Algeria’s self-determination and third wordlist policy under President Houari Boumédiène

Radia Kesseiri responds to Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination by Adom Getachew. This is part of a book symposium from the Africa and International Studies Working Group.

Worldmaking after Empire charts the ‘rise and fall’ of the ‘universal project’ of self-determination. Getachew’s examples come from the Anglophone leaders and intellectuals in the Black Atlantic. She does, however - via a reference to Jeffrey James Byrne - cite Algeria as an example of how ‘anti-colonial nationalists … gradually gave up on the prospects of a more radical reimagining of the relationship between the national and the international’. Projects of regional federation and the New International Economic Order ‘that would meaningfully transcend the nation-state’ thus gave way to an ‘internationalism that defended and zealously protected the postcolonial state’. Byrne himself focuses on Ahmed Ben Bella, the first President of Algeria (1963-5). This contribution, however, describes how many radical elements of self-determination - notably in the economic sphere - still persisted under Ben Bella’s successor: Houari Boumédiène (President until 1978). Boumédiène’s Algeria powerfully illustrates Getachew’s argument about the internationalist dimension of anti-colonial nationalist politics.

Self-Determination drove Boumédiène’s national and foreign politics in post-independence Algeria. In July 1962 Algeria bade farewell to 132 years of colonial rule, and embraced the principles of independence. These entailed self-rule, self-dependency and most importantly emancipation from colonial rule.

However, as for many other African countries, independence came at a price. The delights and thrills of independence were not to be enjoyed for many years, and indeed have still not been. Independence came amid a lack of infrastructure, political conflict and economic turmoil. After 132 years in the shadow of the metropole, kept from modernisation, Algeria was in a state of isolation. It was heavily reliant on France and, therefore, partially dominated by it. France ensured indirect continuous French domination over Algeria, through years of control and micro-management. Nonetheless, with Boumédiène’s political approach, the colonialists’ intentions to maintain Algeria as a source of raw materials and natural resources were soon to be halted.

The Algerian revolution paved the way for economic independence and social equality. Cultural independence was tightly linked with the recuperation of all elements that constituted the Algerian nationality. In other words, the revival of Algerian cultural values that seemed non-existent after the independence was an essential step towards cultural recovery and confirming national identity. To achieve this cultural independence, President Houari Boumédiène undertook the Algerianisation of society and the state’s structures. This was primarily done through education. By 1978, 82 % of secondary teachers were Algerians and 60 % of university faculty members were native citizens. Major subject matters, such as humanities and social sciences were reformulated so as to respond to the new nation’s characteristics and requirements.

To imitate the West or to adopt the universal culture of development would only be seen as an embrace of modern capitalist values. This, unquestionably, would lead to the rejection of those values. It was, therefore, a very natural step for Algeria to stand behind similar newly independent countries - also producers of primary products - and fight for those countries’ rights too.

Boumédiène deplored economic dependency and aimed at liberating Algeria’s national economy from it. He often reiterated that sovereignty cannot be complete if economies were precarious and dominated by foreigners dependant on foreign influence. Non-Alignment as an ideology evolved within an environment devoted to the protection and defence of the least favoured countries in the world system. It promoted the principles of self-determination, freedom, liberation and the elimination of imperialism and exploitation.

Algeria’s fight for the Third World and struggle for its survival embedded the ambitions of President Houari Boumédiène for the Third World. He strongly desired to establish international security and world-peace and to defend the genuine right of Third World countries to contribute to international decision making. President Houari Boumédiène’s multiple third worldist efforts were oriented towards the Non Aligned movement. He believed that:

“The movement of the Non-Aligned is necessary for the establishment of a balance in the world, as it constitutes the voice of the Third World.  The movement of the Non –Aligned is an organisation intended to defend Third World countries interests and rights.”[i]

Algeria vigorously opposed the outdated character of the international system, which was governed by regulations enacted in the absence of the newly independent states. It was crucial to embrace a new international system that involved Third World countries and granted them an effective role in its construction and establishment. Boumédiène vowed:

“We cannot accept to be treated and considered as a minority in this world. We are a strong force and we have a lot to say in international forums. Our fight aims at highlighting the existing complementarities between Third World countries and industrialised countries and intends to establish equilibrium in the international economic order.”[ii]

Nonetheless, in an era of Cold War, Algeria supported peaceful coexistence and peace, as long as these elements were not restricted to certain countries only. For Boumédiène peaceful co-existence was only possible when all countries were independent and free to define their own way of development, with no pressures or foreign interference. He asserted:

“It is imperative for the Third World to fight in order to evade the ideological rivalry and the two blocs’ challenges. The Third World Non-Alignment was, hence, a coalition towards economic development, total disarmament, broad peaceful coexistence and the respect of the sovereignty and liberty of all the peoples.”[iii]

For Boumédiène, the role of the Non-Aligned countries was to guarantee their national independence and their development so as to complement and reinforce their sovereignty. It also consisted of support for liberation movements, a fight against Zionism and racial discrimination, and against all forms of military and political interference. Non-Alignment was here to face up to neo-colonialism and imperialism.

Accordingly, international security was based on respect for national independence and the freedom of the people. Boumédiène denounced all forms of colonialism and imperialism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. It was essential to end ‘world protectorates’. Of course, independence in the Third World was not limited to the elimination of colonialism and racial apartheid, but it extended to the abolition of imperialist influence and interventions. Radical changes were imminent to end enduring exploitation in the context of international trade regulations that served the interests of the industrialised countries.

