Algeria: A journey through the life of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Tuesday, 21 September 2021 17:39

© Ryad Kramdi

Algeria’s former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika died on the night of 17 September at the age of 84. We take a look at his life that was dominated by politics and power.

This controversial head of state, who was deposed by the Hirak in 2019 after 20 years in power, was a key player and witness in the history of independent Algeria. From his childhood in Morocco to the presidency, through his role during the war of independence and his relationship with Houari Boumédiène, we take an unprecedented look behind the scenes of Algeria’s former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s life, which was dominated by politics and power, using extracts from our very own journalist Farid Alilat’s book Abdelaziz Bouteflika, l’Histoire Secrète (Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Secret History).

This is the life story of an extraordinary character, who was driven by an ambition that was as devouring as it was precocious.

A childhood in Oujda

Bouteflika’s father, Ahmed, settled in Oujda in the 1920s. He took a second wife who gave him his first son, Abdelaziz. Bouteflika’s father was the handyman of Hadj Boucif, a high-ranking figure from eastern Morocco, who had access to the Royal Palace and the French administration. Boucif owned a hammam in Oujda that Bouteflika’s father managed. His mother went there from time to time to keep Boucif’s family company. Abdelaziz did not have much of a relationship with his father, but he and his mother were very close. 

“Abdelaziz was born on the morning of 2 March 1937 at 6 rue Nedroma. This house had a patio and garden, and was located 100 metres from the Boucif hammam. Abdelaziz Bouteflika had his father’s faded blue eyes and his mother’s raven black hair. His mother was a beautiful woman with an aquiline nose and a haughty countenance.

Mansouriah was 20 years old, her husband was 19 years older than her. The family grew with the birth of two other boys, Abdelghani in 1940 and Mustapha in 1953. (…) Bouteflika began attending Sidi Ziane – Oujda’s first modern school – which was founded in 1907 – shortly after the city fell to General Hubert Lyautey’s troops.

Notable individuals who also went to this school (which was opposite the Jerda hammam, with its large garden and fruit trees) include Ahmed Osman, who later became Morocco’s prime minister under Hassan II; Mohamed Allal Sinaceur, who embarked on a career in literature and philosophy; and Aziz Belal, whose fame as an economist spread beyond Morocco’s borders.

It would be an understatement to say that Moroccans and Algerians lived in perfect harmony in this city, which had a large Algerian community. Algerian nationals had been settling in this eastern part of Morocco since the beginning of the 20th century and were perfectly integrated, participating in trade and administration.

Due to their mastery of Arabic and French, Algerians were often sought after by the French colonial administration and hired as either interpreters, junior staff or guards.

When he was not at the Sidi Ziane school, the young Abdelaziz attended the zaouïa of the Qadiriya tariqa, located in the old medina. There he learned verses from the Koran and immersed himself in the spirit, philosophy and practices of these Sunni religious brotherhoods, which would end up having a major influence on his personality and political career.

At home, the child was pampered and nurtured by his mother. The warm relationship that this boy had with his protective mother – who had a strong temperament – contrasted significantly with that of his father, who was [stern, harsh] and not very demonstrative of the affection he had for his elder son.

Abdelaziz became even closer to his mother, whom he called Yaya, as his father was often absent from the house. Ahmed Bouteflika – who was absorbed by his various occupations, which included traveling beyond Oujda to manage Boucif’s affairs and accompanying him on his frequent trips to Morocco – entrusted his son’s education to his wife.

His father’s absence strongly influenced his personality. Because he was deprived of his father’s presence and affection, his mother became a sort of substitute father. Years later, Boumédiène, who presided over Algeria’s destiny in the 1960s and 1970s, became his mentor, protector and the father he never really had.

In the streets of Oujda’s old medina, the little Abdelaziz had few friends. Mustapha Berri, his foster brother, remained his only real friend. Since he came from a well-to-do family, he took Mansouriah’s eldest son under his wing, offering him gifts, protection and comfort.

Shy and reserved, his classmates teased him about his sparrow-like build, while his playmates mocked him because of his close relationship with his mother. This behaviour continued to the Abdelmoumene high school in Oujda, as Bouteflika’s classmates made him the butt of jokes, calling him ‘Walid El Biyâ’ – ‘the informer’s son,’ or in other words the spy, the snitch.

