Abdelaziz Bouteflika, veteran of Algeria’s war of independence from France, who served as president for 20 years – obituary

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Abdelaziz Bouteflika campaigning in 1999 - REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Abdelaziz Bouteflika campaigning in 1999 - REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has died aged 84, declined the presidency of Algeria in 1992 and 1993 because he wanted power on his own terms; he got it in 1999, and in 2004 he became the first Algerian leader to be returned to office in a democratic vote in the 42 years since the departure of the country’s French colonial rulers. He was subsequently elected to two further terms, having amended the constitution to remove the two-term limit.

A veteran of Algeria’s war for independence from France, Bouteflika served as the country’s foreign minister for 16 years until 1979. His westernised style and powerful oratory marked him out from other leading figures of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and led him to be called “the dandy diplomat”.

During the 1965-71 oil talks, he gained international fame as a leading Arab negotiator. Photographs from the time show a flamboyant figure, whose loud suits, long hair and moustache contrasted with the traditional robes of his counterparts from the Gulf.

In 1965 Bouteflika had supported the coup that overthrew Ahmed Ben Bella and brought Houari Boumedienne to power. He became Boumedienne’s closest confidant and second-in-command and, under their leadership, Algerian diplomacy reached its peak.

Bouteflika was tipped to succeed Boumedienne upon his death, but in 1979 the military intervened to appoint Colonel Chadli Bendjedid as head of state instead. In 1981 Bouteflika was expelled from the FLN on charges of embezzlement and two years later he went into self-imposed exile.

Though his reputation as a former grandee of the Boumedienne regime was a controversial one, Bouteflika’s exile in the 1980s meant that he was not associated with “the black decade” of the Bendjedid years, nor with the abrupt termination of the country’s “democratisation” process in 1992, when the army pulled the plug on elections that would have given a majority to the hard-line Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

During the early years of the brutal civil war which broke out following the aborted elections, pitting Algerian government forces against Islamic armed groups and emirs (the leaders of armed gangs) and costing the lives of more than 100,000 civilians, the military elite offered Bouteflika the presidency three times. After refusing twice, Bouteflika agreed in 1994 – on condition that he appoint his own cabinet. The generals refused and handed the presidency to Liamine Zeroual.

President George W Bush meeting President Bouteflika in the Oval Office of the White House in July 2001 - LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images
President George W Bush meeting President Bouteflika in the Oval Office of the White House in July 2001 - LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images

Bouteflika declined the presidency not because he opposed military rule, but because he wanted power on his own terms. His patience paid off; by 1999 political infighting had ensured that no one had the power base to challenge him. That year he stood for the presidency as an independent with the backing of the army, the FLN and the more progressive National Democratic Rally (RND).

The circumstances of Bouteflika’s election in April 1999 were murky in the extreme. The election itself was boycotted at the last minute, and thus devalued, by all six other candidates amid complaints of fraud, and Bouteflika was accused of being yet another puppet of the military.

Yet during the campaign he had been at pains to put a distance between himself and the top brass, and after becoming president, he demonstrated unexpected flexibility and independence of mind.

The most spectacular example of this was his cordial public conversation with Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, at the funeral of King Hassan of Morocco in July 1999. The gesture was a brave one given the violence of the country’s Islamic extremists and the fact that Algeria did not recognise Israel.

Bouteflika also sought to distance himself from the wooden style of his predecessors, admitting, for example, the unofficial estimate of 100,000 dead from the years of civil war – far above the usual official statistics.

Even more daringly, within weeks of coming into office, he began a quest for a political rather than a “security” solution to the continuing violence, involving reconciliation with the Islamist opposition. In September 1999 his plans for a “Civil Concord” received massive popular support in a referendum; this involved an amnesty to the guerrillas, most of whom came forward to hand in their weapons, and the release from jail of thousands of political prisoners.

In the economic sphere, Bouteflika embarked on a programme of market reforms, infrastructure investment and privatisation of the big state-run industries. The privatisation programme represented a direct challenge to the military and FLN elite, many of whom had been opposed to the amnesty.

Thus when Bouteflika stood for re-election in April 2004, the FLN and the army high command threw their backing behind Bouteflika’s main challenger, the former prime minister, Ali Benflis.

But Bouteflika swept back to power with 83 per cent of the vote in an election billed as the first truly open poll in the country’s history. His opponents cried foul, but the vote was endorsed by international observers and his supporters hailed the result as a reflection of the gratitude of voters for the steep fall in violence he had helped to bring about.

President Bouteflika was ailing in the later years of his rule: here he is pushed in a wheelchair next to his nephew before casting his ballot in Algiers, 2014 - FAROUK BATICHE/AFP via Getty Images
President Bouteflika was ailing in the later years of his rule: here he is pushed in a wheelchair next to his nephew before casting his ballot in Algiers, 2014 - FAROUK BATICHE/AFP via Getty Images

One of four brothers, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was born in Oudja, Morocco, on March 2 1937 to parents from Tlemcen, in western Algeria. He lived and studied in Morocco until 1956, when he joined the Algerian National Liberation Army.

Adopting the nom de guerre Abdelkader Mali, by 1961 he commanded the vast Sahara border with Mali, and was named representative for Tlemcen in the first interim national government.

After independence in 1962, he served as Minister for Youth and Sports under Ahmed Ben Bella and was promoted to Foreign Minister in 1963, a post he continued to hold under Houari Boumedienne, whose “administrative secretary” he had been during the independence struggle.

Although Algeria continued to face deep social, economic and security problems, as president Bouteflika succeeded in transforming the country’s image abroad. He presided over the African Union in 2000, helping to broker a peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and supported peace efforts in the African Great Lakes Region.

He secured a friendship treaty with Spain in 2002, and welcomed President Chirac of France on a state visit to Algiers in 2003. In 2004, he organised the Arab League Summit and made frequent visits to Washington, where he was regarded as an ally in the war on terrorism.

Algerian demonstrators tear down a large billboard with a picture of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on it, during a demonstration against his candidacy for a fifth term, in Algiers, February 2019 - RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images
Algerian demonstrators tear down a large billboard with a picture of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on it, during a demonstration against his candidacy for a fifth term, in Algiers, February 2019 - RYAD KRAMDI/AFP via Getty Images

In his later years Bouteflika, who was re-elected in 2009 with 90 per cent of the vote, was badly incapacitated by poor health, including a severe stroke in 2013 which left him partially paralysed. His public appearances were infrequent, though despite this he managed to be elected for a fourth term in 2014.

However, the attempt of the clique around him, including his brother Said, to have him stand for a fifth term in 2019 – by which time he truly was little more than a puppet – proved too much for Algerian public opinion. There were widespread, and remarkably non-violent, street demonstrations – known as the Hirak movement – and in April Bouteflika stepped down.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika married, in 1990, Amal Triki, the daughter of an ex-diplomat. The marriage was dissolved and there were no children.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, born March 2 1937; died September 17 2021

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