Emma Emeozor [email protected]
Certainly, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika did not expect the hurricane of protests that is rocking Algeria following his decision to seek a fifth term in office in the April 18 election.
This is the first time since Bouteflika became president, Algerians will be trooping out in their hundreds to protest against his government even after he became paralysed in 2013 and started ruling the country from a wheelchair. The people endured. Therefore, the president’s insistence on a fifth term in office is bad omen for the country. Indeed, it is a ticking time bomb that if allowed to explode could send the country back to the dark days of the civil war that consumed no fewer than 200,000 lives.
Though some analysts have said it is the president’s aides who are prodding him to seek a fifth term in office, at 82, Bouteflika ought to have read the handwriting on the wall and say ‘no’ to bad advice. It is instructive that the call on him to retire is backed by a mass movement that cut across all segments of the public. Students, teachers, professors, lawyers, medical personnel and members of labour unions have defied threats by security forces to hold the anti-government rallies daily with the slogan: “No to fifth term.” His overture to hold election after one year if he wins the April election had failed to dissuade the protesters. What the people want is “change and reform.”
Instead of giving a listening ear to the protesters, the president chooses to intimidate them. In his first reaction last week, he warned against destabilising the country and pointed accusing fingers at treacherous internal and foreign groups. He said: “Breaking this peaceful expression by any treacherous internal or foreign group may lead to sedition and chaos and resulting crises and woes.”
What Bouteflika and especially his advisers must be mindful of the consequence of pushing the protesters to the wall. Any attempt to use brute force to quell the protests could be the last straw that will spark a protracted conflict in the country. The government cannot deny the people the right to decide who rules them. Bouteflika has not told the world what the fifth term he is seeking would add up to the lives of the people after 20 years of uninterrupted rule? His poor state of health is sufficient reason to question his desire to seek a fifth term in office.
Though he has filed his nomination papers with electoral commission with the support of the ruling National Liberation Front (NLF) party, the president must listen to the voice of wisdom and quit peacefully or cling to power and be booted out as was the case of Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe.
Bouteflika must not forget so quickly that he has received the support and understanding of the people largely because of the role he played to end the decade-long civil war and stabilize the country. It would the greatest error of judgment to allow his achievements as a lover of peace and unity to go down the drain. Bouteflika must recuse himself and allow a ‘conscientious’ candidate to replace him. The country’s political gladiators must allow national interest to supersede their vested interests.
The protesters have said they are not against the person of Bouteflika. Rather, their stance is informed by the poor state of the president’s health. They insist that the president was no longer fit to rule because he was no longer in control of state affairs. For them, the president has been caged by a cabal of politicians who are taking advantage of his ailing condition. They fear that, if allowed to contest the election, Bouteflika would win as the electoral commission is controlled by the presidency.
Interestingly, the people do not have confidence in country’s judicial system. Algeria’s constitution as amended in February 2016 stipulated two terms for the president. What this means is that Bouteflika cannot seek another term and therefore not qualified to contest the April 18 election.
It is hard to understand the position of some Algerian constitutional experts who reportedly said Bouteflika’s “position is ‘grandfathered’ into the new constitutional amendment.” These experts are not alone. The president of the upper Parliament, the Speaker of the Lower House, the prime minister, who is also the secretary-general of the Rally for National Democracy (RND) party and others have approved the president’s fifth term bid. The government is made up of four coalition parties. They have argued that Bouteflika is the “only person capable of dealing with the challenges that Algeria faces at home and abroad.” But this cannot be true in a country of 41.32 million people. Undoubtedly, 20 years of being on the saddle of authority has made Bouteflika a megalomaniac and cannot grapple with the reality of being outside the corridors of power
Already, the public protests have drawn the attention of the international community. The United States, European Union and Britain have expressed their support for the protesters. Tunisian president is the only African leader that has commented on the ongoing protests. Will the African Union and the rest of African leaders call for true democracy in Algeria? Not until the situation has degenerated into arms struggle and lives lost to the guns.
Of course, assault on the constitution is prevalent in African countries where the political leaders believe they have a divine right to rule for life. Undoubtedly, many of the crises rocking African countries could be traceable to weak constitutions that provide the platform for sit-tight leaders.
Tunisia is Algeria’s neighbour. Its ex-president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was swept away by the Arab Spring. Interestingly, the current president of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi, was among those who have endorsed the “anti-fifth term” bid protests. He reportedly said: “Algerians are a nation that fought a lot to attain its independence after 132 years of colonisation and it is now a free nation. Obviously it is free to express the way it wants on how it is led.”
It is hoped that Algeria’s “pro-fifth term” group would listen to the Tunisian leader and call for dialogue with the “anti-fifth term” group to arrive at a consensus over the fate of Bouteflika in the election.
