OpEd: Algeria’s Bouteflika receives Merkel as army is shaken up

PUBLISHED: Fri, 21 Sep 2018 17:55:54 GMT

By Francois Conradie – Head of Research at NKC African Economics

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hosted Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at his palace in Zeralda on Monday, September 17. The main point of the meeting was to discuss Germany’s repatriation of almost 4,000 Algerians who have been refused asylum (Germany considers Algeria a safe country and Algerians’ asylum applications are almost all turned down).

For an observer of Algerian politics, however, the meeting was most interesting because state television broadcast some video footage of it, which gives an idea of Mr Bouteflika’s health. His health is terrible.

The footage (which, it should be remembered, was carefully chosen to show him in the best light) shows the ailing president struggling to say a sentence and then sitting still in his wheelchair once he has said it, his one good hand immobile in the air, while Ms Merkel chats to his interpreter. It also shows Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia getting involved in the discussion from an armchair on the other side of the room.

From the footage we do not think Mr Bouteflika plays any significant role in the running of his country, which is relevant as the power structure around him prepares to put him forward as a candidate in next year’s presidential election.

The same power structure, in which a key player is Ahmed Gaid Salah (chief of staff of the army and deputy minister of defence), has been busy with a personnel shake-up in the army.

On the day of Ms Merkel’s visit, the high commander of land forces and commander of the air force were pushed into retirement; their sacking follows the sackings of a dozen generals in July and August. It was reported in the week that five of the generals were being investigated for abuse of power.

In other election-related news Nacer Boudiaf (son of the highly respected President Mohamed Boudiaf), who has expressed his intention to run for president next year and who has publicly blamed the deep state for his father’s assassination in 1992, has had his diplomatic passport taken away.

The army has been weakened and Mr Gaid Salah with it. This makes us think that the civilians around Mr Bouteflika, especially his brother Said and Mr Ouyahia, may not have been entirely convinced of Mr Gaid Salah’s loyalty and wanted to remove the risk of him using the army to prevent Mr Bouteflika’s re-election. But the army will have to play a key role in assuring his victory (as it has in past elections).

The political environment is deteriorating as the rapacious power structure delays improvements to governance in order to extend its time in government and as this network’s internal paranoia renders it more brittle and fragile.

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