This rather shy and puny man, who was really self-conscious about his small stature, was embarrassed about this nickname that was constantly thrown in his face. He did not want to be reminded that he was the son of one of the French administration and Makhzen’s informants. He carried this resentment with him for the rest of his life.

This unfortunate reputation among his classmates did not prevent him from taking advantage of his gift. Equally at ease in Arabic and French, the young man finished his first year of high school, rather brilliantly, in the summer of 1955.

His father, Ahmed Bouteflika, even received a phone call from the royal palace to congratulate him on his son’s success. Bouteflika’s second year was just as good, even though he failed a general architecture competition. This did not discourage him though, as his mastery of two languages and writing skills were all that the Oujda municipality required of him, thanks to his father’s contacts.

“The war? He didn’t want to go”

In May 1956, less than two years after the 1 November 1954 insurrection began, the FLN ordered high school and university students to join the maquis to take part in the war. As a high school student in Oujda, Abdelaziz Bouteflika showed no inclination to join the ranks of the ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale). He even tried to get recruited into the Oujda communal guard, without success. He was rejected because of his small size. When he went to a recruitment office for the first time in the autumn of 1956, his application was rejected. It wasn’t until a prominent person from Oujda intervened on his behalf that he was able to join the revolution. He was hired as a controller.

“The day after the FLN called on young people to join the maquis, Bouteflika disappeared from school. He spent his days visiting his mother in the Boucif hammam and the clerical office that his father ran on Hadj Boucif’s behalf. He even came up with the position of public writer and put his mastery of Arabic and French at the service of the little people to write letters, mails and correspondence.

While many Algerians, students and high school pupils had already responded to the FLN’s call and joined the revolution’s ranks to fight against the French troops, Bouteflika applied for a post as an auxiliary in the Oujda commune’s police force.

The young man was definitely not in a hurry or did not want to fulfil his patriotic duty. His request, which his father had approved and supported due to his close proximity to Boucif, was rejected because the young man did not meet the size criteria of the police.

Despite the two men’s connections within the local administration and even the royal palace, Bouteflika’s request was rejected. He was 3cm short of being eligible for the post.

Did Ahmed Bouteflika try to persuade the municipal services to recruit his elder son because he did not want him to join the ALN? Certainly. In which case, he would not have helped him become a gendarme or policeman under the Moroccan administration.

Was it out of spite because he failed to be recruited or did he give himself time to think carefully about the consequences of his possible participation in the war? Almost seven months passed before Bouteflika decided to join the ALN.

“He really didn’t want to go,” says one of his former high school friends. “His father, who had ties with the French administration that he had served for years, was not in favour of [him] going to war.”

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as Minister of Youth, Sports and Tourism on 27 September 1962 © Archives JA

Boumédiène: “Bouteflika and Medeghri have dragged me down into the mud”

In 1963, Bouteflika became a young minister of foreign affairs. The young diplomat, who was very close to President Houari Boumédiène whom he knew in Oujda, was behind the June 1965 coup d’état that overthrew President Ahmed Ben Bella. Boumèdiene and Bouteflika developed such a close relationship that his friend Boumédiene forgave him for his deviations, escapades and long absences. Ahmed Medeghri, minister of the interior, held a prominent position within Boumédiene’s inner circle. Less close to Boumédiène than Bouteflika, Medeghri overshadowed the latter. His mysterious suicide will remain a great enigma. 

“Wednesday 10 December 1975. Ahmed Medeghri was found at his home, with a bullet in his head and another one lodged in a bathroom cabinet. Officially, the minister of […] interior, a member of the Revolutionary Council and one of Boumediene’s closest allies, committed suicide. His family was not convinced.”

It is true that Medeghri had been going through a difficult period for several months. Depressed, at the end of his tether, exhausted by his responsibilities and toxic relationship with Bouteflika, the interior minister was on the brink of collapse. He had told those close to him that he was being threatened, but did not say why or who was threatening him. So surely, is it possible that he did in fact commit suicide?

