Published On: Mon, Apr 15th, 2019

People’s will against sit-tight African leaders

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Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s president for two decades, has been forced out of office. Aged 82, he is the second octogenarian African leader to have been compelled to give up by people power. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was practically pushed out of office last November after 37 years in office. The remaining longtime president on the continent is Cameroon’s Paul Biya who earlier in the New Year was returned to power for the umpteenth time amid mass protests.

Bouteflika said Tuesday he was resigning with immediate effect to let citizens “take Algeria to the better future they aspire to”. He took the rash decision in the face of massive street protests against his 20-year rule. He announced his resignation in a letter published by APS news agency, just hours after the army chief demanded immediate action to remove him from office. “My intention … is to contribute to calming down the souls and minds of the citizens so that they can collectively take Algeria to the better future they aspire to,” Bouteflika said in the letter to the president of the Constitutional Council.

The announcement prompted celebrations in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, with hundreds of people singing songs and waving flags in front of the city’s central post office. “This is a victory for my country,” said 25-year-old Kamel, who only gave his first name. “We now want the rest of the old guard to leave; we also want corrupt businessmen to be judged. We have won one political battle, not yet the war.”

The anti-Bouteflika protests broke out in late February when the longtime president, who has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, announced a plan to seek a fifth term in elections scheduled for April. Hundreds of thousands of people, for several weeks, took to the streets of Algiers and other major cities calling for the president’s resignation. On March 11, Bouteflika sought to defuse the unrest by abandoning his re-election bid. However, he delayed the presidential vote indefinitely and announced he would only step down once a new constitution had been passed and a successor had been elected.
Public anger continued to mount, nevertheless, prompting key allies to abandon the president. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army’s chief of staff, last week called for Bouteflika to be declared unfit to rule, and on Monday, the embattled leader said he would quit before the end of his term on April 28. On Tuesday, Salah again reiterated his demand for impeachment proceedings, saying: “There is no more room to waste time.”

He added: “We decided clearly … to stand with the people so all their demands get fulfilled.”

The president’s resignation will put his ally, Abdelkader Bensalah, chairman of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker president for 90 days until elections are held. Nazim Taleb of the opposition Rachab movement, said a transitional council was necessary to pave the way for a free and fair election in the country. “Bensalah and the army will not facilitate a free election. Bouteflika’s most trusted people are still part of the system. They don’t want a free election because they might end up in jail,” he said. The Algerian people, according to him, “want oversight of the election, to control the process so there can be a fair vote that reflects the people’s will.”
These concerns are legitimate because Algeria lacks an organised opposition as Bouteflika has “smashed every bit of opposition or bought them out”. The big challenge for Algeria, therefore, is to organise this transition as there are no strong well-constituted political parties. Fears have been expressed also over Salah, the army chief, possibly positioning himself to take control of Algeria.

As it is, Bouteflika‘s resignation is not going to end the protests. Algerians are determined that the old guard be cleaned out completely. In Algiers, 65-year-old Halima said she intended to continue to protest until Bouteflika’s allies also stepped down. “We are turning a page in Algeria’s history,” she said. What is happening in Algeria today is an indication that the spark has not gone of the Arab Spring revolution fire lit in neighbouring Egypt in late 2010. It is also a message to the continent’s sit-tight leaders that their time is up.

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