In A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, one of the best studies of the Algerian War of Independence, Alistair Horne discusses the mysteries that surrounded the life and actions of the enigmatic leader who would become president of Algeria between 1965 and 1978.
One of seven children born to an impoverished wheat-farmer, Houari Boumédienne had a “curiously gaunt, high-cheekboned face, reddish hair, harshly intense green eyes and wispy moustache [which made him look] more like a starving Irish poet than a guerrilla veteran'', Horne writes.
Boumédienne was, by all accounts, a deadly serious individual, “an utterly unromantic revolutionary, with a coldly searching intellect'', attributes which served him well as a fighter, the independent country's first defence minister and, eventually, its fourth head of state.
Less charismatic than his activist companion Ahmad Ben Bella, Boumédienne tamed his passions to dedicate himself to a single cause: independence for Algeria. He met that objective, added dignity to his nation-state and articulated defining goals for the Non-Aligned Movement.
Houari Boumédienne was born Mohammad ben Brahim Boukharouba in Clauzel, near Guelma (Oran), probably in 1927 — though some biographies claim that he was born on August 23, 1932.
Educated at the Islamic Institute of Constantine, the young man joined the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), which became the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), to oppose French occupation.
At the height of the Algerian War of Independence in 1955, he changed his name to “Houari'', the patron saint of Oran, and “Boumédienne'', the patron saint of Tlemcen in western Algeria, which solidified his faith. During the long war, Boumédienne rose through the ranks to become a Colonel in the FLN [Jabhat Al Tahrir Al Watani in Arabic], largely based on merit, and fought the French.
Unlike Francophone nationalist leaders sitting around discussion tables at Evian, Boumédienne concentrated his patient efforts on raising an indigenous Algerian army in Morocco and Tunisia.
After the March 1962 Second Evian Peace Treaty, which granted Algeria independence, and because of his unparalleled military accomplishments, Ahmad Ben Bella appointed him defence minister although it was Boumédienne who pushed the former's ascent to power when revolutionary leaders were engaged in classic jockeying.
Ben Bella would probably not have emerged victorious were it not for Boumédienne's physical occupation of Algiers. Still, the two men gradually grew apart as Boumédienne grew tired of his president's erratic governance style, policy improvisation and ideological puritanism.
Ben Bella's “autogestion''— a radical agrarian reform plan — appeared anarchic to the disciplined leader.
What broke the proverbial camel's back was Ben Bella's 1964 constitutional referendum, which aimed to create a presidential system that would give the head of state prerogatives of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
On June 19, 1965, Boumédienne seized power in a bloodless coup and abolished both constitution and parliament.
Lacking a personal power base, he ruled through a 26-member Revolutionary Council composed primarily of trusted military supporters. Interestingly, one of these men was Boumédienne's long-time foreign minister, Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, who became Algeria's tenth president in 1999. Though perceived as weak, the shy president ruled with an iron grip, especially after the botched coup attempt against him in 1967.
Since then, Boumédienne enjoyed absolute power until his death on December 27, 1978, at the age of 51, of a rare blood disease [Waldenström macroglobulinemia].
Although labelled a Socialist because of his 1971 agrarian reforms — which broke up large, privately owned farms to benefit landless peasants organised in cooperatives — Boumédienne had no Marxist leanings.
He nationalised French petroleum and natural gas interests in 1971, which damaged what was left of Algeria's special relationship with Paris.
But unlike many Left-leaning Algerian leaders, Boumédienne moved expeditiously to meet intrinsic economic needs. In fact, the vast revenues derived from oil sales, especially after the 1973 price increases, financed industrialisation programmes.
What he sought was nothing short of a transformation of the Algerian economy into the Maghreb's industrial powerhouse. From 1973 to 1978, Algiers recorded reliable and consistent economic growth, though a marked decline was recorded after his death.
Algeria remained a single-party state under FLN control but Boumédienne accepted the results of the 1976 referendum that reinstated suspended institutions.
Still, the same referendum restored the Ben Bella-contemplated “Office of President'' model, with Boumédienne gaining the presidency unopposed. In this respect, at least, Boumédienne was typical of elected Arab leaders, who secured virtually unanimous approval rates hovering in the 90 percentiles.
In a sense, this was one of his regime's serious weaknesses, though archetypal in a one-party system that tolerated little or no dissent.
Boumédienne fared better in his foreign policy accomplishments as he pursued a policy of non-alignment. Against French “colonialism'' by nature and experience, he maintained correct ties with France and several Western countries while developing good relations with socialist and communist states.
Above all, Boumédienne championed cooperation among developing states, calling for a new world order that granted a level of equality among nations.
An early supporter of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Algerian president defended anti-colonial movements across Africa and the Arab world and sought to build a powerful bloc to protect the rights of the underprivileged.
He risked war between Algeria and Morocco in 1975 when he supported one such anti-colonial group, the Polisario. Consistent on one level, he backed self-determination for Western Sahara, admitted Sahrawi refugees and Polisario guerrillas to Algerian territory and risked war with Morocco and Mauritania.
Indeed, this political confrontation ended any possibilitiy to mend ties with Rabat, with which Algiers had already fought a war in 1963. Mediation efforts, notably by King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, helped avoid recourse to military clashes but the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry and the still unsolved Western Sahara question grew into defining features of Algerian foreign policy ever since.
