In recent weeks we have noticed Algerians go out in the street protesting the candidacy of incumbent Bouteflika in the upcoming elections. The wheelchair-bound ruler, who has been in power since 2013 has announced he will seek another term in office despite sights that he is not able to carry out some expected duties. You need not look any further than the fact that he recently cancelled an expected official from Saudi Crown Prince because "he had the flu."
The FLN or Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front) was the only constitutionally legal party in Algeria from 1962 to 1989. The party was a continuation of the revolutionary body that directed the Algerian war of independence against France (1954–62). It has been in power since the handover of power from the former colonial power.
The script is the same in most African states where the liberation movements have had a monopoly on power since the states gained independence. The liberation parties have held on to power and often winning the elections with overwhelming majorities. In 2014, Bouteflika even won the Algerian election with a whopping 81% despite not appearing in his own election.
The protests in Algeria perfectly mirror the November 2017 protests that took place on the eve of Mugabe’s resignation. A nation full of hope, people who saw change on the horizon, yet one year later, Zimbabwe has not seen any massive change or reform. At the same time change was happening in Zimbabwe, South Africa was going through change, Cyril Ramaphosa also took helm of the highest office in the land. Many thought that this was also a sign of change down South from the Jacob Zuma government that had been riddled with allegations of corruption and state capture.
It is saddening that the changes of the top leaders in any of the countries have not brought up any positive change. In Zimbabwe, it is a new dispensation only in word. You need not to look further than the arrests of opposition leaders and the return of the infamously corrupt traffic police on the street. South Africa has not been spared from controversy, with corruption allegations that have rocked its national power utility firm and allegations of state capture by white monopolistic culture developing.
Therefore, is removing Bouteflika enough to allow for the change in Algeria?
The kind of grip of power that the FLN has held often comes with the formation of a strong political system with a grip on all areas of the state. The liberation movement survives by placing sympathizers across all arms of the state, from the security services to the judiciary, making the system impenetrable for most outsiders.
They are strong suspicions about the loyalty of the bureaucracy, judiciary, and the military, and their fear of potential subversion by these central elements of the regime. It is often difficult to separate party from the state with bureaucrats expected to pledge their allegiance to the governing party.
When you look at the situation in context, you will realize that Bouteflika only rules at the mercy of his cronies and the system. The system will come to replace him when he no longer serves their interests. Other liberation movements which have clung to power have managed to evolve to the stage of rotating the strong-man at the top, yet keeping a strong grip on power.
Further, what is striking about the situation in Algeria is that the leading opposition candidate was once part of the system, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, the runner-up in the 2014 election. Can real reform be expected from a man who was once part of the ruling elite and is enjoying a fat government pension?
The risk that the Algerians also find themselves with is that of a second liberation movement. A second liberation movement has not much different a sense of entitlement as the primary liberation movement. In Rwanda, for instance, Paul Kagame has held on to power since the end of the genocide that ravaged the country. Uganda also had a second liberation movement in the form of the Yoweri Museveni led Uganda National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M).
Once the opposition assumes that it is the people’s liberator, whether, by peaceful or any other means, a sense of entitlement is likely to grow. The opposition is also likely to inherit the political culture that is within the ruling party thereby not presenting any form of change in a culture that the people are disgruntled with. We have witnessed how democratic processes have been floundered in African opposition parties where the same leader has likely held on to power for decades yet have the audacity to promise people democracy.
The trap that Algerians have failed to see is that of a system holding an ailing leader hostage due to the cult-like nature of the political culture. It is the system that they must be prepared to go war with or the system will maintain its strong grip on power. False hope has been gained from the fact that the current election has the highest number of candidates contesting. As long as the system is in place, change is only but an illusion.
Image Credit: Reuters TV