In Algeria, the era of the decolonisers is drawing to a close

On the streets of the nation's cities, the people are calling for change. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity to deliver a meaningful transition
FILE PHOTO: People carry national flags and banners during a protest to demand the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers, Algeria March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina/File Photo

Change is coming to Algeria. At the time of writing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has just reshuffled almost his entire cabinet, amounting to something close to a new government. But events could overtake us. There are reports that he might step down this week or is just about to do so.

Either way, we do know that his many decades in public office are coming to an end, as he heeded the calls for new leadership and announced last month that he would not stand for the presidency again.

Mr Bouteflika deserves credit for realising that the best way he can serve his country now is to help ease its peaceful transition, just as he did much to bring Algeria back together after the horrors of its civil war when he became president in 1999.

But Mr Bouteflika’s leaving office is remarkable for another reason. As the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud has pointed out, this will mean that “the generation of decolonisers” will have come to an end across Africa. And, compared to many leaders with liberation credentials, Mr Bouteflika’s record includes some lasting achievements for which future historians will commend him.

There were some who came to power as decolonisers in the developing world who truly tried to put their countries first and who are still admired today, such as India’s Jawarharlal Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. There were also many who abused the great legacy of freedom and betrayed it. In too many instances they fought off the yoke of colonialism only to replace it with their own yoke of tyranny, either ideological, personal or both.

Some seemed promising to begin with. We tend to forget that many people were impressed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi early on. Likewise, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was initially thought to be fairly reasonable, and nobody ever underestimated his intelligence.

Both, however, soon revealed their despotic tendencies, and both their countries are still today paying a terrible price for their long years of misrule.

In a number of cases, the “Big Men” who came to power in Africa in the years after independence from colonial powers were not good for their countries, or anywhere else. The West tended to tolerate them so long as they weren’t actively in the Soviet camp. But that meant giving the seal of approval – tacit or otherwise – to some who became monsters, like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, who presided over horrific crimes against his rivals.

Mr Bouteflika may not be so associated with the decolonisation generation. But he is very much part of it

They were turbulent times. Arguably the "guided democracy" that was put in place in Indonesia by President Sukarno in Indonesia in 1957 might have had a place for a while (and indeed might have survived had Sukarno not been deemed too communist-friendly); and a Western Europe with dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece in the 1970s was not in a great position to criticise others for democratic backsliding.

But there is no excuse for the failures of good governance that impoverished many newly independent countries, still less of the kleptocratic excesses of such decolonisation-generation figures as Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, who declared himself emperor and nearly bankrupted his country with his coronation in 1977.

Perhaps because he became president 20 years ago, so many years after independence in 1962, Mr Bouteflika may not be so associated with the decolonisation generation. But he is very much part of it, joining the National Liberation Army in 1956, and becoming Algeria’s foreign minister in 1963, serving until 1979.

Unlike in some other former colonies, where the imperial power agreed a deadline to withdraw and there was in effect no “struggle” for independence, Algerians had to fight fiercely for their liberty. France even maintained the fiction that the country was not, in fact, a colony. Algeria was France, said the interior minister Francois Mitterrand in 1954. Up to one million people died in the course of the war to insist that it was not. So the liberation fighters and their political leaders, the FLN (National Liberation Front), had truly earned their revered status.

When Mr Bouteflika won the presidency in 1999, his credentials were strong. Not only was he of this venerated generation, he had held high office before and had long been considered a contender for the top job. All his diplomatic skills were needed to try to heal the divisions after the civil war, in which hundreds of thousands died and Islamist extremists committed well-documented atrocities.

His Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation received overwhelming support, and even critics praise his role in helping Algeria’s transition to post-conflict stability, in re-engaging the country in international affairs and security partnerships, and in mostly successfully cracking down on and marginalising violent extremism.

Younger generations may be less mindful of these achievements. But there is also clearly a wider desire for change in Algeria, across boundaries of age and class. That the protests and the state's reactions to them have been generally peaceful is to the country's credit. Popular dissatisfaction may also have made Mr Bouteflika the target, but that may be just because he is the most visible representative of the system – known as "le pouvoir" – which many blame for years of stagnation and economic underperformance.

It is to be welcomed that Algeria appears to have the chance to change without chaos and violence. The last of the decoloniser generation may need to depart in the process – as he has said that he would. But he may have played a part in facilitating that too. For that, as well, posterity is likely to commend him.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National