The interim president of the Algerian Republic has appealed for a national dialogue to move the country out of the political impasse it has been plunged into for the past few months.
The crisis was triggered by popular demonstrations calling for the departure of then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been in power for some 20 years and is in very poor health.
Abdelkader Bensalah was chosen to lead the country temporarily and organise early elections. But the elections, which were initially set for this month, have had to be put off because, apparently, of a lack of candidates.
Now, if that is true, it is serious. I mean, you announce an election, and no one wants to run? Whoever heard of such a thing, especially in Africa or the Arab world?
There may well be a reason for such a shortage of candidates, strange as it surely sounds.
The Algerian political scene has always been dominated by military men, former members of the Front de Liberation Nationale, (FLN), the gallant men and women who, for seven years, fought a grim war of independence from France at the cost of one and a half million shuhadaa (martyrs).
After Independence in 1962, the country was ruled by colonels except for very brief spells, and soon it was engulfed in a bloody insurrection that took on a pseudo-Islamic mantle while committing the most un-Islamic horrors against unarmed civilians.
Algeria, and Algerians, bled and suffered terribly at the hands of the most brutal bloodletting one could imagine.
After a lot of trial and error, it was again the military that went back to its past to rediscover Bouteflika, who had been in the bush with the liberation fighters in the 1950s, and who had served as foreign minister in the ‘60s and ‘70s before falling from grace and going to live in exile. At least for the army, he was a known quantity, an old comrade.
Under him a semblance of social peace returned, and for two decades calm reigned except for a few eruptions hither and thither. But the word dialogue was not heard too often, as the iron military hand had just put on a velvet glove in the person of Bouteflika.
But this was not the Bouteflika of the years of African, Arab and world diplomacy. Then he had been this incredibly short but charismatic young man, with piercing green eyes and long, wavy hair lapping at his shoulders, a Havana cigar on his lips, as he walked briskly or stared intensely while consulting diplomatic colleagues in Addis Ababa, New York or Damascus. He shone brilliantly.
But as head of state, matters were different. Now he was getting on in age, his health was poor, and his docket comprised the small matter of running a difficult country. And, in this one, he failed remarkably.
The reasons for his failure were legion, but what stands out starkly, the very thing that acting president Bensalah has been talking about, is lack of dialogue.
Under a military dispensation in all but name – this holds for all the African regimes ostensibly elected by the people, but in reality kept in power by the police – consultation and dialogue are alien words.
Bouteflika inherited such a regime, and, despite all the diplomatic dexterity he had shown at the Organisation of African Unity and the UN in his heyday, when it came to his own country, he was clueless.
The system grew old with him, and some of the generals on show today look like they fought against the French.
It was not his fault. It is said that what is not used atrophies, and that is how we humans lost the use of our tails. The ability to dialogue can be sharpened only by dialogue.
A lesson may be drawn from all the dramas we are witnessing in Africa. Do not think of dialogue only when you are already deep in conflict. A prudent individual gets up from bed feeling pretty good, and calls his/her physician to ask the doctor to do a check-up and find out what he/she must do in order not to lose this good feel.
The one who waits till he/she is sick may find that the only assistance he/she can get when already bedridden is from the domestic help, who may remember what her dead grandmother back in the sticks used to take every time such “problems” troubled her.
If you are an African ruler, take heed and encourage dialogue before you find yourself in Bensalah’s pitiful situation.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]