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Bouteflika and people power


Abdelaziz Bouteflika

After months of mass protests against his government, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has finally thrown in the towel by resigning his office effective April 2nd. It was a popular and principled uprising, which has shaken the Algerian establishment to its foundations. The denouement has also sent a strong message to the rest of the sit-tight rulers in Africa who promote the ignominious narrative that government should be at the whims and caprices of selfish and deluded individuals.

The initial demand of the protesters was that Bouteflika should not stand for another five-year term after a twenty-year rule. His first reaction was to resist this demand. But when the pressure became overwhelming with the army high command speaking in favour of resignation due to poor health, the beleaguered president caved in to the peoples’ demand.

For all intents and purposes, this was the height of peoples’ power and a quintessential demonstration of the capacity of the people to have their way in a democracy. After his resignation, the people did not stop there: they specifically called for a purge of the Augean stable by ridding the state of all vestiges of the old brigade, including all those who served with Bouteflika and entrenched corruption. Currently there are similar popular protests against Sudanese strongman President Al Bashir whose activities have caught the attention of the International Criminal Court of Justice. The wind of change was still blowing in Sudan as at press time.

We hope the wind of time will blow in the direction of some African leaders who should learn the hard way too. Presidents Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (since 1979), Paul Biya of Cameroon (since 1982), and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (since 1986) are negative examples of the African leadership tragedy.

Bouteflika had come to power in 1999 when the political fortunes and structures of the country were unstable. He quickly stabilized the situation and embarked on projects, which gave the country the platform for growth and development. But he got bitten by the African disease of self-perpetuation in office. In 2013 he suffered a massive stroke and virtually disappeared from public view because he was wheelchair-bound. In spite of his poor health, he wanted to contest a record fifth term in office and the people said enough is enough!

It is instructive that the people did not wait for the ballot box to rid the society of a deluded and self-perpetuating leader. They knew he had the power and machinery to manipulate the system by tampering with election results. They then decided to prevent that familiar scenario recurring. Thousands of persons from different backgrounds and professions came together in one spirit to put an end to official impunity and corruption by taking to the streets. The spirit of revolution, so well entrenched in Algerians, subsumed ethnic or religious differences. The unifying factor, a common denominator in the struggle was resistance to oppression and impunity.

The drama is yet unfolding after 20 years of the old fox. Bouteflika’s ally and Speaker of the Upper House, Abdelkader Bensalah has been named interim President. The new leader has promised to hold elections in 90 days even as his choice was said to be against demands of demonstrators who have been pushing for him and other top politicians to stand down.

It is relevant to ask some remarkable questions at this juncture: Where are the moral values that we held sacrosanct in the days of yore? Where has character gone? What are the religious and community leaders doing about truth, fairness, equity and justice in their domains? Why have long-suffering Nigerians not shown sufficient anger even when they know that their elected leaders are exploiting the resources of the country, and swimming in the sea of dubious and filthy wealth?

Doubtless, the Algerian model has shown that when governance fails, the people react. Some dictators often react to protests with a severe clampdown, arresting leaders and killing citizens. One of the legacies of Bouteflika is that he never ordered the security forces to mow down innocent protesters though some have been injured and a few killed. Behold, the people are crucial and central in democracy.Elected leaders in Nigeria invariably treat the people with great contempt. They seem to say that the citizens are mere tools to be discarded after winning elections.

In the real sense, the post-election period should be the time for rewarding the electorate by meeting their expectations. The common good should guide our leaders in discharging their obligations towards the citizenry. Obviously there is a deep chasm between expectations and the actions of our leaders. There are quite a number of persons in the corridors of power, both in the executive and legislative arms of government who are subjects of corruption investigation. Yet these men continue to parade themselves as leaders. When will this charade come to an end? This is where the power of the voters’ conscience comes in. No indicted citizen ought to be voted for. The National Assembly has become a safe haven for ex-governors who are facing corruption charges. What loopholes have made this travesty possible?

Democratic ideals are not alien to the people of Nigeria, nay Africa. Time was when the community sanctioned persons and banned certain characters from holding any posts in society. The moral opprobrium that came with naming and shaming was enough to serve as a deterrent to untoward behavior. It is time we returned to those time-tested values which we once held sacred.

Citizens need to note that docility is antithetical to the tenets and development of democracy. Apathy is worse. It allows mediocrity to thrive. If we all remain aloof and believe that the fortunes of the country will change, then we are not ready for change.

Finally, Bouteflika is at long last, out of power. Bensalah is the new helmsman. Bouteflika started well and indeed meant well for the people. But he became a victim of self-perpetuation. If he had taken a bow and quit the scene when the ovation was loudest he would not have become a victim of the anger and power of the people. This is the object lesson for all leaders, elected and appointed.

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Abdelaziz Bouteflika
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