The collapsing regime of Algerian autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika is a warning to dictators everywhere. If you want to keep your job, live in obscene wealth and deny your citizens basic freedoms, don’t let your economy swirl down the toilet. The people tend to get agitated when they’re out of work as the rich get richer.
Mr. Bouteflika, 82, Algeria’s President since 1999 and a veteran of the country’s 1954-62 war of independence against France, had a nice run until 2014, when oil prices collapsed. On Monday, he reversed his decision to seek a fifth term as president. His resignation was triggered by weeks of mass protests as millions of young Algerians took to the streets, demanding the departure of their incapacitated leader – he had a severe stroke in 2013 – and an overhaul of the political system to give them a voice and a realistic shot at nabbing some of the country’s dwindling riches for themselves.
It’s no accident that Mr. Bouteflika and his inner circle of political cronies and army generals came under extreme political pressure in recent years. The Algerian economy, while not technically in recession, was no longer creating jobs for its young people even as the elite hung onto their wealth or got even richer. It would not have been lost on Algeria’s youth that the Arab Spring revolutions began in the no-hope centre of neighbouring Tunisia, when an impoverished vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire. Tunisia erupted in protests and, a month later, Tunisia’s dictator fled the country as the uprisings began to roll through Libya and Egypt.
The Algerian economy is a one-product wonder – energy. A member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Algeria is utterly dependent on oil and natural gas. It is OPEC’s ninth-biggest oil producer, the world’s sixth-largest gas producer and the third-largest supplier of gas to the European Union, which covets Algeria’s role as a counterbalance to Russian gas exports. The country’s energy exports funded lavish state spending in the past decade, when oil prices peaked at US$147 a barrel and Algeria’s treasury overflowed with dollars.
For Mr. Bouteflika, the handouts were a socio-economic necessity. They helped to buy peace and goodwill after a near-decade of civil war, when as many as 200,000 Algerians died in the savage battles between the state’s military forces and Islamic militias. The spending accelerated in 2011, when Mr. Bouteflika’s regime, fearing that the Arab Spring uprisings would light up Algeria’s streets, as they did in Tunis, Tripoli and Cairo, opened the spending spigots (Saudi Arabia did the same). The government got away with its financially reckless plan until the oil crash of 2014 and 2015, which sent prices plummeting from US$110 to less than US$40. Suddenly, Algeria was facing an economic crisis.
The crisis was made doubly worse because Mr. Bouteflika and his economically illiterate and reform-allergic ministers had failed to diversify the economy away from energy, or rein in the bloated bureaucracy and fight the corruption and nepotism that allowed Mr. Bouteflika’s cronies and generals to live like princes. When the regime found it impossible to keep the spending intact, it cut budgets. At the same time, it launched an expansionary monetary policy – money printing – which stoked inflation and crimped buying power.
It was Algeria’s youth who suffered the most as job creation went nowhere. Their jobless rate is estimated at 29 per cent, well more than double the national average. The statistic is alarming when you consider that Algeria has a very young population – 70 per cent are under the age of 30. For years, the anger and frustration among young Algerians has been building; rage set in last month, when Mr. Bouteflika, who Algerians consider the “living dead” – he has almost never been seen in public since his stroke six years ago – announced he would seek a fifth term as president. It took three weeks of protests to shut him down.
Next door, little Tunisia is going through a similar youth crisis. While the country has embraced democracy and can boast thriving civil-society organizations and genuine press freedom, its youth are losing hope for a bright future, as they are in Algeria.
Tunisian youth unemployment is 30 per cent and 50 per cent or more in the interior parts of the country, where grinding poverty is rife, to the point some families are going hungry. The number of self-immolations – successful and attempted – has been estimated at 2,300 since the 2011 revolution. They are a dramatic and tragic form of protest and most of the self-immolations are done in public.
Sudan’s autocratic regime may be the next victim of a failing economy. Since January, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, another aging tyrant – he’s subject to an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court – has faced a flurry of anti-government protests. Sudan’s economy is close to collapse and fuel and bread shortages are common. The economy is suffering from runaway inflation and youth unemployment is similar to Tunisia’s and Algeria’s.
This will not end well for Mr. al-Bashir, as it didn’t end well for Mr. Bouteflika. Dictators can get away with extreme bad behaviour as long as their economies produce jobs and wealth for their citizens. When they don’t, watch out. Many of Africa’s jobless youth want democracy; most want a decent living and seem to be willing to take to the streets to get it.