At the fourth Conference of Heads of State and Governments of the Non-Aligned countries, held in Algiers from 5 to 9 September 1973, Boumédiène insisted that international law be reviewed in light of a new fact: the increasing number of Third World and newly independent countries.  He defended peoples’ natural right to recover control over their natural resources and to be freely able to dispose of their energies, with no foreign pressure or intrusion. On 6 December 1973, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 3082 (XXVIII), which reaffirmed a conviction in the urgent need to establish and improve norms of universal application for the development of international economic relations, and it decided to include in the provisional agenda of its twenty-ninth session an item entitled “Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.” [iv]  

The fourth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, hosted by Algeria, gave the movement a fresher start and a stronger position in the international system. It reiterated the will of the Third World to alter the prevailing inequalities and modify the status quo that resulted from Western ambition. Following the Conference, an agreement on mass-disarmament was reached and a request for a ban on nuclear experiments and on the production of chemical and biological weapons was put forward. The Conference called for an effective contribution by Third World countries to international decision making.

Algeria presided over the fourth extraordinary session of the United Nations General Assembly, on 9 April-2 May 1974 in New York. Here Boumédiène described the economic order (of the 1970s) as: “unjust, outdated and as an obstacle to development.” He reiterated the need for the recovery of natural resources by the developing countries, and a process of nationalisation aiming at ultimate control over their prices. This would mobilise support and solidarity from the international community i.e. from rich developed countries. He also called for the initiation of a coherent and integrated development programme that would make use of agricultural potentialities for industrialisation. The elimination of developing countries’ debt burdens - which annihilated all development efforts - required a special programme for providing deprived nations with support and assistance.[v] Boumédiène’s rationale for cooperation and rapprochement was to alleviate the existing North-South gap. This fourth Extraordinary Session of the United Nations General Assembly was undoubtedly a turning point in the history of international economic relations as it opened up new horizons for the world economic interaction.

In the twenty-ninth ordinary session of the United Nations General Assembly, presided over by Abd al-Aziz Boutafliqa, a ‘Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States’ was adopted by the General Assembly (12 December 1974). This Charter reflected the importance of collective economic security for development, particularly in developing countries, and the necessity for strengthening international cooperation. It solemnly proclaimed the inalienable right of every state to “freely exercise full permanent sovereignty, including possession, use and disposal, over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activities.[vi]

Algeria’s call for a New International Economic System and its efforts to establish generally accepted norms to govern the development of fairer international economic were embedded in its desire for self-determination. This campaign was not restricted to the UN and Non Aligned Movement. Algeria, represented by Abd al-Aziz Boutafliqa, headed the first Conference of Ministers of member countries of the Group of 77 in Algiers in October 1967. During the Second Islamic Conference, held in Lahore in 1974, Boumédiène expressed his dissatisfaction with the increasing prices of manufactured products, in contrast with the conditioned and stable low prices of raw materials, which had damaging effects on the economies of the Third World. He called on Arab, Muslim and Non-Aligned countries to coordinate their efforts.[vii]  

Algeria had a leading role in imposing radical changes on the international economic system.  This is clear in the many resolutions adopted by the United Nations, in response to the needs of the underdeveloped world. For instance, the Resolutions 3201 (S-VI) and 3202(S-VI) of 1 May 1974 by the General Assembly, contained the Declaration and the Programme of Action on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order.

However, regrettably, as mentioned by Tomlinson:

“Although Third World countries had a numerical majority in the United Nations General Assembly, their demand for a New International Economic Order was opposed by Western countries that controlled the IMF and the World Bank.”[viii]

Algeria’s adoption of Non-Alignment as a foreign policy, under President Houari Boumedienne, was fuelled by his awareness of the necessity to nurture sound relations with both poles of the Cold War, especially at such an early stage of state-building.

However, Boukara sees Algeria’s involvement in Non-Alignment as follows:

“Two explanations can be given to this enlargement of Algeria’s support to Third World countries and not just to national liberation movements. The first is that Algeria in the 1970s had established itself as the locomotive of third world countries in their struggle for their rights over natural resources and the establishment of a new international economic order. The second is that the number of national liberation movements in the world were decreasing as decolonisation proceeded. In the absence of national liberation movements Algeria required a new issue to maintain its prestigious position in the third world, the best available choice was the call for third world rights.”[ix]

Nevertheless, such decisions or international rulings, made in favour of the developing countries, constituted a step forward for the Third World and certainly a victory for Algeria.

His stances won him the respect of the African continent and the Third World.


[i] Al-Sha’b, (Algiers) 5 February 1975.

[ii] El Moudjahid, 5-6 Janvier 1975.

[iii]  Revolution Africaine, 24-30 August 1973.

[iv]United Nations, General Assembly, Rresolution 3082 (XXVIII), Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, 2192nd plenary meeting, 28th Ordinary session.  6 December 1973. [last accessed 24/06/2004].

[v] République Algérienne démocratique et Populaire, Présidence, Président Houari Boumediene á l’ONU, 61.

[vi] Article2 in: United Nations, General Assembly, Rresolution3281 (XXIX), Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, 2315th plenary meeting, 29 ordinary session, 12 December 1974, [last accessed 24/06/ 2004].

[vii] The Peoples Democratic Republic of Algeria, Khutab al-Raiis Huwāri Boumedienne : 2 Juwilya 1973 - 3 December 1974, Part V (Algiers: Ministry of Information and Culture, 1974), 150.

[viii] B. R. Tomlinson, “What was the Third World?” Journal of Contemporary History, 38 (April 2003): 313.

[ix] Hocein Boukara, op.cit. 106-7.

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