Tebboune seeks recovery of embezzled funds to appease Algerian street

Economic expert and former presidential advisor Abderrahman Mabtoul estimated the looted funds during the past two decades at more than $ 200 billion.
Saturday 29/08/2020
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune holds a news conference in Algiers, Algeria, Dec. 13, 2019. (REUTERS)
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune holds a news conference in Algiers, Algeria, Dec. 13, 2019. (REUTERS)

ALGIERS – The Algerian judicial authorities have delegated their French counterparts to investigate dozens of known personalities and figures affiliated with the regime of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, thus opening the first episode of what promises to be virtually a riveting series about recovering looted funds.

The issue of embezzlement was  among the causes that sparked the popular uprising in the country.

This comes at a time when the intelligence apparatus in the country has regained its influence and weight in protecting President Abdelmedjid Tebboune, after having been considerably weakened under Bouteflika, and then dismantled and marginalised by the former army chief-of-staff Gaied Saleh.

The French magazine Le Point reported that the Algerian authorities have asked their French counterparts to seize the properties of ten prominent figures who had held high positions during President Bouteflika’s regime, in addition to a hundred other personalities who were close to him.

While the report did not give any names, it is widely believed that the list contained senior state officials, including former ministers, diplomats, military officers and businessmen, who over the past two decades have formed the strongest link in the Bouteflika regime, and have amassed vast fortunes that were smuggled into France and other countries in stages.

This bold move was the first of its kind since Tebboune became president last December. The issue of the looted fortunes was one of the items that fuelled the popular Hirak in February 2019. Recovering them was one of the 54 pledges made by Tebboune in his election programme.

During the election campaign, the Algerian president had hammered the point of “recovering the looted money,” and that he “knows the path it took and its whereabouts.” His statements had at the time sparked an outcry, especially among his opponents who described them as “irresponsible” as they would be taken as proof of Tebboune’s complicity or his concealment of the crime.

Mystery still surrounds the looted funds which, it has been alleged, were transferred into foreign bank accounts, as no official statement was issued by the new regime regarding the size of the loot or its destination. The delay was seen as reflecting the considerable time needed to establish an accurate inventory and then seek to return the loot to the public treasury.

Economic expert and former presidential advisor Abderrahman Mabtoul estimated the looted funds during the past two decades at more than $ 200 billion, basing his estimation on the assumption that they were commissions and bribes handed out in the deals concluded between Algeria and its foreign partners.

Several sources reported earlier that former Minister of Energy and Mines Chakib Khalil, who is currently in the United States, had alone netted about $ 200 million in commissions and gratuities, while dozens of other regime figures own real estate, properties and huge bank deposits in France.

Imprisoned political activist Rachid Nekkaz had provided detailed information about the properties and real estate owned by the former Secretary-General of the National Liberation Front, Ammar Saadani, who now resides in France and Britain. Nekkaz’s revelations had exposed him to physical violence by what he called “thugs of the Bouteflika regime.”

While attention in Algeria is focused on the stifling economic and financial crisis, especially after the emergence of signs of a liquidity crisis, attention was against directed with persistence at President Tebboune’s pledges to recover the stolen money. This is why the recent move by the Algerian authorities to recover the embezzled funds is thought to be an instance of social and political manoeuvring aimed at sparing the new authority further criticism and at deflecting the ire of the street.

The new Algerian authority seems to be relying on its campaign to recover the looted funds to quell the growing popular anger and rally the street around the regime’s agenda, foremost of which is the popular referendum on the new constitution early next November. Legal experts, however, do not hide their scepticism that the government’s endeavour would lead to any positive results, given the legal and diplomatic obstacles facing it.

Lawyer and human rights activist Mustafa Bouchachi stated that “the issue of the looted funds requires a long time and painstaking efforts, because the required legal and diplomatic procedures may be lengthy, and it is not practical to bet on such procedures to recover the funds in question, especially since similar experiences by other countries have not achieved any tangible results.”

In their 2015 book, “Paris Alger: Une histoire passionnelle” (Paris-Algiers: A passionate history), French investigative journalists Christophe Dubois and Marie-Christian Tabet provided juicy details about the corruption of the political and financial elites surrounding former President Bouteflika, and estimated the money smuggled from Algeria to France until 2015 at about $ 50 billion.

For its part, Canadian media revealed, during the first months of the popular movement, that tens of millions of dollars had been transferred in a very short period of time to bank accounts in local Canadian banks, and called on the government and parliament to investigate this unusual influx of about $ 80 million by Algerian figures in March and April of 2019.

Legal experts pointed out that the bilateral agreement signed between Algeria and France before 2019 on apprehending and handing over wanted individuals to the authorities of both countries, which was at the time designed to harass and persecute activists and opponents to the Bouteflika regime residing in France, can now be used in the case of the looted funds and the apprehension of the individuals behind them.

While the procedure may work with France, it is doubtful that it would be of any use in the case of countries and governments with whom Algeria has no similar agreements. This is the case, for example, of former Minister of Industry Abdessalam Bouchouareb, currently residing in Lebanon, and whose name was mentioned in the Panama Papers as owning multiple companies registered in various tax havens.