The Boumédienne-Ben Bella alliance was probably the most critical coalition between two Algerians in the 20th century. Simply stated, and because of his methodical work on the ground, it would have been next to impossible for FLN leaders to bring order to the Algerian war without Boumédienne. Indeed, internal revolts would have taken on lives of their own, empowering conspirators unhappy with political negotiations at Evian and elsewhere.
Early on, Boumédienne imposed harsh discipline, which secured FLN legitimacy. Hardly anyone could stand against the FLN and when Ben Bella emerged as the natural leader of independent Algeria, Boumédienne was astute enough to extend his critical support.
Friendship of convenience
The two men were not friends in the classic sense of the term, nor did they share much in common. Rather, the alliance was a convenient relationship between a charismatic leader and a taciturn military officer.
To be sure, Ben Bella was gifted with innate political skills which Boumédienne lacked. As military commander of the entire Oran section, Boumédienne was not particularly thrilled with the Evian treaty conditions.
He was, however, persuaded by Ben Bella to settle for what was achievable. Ben Bella realised that he needed Boumédienne's muscle to subdue opponents and the latter quickly understood that the politician was vulnerable without his trained and dedicated men in arms.
Consequently, an alliance emerged out of necessity, endured for a period of time, and withered on the vine after perceptions evolved.
After the 1965 coup, Ben Bella was under virtual house arrest for around 14 years, with little or no contact with the outside world. By July 1979, seven months after Boumédienne died, president Chadli Bendjedid eased restrictions on Ben Bella, although the latter was still not allowed to leave the country.
Finally, on October 30, 1980, Ben Bella was freed and permitted to travel. He spent ten years in exile, mostly in France, before returning to Algeria in 1990. Time had taken its toll and another Boumédienne was not available to boost his putative candidacy for power.
Boumédienne's untimely death left a clear power vacuum in Algeria that could not easily be filled. Given his reliance on the military, it was natural that a series of military conclaves among senior officers would eventually produce a compromise successor, which sidestepped weak contenders.
It was Boumédienne's army that designated the highest-ranking military officer at the time, Colonel Chadli Bendjedid, as the “elected'' president.
Even if shy, Boumédienne could be highly motivated as he articulated long-term views. In a 1974 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, Boumédienne reflected on North-South ties.
“One day,'' he opined, “millions of men will leave the Southern Hemisphere to go to the Northern Hemisphere. And they will not go there as friends. Because they will go there to conquer it. And they will conquer it with their sons. The wombs of our women will give us victory.''
Even if these words were not comforting to those in the North, poised at the threshold of large immigration waves, they were prophetic, especially starting in the mid-1980s. The trend was for more of the same. Coming from Boumédienne, a guerrilla-turned-statesman, they revealed his admiration as well as loathing of colonialist Westerners.
For his successors, they stood as correct utterances that highlighted long-term dilemmas, both positive and negative.
In the event, the avowedly anti-French Boumédienne started the healing process with Paris in 1975, when he welcomed president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in Algiers.
This was a key part of his legacy, which was further displayed during that historic visit when Boumédienne departed from protocol to publicly speak in French.
He drove the point home, insisting that while Algiers and Paris fought tooth and nail, the time was finally here to turn the page and truly reconcile.
In a sense, these simple gestures allowed his successors to place the pivotal Algerian-French relations on the right track, to the point when Presidents Bouteflika and Nicolas Sarkozy can actually make specific claims without blinking in shame.
Boumédienne was not Algeria's founding father, although it may be correct to conclude that he became its indispensable caretaker even before the country gained independence.
Of all Algerian leaders, he was the one who compromised the least on the vital need to gain sovereignty, identify and defend perceived interests and refrain from engaging in shaky foreign alliances.
While he significantly expanded ties between Algeria and the Soviet Union, Boumédienne avoided dependency and, unlike Egypt, for example, never allowed Moscow to deploy thousands of military advisers. What he sought was critical military assistance as he went about modernisation of the armed forces.
Eager to promote their own objectives, the Soviets were glad to provide Algiers with such backing that, coupled with Boumédienne's non-aligned leanings, persuaded Paris and its Western allies that Algeria was gradually migrating towards the Soviet orbit.
At a time when East-West ties were perceived through the Cold War prism, such a reading was not erroneous, though it told just part of the story. Algeria insisted that non-aligned meant just that and, to drive its point home, informed the entire world of its refusal to grant the Soviet navy a permanent base at Mers Al Kabir, a modern French-built facility with immense capabilities.
Moreover, Boumédienne underscored that Algeria's support to various revolutionary movements in Africa and the Arab world was compatible with its own history, akin to Western help extended to revolutionary movements before these great powers adopted their own freedoms. In other words, it was Algeria's duty to help, especially if such backing provided comfort to the downtrodden.
What Boumédienne could not have foreseen was the return of intra-Algerian struggles for authority. Still, the president would have concluded that various armed groups massacring fellow Algerians and the government relying on the army as well as foreign mercenaries to conduct horrific killings of men, women and children, betrayed the Revolution.
He would have alerted his countrymen to remain faithful to their maker while enduring hardships for the sake of the nation. He would have asked them to sacrifice for Algeria as patriots, rather than capitulate to chaos.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.
This article is the first in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.