This theory should not be completely ruled out. However, the fact that two bullets were found in his home – one lodged in his skull and the other on the door of the bathroom cabinet – lends serious credence to the hypothesis that he was killed.

On the very day of his death, Boumédiène had ordered El Hadi Khediri (deputy-director of the Sûreté Nationale) to go to the deceased’s home, search for his safe and recover Boumédiène’s family record book.

“Medeghri had taken it and hidden it at his home, proof of his determination to thwart the president and Anissa’s marriage. It would be difficult to prove that Boumédiène was behind his friend’s death as there is no evidence to suggest it.”

Of course, he did make many of his opponents disappear, but there is no proof to trace the crime back to him. However, a scene that took place during Medeghri’s funeral demonstrates how much the latter’s death had created rifts between Boumédiène’s friends.

While the body was being removed, the president stood not far from Kaïd Ahmed, his long-time ally, former minister and head of the FLN apparatus. Known for his fiery and aggressive personality, he blasted Boumédiène with this damning statement: “There is now this body between you and me.” Bouteflika bears some moral responsibility for Medeghri’s death.

Years later, Chérif Belkacem, minister of state and one of the four members of the Oujda clan, reproached the foreign affairs minister for having taken advantage of the interior minister’s psychologically fragile state to solve his own problems.

“I no longer wonder about how Medeghri died,” Belkacem told him. “You are responsible, because you manipulated him to solve all your problems.” The summer of 1974 and the minister of the interior’s mysterious death brought an end to the Oujda gang. “Bouteflika and Medeghri have dragged me down into the mud,” Boumediene once told one of his confidants.

“Look at what Bouteflika wrote to Giscard…”

Bouteflika always nurtured a secret ambition to succeed President Houari Boumédiène. This ambition became stronger during the autumn of 1978 when the head of state fell seriously ill. Evacuated to Moscow, Boumédiène was treated by Russian doctors who quickly realised that his illness was incurable. Bouteflika insisted on seeing Boumédiène, who finally agreed to receive him. On his hospital bed, Boumédiène confided in someone close to him about his relationship with his minister of foreign affairs, with whom he had treated like a father. In the plane that brought Boumédiène back to Algiers, Bouteflika knew that his friend was doomed. His ambition took a new turn.

“Boumédiène’s return to Algiers was scheduled for Tuesday 14 November. Before take-off, Bouteflika asked the captain to change his flight plan. On the outward journey, the presidential plane took off from Algiers, flew over the Eastern bloc countries’ airspace and then landed in Moscow.

The same route was planned for the return journey, as it was understood that Boumédiène had no intention of flying over French airspace. During his many trips, he had avoided flying over France, except in cases of force majeure.

However, Bouteflika decided to break this unwritten rule by ordering the pilots to change their route. Informed that the military plane carrying the Algerian president was going to fly over Corsica on 14 November, France’s President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing consulted his staff, who had some misgivings.

Nevertheless, the green light was given. Bouteflika then sent an unusually warm message on Boumédiène’s behalf to the French president to thank him, indicating that he was ready to write “a new page of history” with France. This message, even though subliminal, was clear: Boumédiène is finished, the new page will be written with Bouteflika. Boumédiène was no doubt aware of this message and allowed it to be sent.

Lying down in the plane on his way him home, he turned to his doctor and whispered: “Look what Bouteflika wrote to Giscard.” Boumédiène was not fooled. He, who was the father that Bouteflika had never had, knew all too well the latter’s devouring ambition.

He was also well aware of his foreign affairs minister’s ambiguous relations with the French, who over the years had learnt a lot of uncompromising information about his private life.

During the summer of 1978, Bouteflika was received twice by d’Estaing, which provoked Boumédiène’s ire: “But really, are you Giscard’s minister of foreign affairs or mine?”

Emaciated, livid and afflicted with an enormous oedema that prevented him from wearing shoes, Boumédiène presented himself to the members of the Revolutionary Council who had come to greet him at the People’s Palace. He believed that he would recover in a matter of days.

The doctors hid the truth from him. Everyone else understood that it would take a miracle to cure him. In his small villa on the heights of Algiers, watched over by his wife Anissa as well as by Soviet and Algerian doctors, Boumédiène passed on while waiting to return to business.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in July 1973 in Paris. © Jacques Violet/Archives J.A.

