Algeria’s Bouteflika, war hero and ruthless operator

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends a news conference in Algiers on May 25, 2010.  By Fayez Nureldine (AFP/File)

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends a news conference in Algiers on May 25, 2010. By Fayez Nureldine (AFP/File)

ALGIERS (AFP) – Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who remains hospitalised in Paris after suffering a “mini-stroke”, is a hero from the war of independence against France and a ruthless political operator.

The man with the keys to the North African nation’s vast energy wealth, the 76-year-old Bouteflika towers over Algeria’s political landscape despite his diminutive stature.

A dapper figure known for his three-piece suit and tie even in Saharan conditions, he enjoys an international reputation as the man who restored stability to Algeria after a decade of bloodshed following the war for independence.

Domestically, his name inspires as much fear as awe, and for many Algerians he remains a father figure who also helped end a murderous civil war that killed at least 150,000 people from 1992.

In January that year, the country was plunged into turmoil when the military-backed government decided to cancel elections that an Islamic party had been poised to win.

The decision sparked almost a decade of appalling bloodletting, during which Islamic extremists attacked both the military and civilians amid allegations of human rights abuses by both sides.

Bouteflika proposed an amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms and twice secured public endorsement for his plans towards “national reconciliation” through referendums.

The first referendum, in September 1999, was a significant gamble, but it paid off, leading to a sharp decrease in violence often cited during the campaign that gave Bouteflika a second term in 2004.

He began a third term in 2009 following a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand again, but he has not yet indicated an intention to do so in 2014.

Under his presidency, Algeria has been enriched by oil and Bouteflika argues that under his stewardship public and private investment has created millions of jobs since 1999 and dramatically lowered unemployment.

But as the Arab Spring burst into life, five people were killed and more than 800 wounded in social unrest in Algeria in January 2011, and a month later Bouteflika acceded to an opposition demand and lifted a state of emergency in force for 19 years.

To head off further unrest, he also announced political reforms that led to the election of a new national assembly in May last year.

Born on March 2, 1937 to Algerian parents living in Oujda, Morocco, he was still in his teens when he signed up with the National Liberation Army (ALN), at one point being sent on a secret mission to contact jailed leaders in France.

By the time independence was finally won in 1962, both countries had paid a bitter price, with Algeria’s dead estimated at between 200,000 and more than a million.

The French lost an estimated 30,000 soldiers and had to repatriate their long-established settler community.

The young Bouteflika quickly became a member of the newly independent constituent assembly for Tlemcen, his parents’ home region in west Algeria.

He was appointed minister for youth and sports under the presidency of Ahmed Ben Bella and soon afterwards, aged only 26, became foreign minister in 1963, a post he held for 16 years.

Bouteflika negotiated the terms under which Algeria’s French-owned petroleum resources were nationalised after the war, and helped mark out the vast country’s borders.

Sidelined from government after the death in December 1978 of president Houari Boumediene, Bouteflika retired from politics in 1981 and spent several years in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and Dubai.

He returned home in 1999 to contest the presidency, supported by the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and the army, and was the sole candidate, the other six withdrawing because they were convinced the poll would be fraudulent.

Since he underwent surgery in Paris in 2005 for a bleeding stomach ulcer, Bouteflika’s slightest absence has sparked rumours about his health and even that he had died.

He is unmarried, with no children.