 left a memorable mark when he declared that independent Africa should be ready “to die a bit for the liberation of the continent”.

Algiers has ever since walked the talk whichever government was in power. The pioneering African freedom fighters from Nelson Mandela to Samora Machel – later Presidents of South Africa and Mozambique respectively were militarily trained in Algeria.

The first bunch of ammunitions transferred to the freedom fighters via the OAU Liberation Committee in Dar- Es-Salaam came from Algeria.

When Ian Smith, leader of the white minority regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) unilaterally declared independence in November 1965 Algeria was one of nine African countries that answered the OAU’s call to break diplomatic relations with Britain over its refusal to take concrete measures to bring this illegality in its colony to an end. Henceforth Algeria supported Zimbabwean nationalists in the armed struggle until independence in 1980.

With the overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 and the death of President Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1970, Algiers replaced Accra and Cairo as one of the nerve centres of Pan-Africanism and decolonization.

Algeria hosted many meetings to deliberate on issues of interest to the African and Arab causes.

In 1968 for example it hosted an OAU Heads of State and Governments Summit that deliberated on the liberation struggle.

Bouteflika played a lead role in the OAU including being its Chairman in 2001 during the deliberations of its transformation into the African Union (AU).

He was also one of the five champions of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and its African Peer Review Mechanism, a flagship project of the AU.

Throughout his political life he supported the Palestinian cause and, in turn, the struggle of the Palestinians and the Arab world against Israel.

By the time of Algeria’s independence in 1962 the Arab nations had fought Israel in 1948 and 1956; this was followed by the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars for which Algeria sacrificed immensely.

In 1974 Mr Bouteflika as Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly had done the historic duty of inviting the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to address the world body when with a defiant speech he also offered an olive branch that might eventually have opened the doors for the peace process.

After Egypt’s rapprochement and recognition of Israel through the 1979 Camp David Accord brokered by USA President Jimmy Carter Algeria joined the “rejectionist” group of radical Arab states opposed to any dealings with the Jewish state.

This was a reiteration of the position taken by the Arab Heads of State and Governments resolve in the first post - 1967 Arab- Israel war in their Summit in Khartoum where they swore never to recognize, negotiate or live in peace with Israel.

This position was later moderated by the Oslo Accords that settled for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian/Arab conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

So important Algeria was to the Palestinians that it was in Algiers in 1999 that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared albeit symbolically that Palestine was an independent state. Algeria was a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement.

In 1979 Algiers hosted the Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit that it could not host earlier due to the 1965 coup. Key leaders from President Julius Nyerere to Fidel Castro of Cuba attended.

The deliberations centered on the liberation of the remaining colonies but even more significantly the clamor for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

Indeed this NAM Algiers’ Summit coming as it did just before the 1981 North-South Cancun Summit attended by key leaders including President Nyerere and USA President Ronald Reagan is seen as a major milestone in efforts to define more concretely the NIEO and the entailing change in North- South economic relations.

A major test for Bouteflika came in 1965 when just before Algeria was to host a Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement his founder President Ben Bella was overthrown in a military coup.

However the new President Houare Boumedianne recognizing his superb intellect, diplomatic skills and patriotism retained him as Foreign Minister.

On an even better note Algeria’s progressive foreign policy was also retained. So Bouteflika did not have to pursue an external policy which was a reversal of what he had preached.

Although progressive African countries were worried after Ben Bella’s ouster they soon reconciled with the new order under President Boumedianne.

There was a reversal of political fortunes for Mr Bouteflika following the death of President Boumedianne.

He was sidelined, removed from the Foreign Affairs docket and went into self-imposed exile.

However, due to the excellent work that he had done when his nation needed him most they called upon him, this time not to be a Cabinet Minister but to vie for the Presidency which he successfully did in 1999.

This was following the forced resignation of President Chadli Benjedid in 1992 and civil war involving the armed forces and islamist insurgency following a disputed Presidential and General election results.

But while Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Iranian revolution planted the seeds whose Islamic flavor would bring the kind of political and military upheavals in Algeria that would usher him to the Presidency, the 2011 “ Arab Spring” carried with it the seeds that would eventually lead to his downfall.

At least initially he spared Algeria from the chaos of the “Arab spring” through consumer subsidies for basic necessities and the lifting of a long-standing state of emergency.

But the “Arab Spring” carried with it greater demand for transparency and accountability, rule of law and economic rights for the citizenry.

Increasing corruption among the political elite and the first family amidst his struggle to retain the Presidency despite his ill health which had confined him to the wheelchair led to public pressure through demonstrations against his rule that led to his dishonorable exit from the political scene in 2019.

President Bouteflika has died at a time when some of his life-long policy positions have shifted.

Although Algeria is yet to recover fully from the shake-up associated with his downfall it is not facing the chaotic scenes of its neighbour Libya or the political instability of the Sahelian belt.

He witnessed the partial removal of the “three Nos” adopted at the post-1967 Arab Summit in Khartoum: no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel and no peace with Israel.

Through the Abraham Accords worked out under pressure from the Trump administration Morocco, the Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed Egypt and Jordan in signing peace deals and exchanging Ambassadors with the Jewish state.

Given the destabilizing influence of the “Arab Spring” which also poisoned Arab inter- state relations Bouteflika in his twin light years witnessed the erosion of solidarity and cohesion of the Arab nation to its lowest levels.

Arab Summits that used to hammer out Middle East policy have become a thing of the past and the Arab League once speaking with one voice has lost its zeal and direction.

Whereas Africa might have given him some consolation with its successful decolonization, the Western Sahara independence debacle lives on and has poisoned relations between Algiers and Rabat.

Whereas pan –African efforts for economic co-operation and integration especially via the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an advance there are setbacks with respect to the moribund Arab Maghreb Union, supposed to be one of the “building blocks” of the African Economic Community.

Inter-state political and ideological differences especially between Algeria and Morocco retarded its growth.

These differences centred in particular on the decolonisation of the Western Sahara. As colonial power, Spain withdrew in 1975 Morocco (and at least initially Mauritania) claimed the territory and occupied it.

With Algiers’ support the POLISARIO launched an armed struggle against the occupation forces of Morocco and declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic(SADR) which was recognized by the OAU/AU.

President Bouteflika has died before the crisis is resolved and before a referendum promised to resolve the issue has been held.

He might have viewed with utter disbelief Rabat’s trade-off of normalization of relations with Israel based on USA recognition of its holding on to Western Sahara/SADR.

Although no breakthroughs were realized on the crusade for a NIEO, President Bouteflika might have appreciated the loosening of the tight hold the LDCs and Africa in particular were held by the big powers particularly through the Bretton Woods institutions and the emergence of the economic South illustrated by the rise of China, India and Brazil not to mention other members of the G20.

Two Algerian diplomats I was privileged to work with who had worked with and under Bouteflika, Ambassador Layashi Yaker, former Speaker of Parliament and one time Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun both of whom were involved in the African liberation struggle had high regard for him.

They testified to Bouteflika’s unique qualities- extremely bright, hard working and focused at least in the early years before old age and overstaying set in. May His Soul Rest In Eternal Peace.

• Prof NGILA MWASE (ngila.mwase@yahoo. com)

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