On Saturday 18 November, he fell into a deep coma at 1am. Bouteflika and Taleb Ibrahimi arrived as soon as they were informed. After holding a long discussion amongst themselves, the decision was made to evacuate him to the Mustapha Bacha hospital in Algiers, the best health facility in the country, which became an ultra-secure bunker overnight. (…)

Paunchy and tall, Boumédiène was losing so much weight at this point that he now only weighed about 40kg. So as not to upset them, his family was kept away. After repeated requests, Touness Mouhzila, his elderly mother, was finally allowed to see him. When she saw him for the first time on his hospital bed, she lost consciousness. It was her last ever encounter with her beloved son.

Swiss millions and the desert crossing

When Boumediene died, the army chose Colonel Chadl Bendjedid as his successor. Gone was the ambitious Bouteflika, who slowly fell into disgrace. It had begun with the situation regarding the remaining budgets of Algerian diplomatic missions around the world. Between 1965 and 1978, these balances were transferred to two personal accounts that Bouteflika held in Switzerland. Barely installed in the presidency in 1979, Bendjedid received a visit and cheque from Bouteflika. Bendjedid found out about this incident, which led to Bouteflika’s legal troubles.

“President Chadli was at his office in El Mouradia Palace on Sunday 18 February in the company of the minister advisor Ahmed Ibrahimi. Chadli enjoyed the company and advice of this man in whom the late Boumédiène had placed absolute confidence.

Mouloud Hamrouche, the private secretary, discreetly entered and whispered in his ear that Bouteflika, minister of foreign affairs, wanted an interview. Although surprised by this impromptu request, Chadli let him in.

Bouteflika paused when he saw Taleb in the presidential office. Why was he still there? After having been the confidant, faithful comrade and witness to Boumédiène’s final days, will Taleb be this new president’s Rasputin, who arrived from his distant city of Oran like an elephant bursting into a china shop?

After this initial surprise, Bouteflika moved towards an armchair to sit down. Chadli curtly called out to him: “Has anyone authorised you to sit down?” Bouteflika stood to attention and then handed the president an envelope containing a cheque from the Société des Banques Suisses (SBS).

“What’s this cheque?” asked the bewildered president. Still standing at attention, Bouteflika explained that this was leftover money from the Algerian embassies and consulates abroad, which he had deposited into two personal accounts in Switzerland.

Chadli asked two questions: “Why was it deposited in Switzerland instead of being paid into the public treasury, as required by law?” The funds were intended for the construction of the new ministry of foreign affairs headquarters in Algiers, Bouteflika retorted. “Was Boumediene aware of this?” the president asked.

He had agreed to this decision, said Bouteflika. Chadli Bendjedid refused to accept the cheque and ordered him to hand it over to Mohamed Seddik Benyahia, the finance minister, with all the accounting documents in the file. The meeting ended.

Now that he had been definitely excluded from the succession, Bouteflika knew that it would be better to anticipate the many troubles associated with this new power. And this affair regarding the leftover money would end up causing him serious problems. Less than a week after this meeting, the FLN’s Political Bureau held a meeting under Chadli’s chairmanship at the El Mouradia Palace.

In the course of a conversation, the latter turned to his finance minister: “Did Bouteflika come to give you a cheque with all the accounting documents?” Benyahia replied in the affirmative, saying he had deposited the documents as promised in the presidential office on Sunday 18 February.

However, when the FLN meeting was adjourned, Benyahia hurried back to the president to make a confession: “Bouteflika did not give me anything. I did not want to humiliate him in front of all the members of the Political Bureau.”

Furious that the foreign affairs minister had not kept his promise, Chadli immediately ordered Benyahia to launch an investigation into Bouteflika’s two accounts. The investigations were entrusted to the Finance Inspectorate, who was assisted by the security and intelligence services.

For months, investigators in Algiers and Geneva scrutinised Bouteflika’s banking documents. The affair regarding leftover money, which in reality dated back to February 1966, was a bombshell. As per Bouteflika’s instructions, the heads of Algerian diplomatic and consular missions around the world were first required to keep available balances at their posts, and then, from October 1967 onwards, to open accounts to house the available balances.

