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Behold, the people’s uprising in Algeria

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Algerians take part in a demonstration against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the capital Algiers on March 22, 2019. Bouteflika said on February 22 he would run for a fifth term in April 18 elections, despite concerns about his ability to rule. The 82-year-old uses a wheelchair and has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Following initial protests, he made the surprise announcement on March 11 that he was pulling out of the race — and also postponed the polls. RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

It is within the context of the diminished health condition and official performance of the otherwise vibrant and committed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that we must appreciate the ongoing people’s uprising in Algeria. After two decades of effective governance during which time he stabilised the Algerian polity this national hero ultimately started having serious health challenges, which sadly confined him to a wheelchair after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013. Hardly seen in public for a considerable period of time, the people were hard put about President Bouteflika’s decision to seek another five-year term in office. And they have decided to make their voices heard.

The millennials who have led and propelled the uprising did not witness the so-called ‘black decade’ of their country, a period characterised by war and uncertainty. They simply demanded some quick changes: that the ailing president who was away in Switzerland on treatment should not seek a fifth term in office; that Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia should step down; that there should be more democracy; that they wanted a less corrupt society and a radical change in the way of doing things. As the protests rose in intensity, Bouteflika cut short his stay abroad and came home. This did not assuage the protesters. He also offered not to complete the five-year term if he won the election. This did not fly with the people. He has since agreed not to contest the next election, which has been postponed until the coast is clear.

In contrast with the protests of 1988 the anti-fifth term demonstrations have largely been peaceful perhaps because of the presence of women in the crowd. Protests have also taken place abroad especially in France where there is a high concentration of diaspora Algerians. Some arrests, about 195 in all, have been made in connection with the protests. About 183 persons have received injuries (112 of these being police officers) and only one casualty has so far been reported.

Algeria has known and developed the culture of struggle in its long history from the 19th century, first against external enemies represented by the French government and later among contending forces within the country. For example, the war of independence lasted for seven years from 1954 to 1962 and Ahmed Ben Bella became president from 1963. The trajectory of these struggles produced such great thinkers as Frantz Fanon who saw in the plight of Algerians the ugly face of racism. In 1992, an election process that would have brought a fundamentalist group, Islamic Salvation Front to power was stopped by the army and this led to a civil war that lasted through the 1990s. It was in the midst of this crisis that Bouteflika won a general election supported by the army in 1999. He organised a referendum on policies to win the support of different interest groups and succeeded by 81%. He won elections in 2004, 2009 and through constitutional amendment contested and won again in 2014. It was when he pushed his luck too far by attempting a fifth term that the movement against him gained momentum.

There are remarkable lessons from the Algerian experience. No individual is indispensable in society no matter how well endowed with leadership qualities. In consonance with the Shakespearean advice, men must learn to ‘quit the stage when the ovation is loudest.’ Bouteflika got bitten by the African leaders’ bug after 20 years in power and wanted to continue even when it was clear that he was physically incapacitated. He promoted an unhealthy narrative that has become associated with the typical African leader. How come there was no succession plan after so many years in power? Why did he not groom a worthy successor that would continue in his steps? For how long will the African continent be cursed with leaders who put their selfish personal interest above that of the country?

It is redeeming that not all past and current African leaders have swallowed the deceit of power forever. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Dr. Leopold Sedar Senghor and Abdou Diouf of Senegal stood out to be counted when it became necessary that they moved on. Currently, three African presidents- Paul Biya of Cameroun, Al Bashir of Sudan, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda continue to desecrate the altar of true leadership by extended and unconstitutional stay in office. The national constitutions have been amended to feed their penchant for clinging to power even when all the indications point in the direction of retirement. Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo reluctantly left office after years of extended stay. The tragedy is that these leaders who perpetuate themselves in office do so for very primordial and selfish reasons. The era of dictatorship, of powerful individuals imposing themselves on the people in spite of obvious shortcomings should end in Africa.

Bouteflika would have belonged in the pantheon of worthy statesmen if he had relinquished power to a younger successor when he took seriously ill. But the cabal that benefits from his stay in power has not allowed this to happen. This is a disservice to the people of Algeria and to mankind in general. Fittingly, the people – workers, students, lawyers, even judges – have taken to the streets to vent their anger against a corrupt system and the ailing president has withdrawn his bid to enter the race. The dilemma now is how to manage a smooth transition to a new set of leaders. The protesters have continued their call for a total change in the system. Besides, the young radicals are also adding a rider to their demand: that the ailing president and members of the old setup must resign now.

Bouteflika and his henchmen should heed the call of the people and step aside immediately. We hope all the sit-tight leaders in Africa – who are currently migrating from grace to grass – should spare some time to learn from the excellence of people power in Algeria.


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