Prelude to the protests, some eminent Algerians reportedly wrote the president in May 2018 “urging him not to yield to the calls for a fifth presidential term because it would be a disaster for him and the country.”
The authors of the letter included 14 opposition politicians, activists, jurists, and academics. Former Prime Minister Ahmed bin Beitour was said to have led the group.
“Vicious forces have rallied to push you toward a fifth term,” the group told the president in the letter. It warned him of the “terrible mistake you are making by rejecting the voice of wisdom that addresses human conscience in fateful times.”
They may be right. It is on record that Bouteflika has not been seen in public for a long time now. Watchers of Algerian affairs say, since he became paralysed, Bouteflika no longer attends local and international functions requiring the presence of presidents. The seat of the Algerian president is always vacant. As the protests gathered momentum two weeks ago, the president was flown to Switzerland for medical checks, thereby tacitly proving the anti-fifth term campaigners right.
Bouteflika’s supporters have argued that he is in full control of governance and, therefore, he is qualified to exercise his franchise to contest election and be voted for. The next move by the pro-fifth term group would be to fast-track the process of another amendment of the constitution to legalise the illegality of Bouteflika’s fifth term. Already, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has hinted that Bouteflika will amend the constitution to include the office of vice president.
In Algeria, the president of the upper Parliament is the second in command to the president. It is not unlikely that the president’s tenure will also be revisited during the proposed constitutional amendment though Ouyahia was silent on it in his statement. The reason top government officials and their allies are rooting for Bouteflika’s fifth term is obvious.
A critical analysis of the arguments so far made by the pro-fifth term bid shows that the exit of Bouteflika could put the coalition parties in disarray and consequent defeat at the election. Bouteflika has been their rallying point. Also, their respective fortunes in government would be jeopardised. Thus, for selfish reasons, they want to keep a sick Bouteflika in office instead of allowing him go home and rest after a hectic 20-year rule.
The first reaction of government to the protests was that of arrogance, which is characteristic of African leaders, once they get into the corridors of power. Ouyahia reportedly said during a TV appearance on Friday that the elections “will take place in less than two months, and everyone will make their choice freely.”
On the controversy trailing Bouteflika’s candidacy, the prime minister said “everyone has the right to support their candidate and be against any other candidate, the ballot box will decide in a peaceful and civilised way.”
The prime minister cannot but be described as being comical when he told Algerians that Bouteflika has pledged to hold a “national conference unprecedented in the history of Algeria if he is re-elected, where everything can be discussed.”
Ouyahia was quick to issue a veiled warning. He said: “Algeria has been through enough suffering and experienced enough reforms to have the opportunity to choose in peace and quiet. Thank God the rallies were peaceful, but I urge vigilance,” adding that “calls to demonstrate were from an unknown source.”
Algeria has been one of Africa’s richest countries, blessed with oil and other natural resources. For years, the country played a dominant role within Africa, the Arab world and beyond. But in recent years it has been grappling with severe economic downturn, leading to an alarming rate of unemployment and high cost of living.
Government’s efforts to revamp the economy seem not to be yielding the desired results. The people have become impatient to the extent that they have lost confidence in government. They believe an epileptic government, coupled with corruption in high quarters, is responsible for their plight and there is need for “change and reform.”
The protesters have been careful to draw a line between “anti-fifth term” and “anti-Bouteflika” positions. This is because of the high regard they have for Bouteflika. But national interest must supersede individual interest for a nation to develop and grow. In the present circumstances, Algerians certainly need a leader who is active physically and mentally to rejig the economy and address other problems facing the country. The protesters have made a very strong statement that cannot be ignored.
Bouteflika was one of the North African leaders who escaped the fury of the Arab Spring. Algerians did not take advantage of the revolt that swept across the region to ask him to quit. But now they have genuine reasons to ask the president to retire honourably. Wisdom must prevail now.
The prime minister’s claims that the call to demonstration was from unknown source only undermines the seriousness of the situation. The protesters were not faceless. The group that wrote the president in May did sign the letter. Top challengers in the April 18 election are already known. They are former Prime Minister Ali Benfils (runner-up in 2014), retired General Ali Ghediri and Abderrazak Makri, described as leader of a moderate Islamist party.
He must not allow himself to be used as a shield by greedy and selfish politicians who are not willing to quit the corridors of power because of the gains within. Bouteflika and all Algerian political leaders must avoid any path that could lead to bloody conflict and save the country the trauma of another civil war. If Bouteflika contests and wins the election, Algeria would have only postponed the evil day, which would eventually rear its head before or at the end of the president’s new tenure. What is clear is that Bouteflika cannot become Algeria’s life president. A stitch in time saves nine.