A new instruction was issued in December 1969. This time, Bouteflika ordered the heads of mission to transfer these balances to his two personal accounts at Société des Banques de Genève. The balances from previous years were also transferred to the minister’s two accounts.

Two men had power of attorney: Bouteflika and one of his collaborators, Mohamed Séghir Younes, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry.

Ali Kafi was the only ambassador who refused to submit to the diktat. This ambassador in several Arab capitals, former colonel of the ALN, adventurer and whisky lover had a rocky voice that made the walls tremble when he shouted. Kafi refused to transfer the balances of the embassies that he headed to the minister of foreign affairs’ personal accounts. “I won’t give the Algerian embassy’s money to Bouteflika so that he can have fun with it in Switzerland,” he said.

The presidential chair, finally

His ambition was always to accumulate power. After refusing it in 1994, to the military’s great displeasure, Bouteflika finally became president in April 1999. In exile in Europe and in the UAE, he lived this terrible civil war from afar. General Liamine Zeroual was responsible for managing this tragic and dramatic period, which still marks Algerians. Tired of power, Zeroual resigned in September 1998. The generals called on Bouteflika to succeed him. The latter undertook to promote a policy of national reconciliation by granting pardon to thousands of terrorists. He also promised to make Algeria a country of peace and prosperity. He could finally fulfill his ambition.

“One winter evening in 1998, when the negotiations with the generals had not yet been concluded, Abdelaziz Bouteflika confided his thoughts to his friend Rabah Bitat, one of the FLN’s historical leaders and former president of the National Assembly: “The main thing is to get there.” He got there.

He had been coveting the presidential seat for the last 20 years and hoped he would be able to stay in it for at least one term, maybe two, or perhaps even more, if he wanted to. Here he was: the outcast, the banished, the condemned, the voluntary exile, who had been resurrected like a phoenix rising from its ashes. He went all-in on this supreme magistracy.

“If the devil could offer me power, I would ask for it without hesitation,” he had once told one of his acquaintances. On Wednesday 27 April, the day he was sworn in at the Palais des Nations, Club des Pins, he savoured this victory over history, fate and even more, his detractors.

More than 2,000 privileged people, ministers, senior officers, FLN apparatchiks, members of civil society, leaders of political parties and diplomatic representatives accredited in Algiers attended his inauguration.

The former foreign affairs minister – who was sporting a black suit and tie, glasses and thinning hair, which he had pulled back on the right side because of a bald spot – took his oath on the Koran. The 62-year-old was now officially ready to fulfill his duties as the seventh president of the Algerian Republic. The circle was complete after 20 years of waiting.

(…) The distinguished honour of presenting him with the award fell to Colonel Amar Benaouda, who presided over the Conseil National de l’Ordre du Mérite. As he put it around Bouteflika’s neck, the colonel burst into tears in front of the 2,000 guests present at the Palais des Nations. The former outlaw, who had just become head of state, had made amends. Benaouda had headed the FLN’s control and discipline commission when Bendjedid came to power in 1979.

This was the same Benaouda who had worked so hard to gather evidence of corruption to convict Bouteflika. He had wanted – at all costs – to implicate him in the El Paso contract. This inquisitor had also been behind the FLN bodies’ decision to exclude Bouteflika in the early 1980s. It was this very same Savonarola in a suit and tie who came to make an act of contrition before the (formerly) cursed Bouteflika on the very day of his swearing-in ceremony.

A form of double revenge took place on Wednesday 27 April. Not only was the former head of diplomacy elevated to the supreme magistracy in front of 2,000 guests, but he was also decorated by the man who had dragged him through the mud. The Bouteflika era could then officially begin, once his predecessor Liamine Zeroul officially handed over his responsibilities.

As he left his office at El Mouradia Palace for good, the general left the new president a gift. This involved granting amnesty to hundreds of thousands of young Algerians who had refused to perform their two-year military service, which is theoretically compulsory for men over 18 years of age except in the case of motor or cerebral incapacity.

(…) “So that he begins his presidency under good auspices,” Zeroual told one of his diplomatic advisers, pointing to the presidential chair that he had occupied for five years, two months and 28 days. “He will hold on to it and never let go.” He was talking about Bouteflika without directly mentioning his name. (…)

Once he had settled in the El Mouradia palace, Bouteflika got to work on his policy of national reconciliation, a prerequisite for his final acceptance by the generals.

“He is acting like he has lost his father”

As foreign minister, Bouteflika had an ambiguous relationship with King Hassan II. When the Sahara affair broke out in 1975, the president had little confidence in Bouteflika and took him off the case. When he came to power, Bouteflika confided that it would take him four months to settle the Sahara issue. When Hassan II died in July 1999, the former president used this occasion to pay his respects to the king of Morocco. 

“A reunion between Bouteflika and King Hassan II of Morocco will never take place. The last time they met was in July 1975 during an audience granted in Rabat to the Algerian minister of foreign affairs. Bouteflika and Hassan II have remained in contact ever since.

In particular, the Moroccan king and Sheikh Zayed, president of the UAE, offered hospitality to Bouteflika and the former Tunisian minister Mohamed Masmoudi, both of whom had fallen from grace in their respective countries, in the early 1980s. The Moroccan king saw the arrival to power of Bouteflika, who had always openly expressed support for an autonomy plan as a means of resolving the Western Sahara conflict and an opportunity to settle – once and for all – the issue that poisons relations between Rabat and Algiers.

Bouteflika seemed to be of the same opinion. In May, less than two months after his election, he boasted to Algerian diplomats at the state residence Djenane El Mihaq in Algiers: “You’ll see, in six months, I’ll have settled the Western Sahara issue.” A priori, the matter was well underway. On 21 June, Bouteflika met and talked with Driss Basri, the Moroccan interior minister and Hassan II’s confidant, at length.

On the agenda was finding a solution to the Western Sahara conflict, reopening land borders that had been closed since August 1994 and normalising relations between the two neighbouring countries.

Algiers and Rabat’s reconciliation was supposed to be finalised in July, following a meeting between Bouteflika and Hassan II along the common border. On Friday 23 July, Hassan II died in Rabat after a 38-year reign.

Immediately, Mohammed VI, his eldest son and first heir, ascended the throne. Hassan II’s death deeply affected Bouteflika, as he had grown up surrounded by Moroccan culture and monarchic traditions.

His admiration and respect for this king had always caused President Boumédiène to question his loyalty. As such, he had entrusted the management of the Western Sahara file to Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, minister of information, rather than putting it in the hands of his chief of diplomacy.

This mistrust was so great that when Bouteflika returned to Algiers in July 1975, Boumédiène called him out as follows: “But really, are you Hassan II’s minister of foreign affairs or Boumédiène’s?”

Time had not diminished any suspicion of Bouteflika’s Moroccan sympathies. On his hospital bed in Moscow – where he was admitted to in October 1978 to treat an incurable disease – Boumédiène had made these meaningful remarks to Ibrahimi: “Did you see? Bouteflika talks like Hassan II!” Before flying to Rabat with a large delegation to attend the funeral, the president had decreed a three-day national mourning period.

On Sunday 25 July, it was difficult to say whether his outpouring of immense grief was sincere or if he was overdoing it in front of the royal family, the Moroccan people and dignitaries from all over the world, but his actions were causing some of his compatriots to feel uneasy.

Bouteflika weaved in and out of the heads of state, went to the hearse and clutched it. “He is acting like he has lost his father,” says an Algerian diplomat. “Even Hassan II’s children did not cling to the shroud of the father that they were about to bury.”

(…) On the other hand, it cannot be said that Hassan II had any esteem or consideration for Bouteflika. Sid-Ahmed Ghozali demonstrated this during Hassan II’s visit to Algeria in May 1991, during which he was accompanied by the two crown princes.

At this point, relations between Algiers and Rabat had improved and the borders had been open since 1989. Once he completed his stay in Oran, Ghazali, the then Algeria’s minister of foreign affairs accompanied Hassan II to Oujda. “What happened to your former minister of foreign affairs? The short guy with a moustache, I forgot his name…” Hassan II asked him.

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